LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Who is the greatest coach in college football history?

Published 11:18 am Wednesday, November 10, 2021

There would be no way to establish conclusively who could claim certain superlatives if you attempted to definitively identify who was/is the greatest coach in college football history.

What are the criteria?  Who determines that criteria?  Based on the numbers, it is obviously Nick Saban who has won seven national titles, (six at Alabama and one at LSU).   Does that make him the greatest coach or simply the most successful one?

What about Bo Schembechler of Michigan who was the ultimate football fundamentalist?  He never won a national championship determined by the popular polls of the day when he coached the Wolverines 21 years, winning or sharing 13 Big Ten titles.   Be hard to say that Nick Saban is a better pure coach than Schembechler.   The record book will always side with Saban, which is what is important to him and the Alabama constituency.

I have always considered that while Saban is an excellent coach, he probably has been a greater recruiter than he has been a coach.  Kirby Smart, cut from the same cloth, likely would agree with that assessment.

In sport, you always find that certain coaches seem to have that lucky horseshoe in their hip pocket.  Saban, like his good friend, Bill Bilichick, of the Patriots, has had the greatest of good luck such as it was in 2017 when Saban had a great day versus Georgia which had an even greater day in the national championship game at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.   The Big Ten officials, as they later admitted, were the ones who had an off day.   You don’t win your league championship—you don’t even win your division—but you get into the playoffs and you win the national championship.  If you say that ain’t luck, then Merriam Webster has a problem.

All this brings us to the superlative as to who the most popular football coach in college history.  Here again if you want to invoke stats as a criterion, then it should be Saban. Right?   After all everybody loves a winner.   

What about Mark Richt?  Perhaps, with football still being the regional sport that it is, fans at UCLA, Pullman, Washington, Ames, Iowa, or Provo, Utah—even Clemson, South Carolina, which is only 79 miles from the UGA campus—really don’t know much about this former Bulldog head coach.

If he is not the most popular former head coach in college football, he has to be one of the top few.  He is a protégé of a universally popular coach, Bobby Bowden for whom Richt worked at Florida State and would rank high in any coaching popularity poll.

To begin with, Richt is genuinely a nice guy.  He opens the car door for women, he says a blessing before each meal whether he is by himself or with 200 at a luncheon or dinner.  He never dog cussed his players.  He gave players a second chance.  He never embarrassed the University of Georgia.  

There have been a couple of prominent Bulldogs of the Jewish faith who have eagerly supported him out of respect even though their religious philosophies would be considered extreme opposites.   Richt even had a nice rapport with a Muslim member of his team, Musa Smith.

With his boyish good looks and a perpetual smile, Richt is someone whom fans and friends of the Bulldogs feel comfortable in shaking his hand or giving him a friendly hug.

The following salient facts bring into focus why this man has been so popular as Georgia’s former football coach.  To begin with, he was a winner.  In addition to becoming Georgia’s second winningest coach (after Vince Dooley), with 145 victories, he won two Southeastern Conference titles during his 15 seasons as the Bulldogs’ boss.

Richt, as you likely know, has written a book, “Make the Call.”  The sub-title poignantly defines the essence of the book’s message: “Game-day wisdom for life’s defining moments.”

The publisher, “B&H Publishing Group” out of Nashville, Tenn., printed 25,000 copies initially and his book is now headed to a second printing.  If you know anything about book publishing that is simply remarkable.  Those are John Grisham-like numbers.

Often, when a professional team wins a Super Bowl or a World Series, for example, the star of the team might co-author a book for a national publishing house.  I have been told that the print run in those situations often would be like 10,000.  If that is accurate, you get the drift of how popular Mark Richt is with the Georgia constituency and others.

There are many pedestrian authors who claim to be “best-selling authors.”  Mark Richt today is certainly a best-selling author.  He is also one who would never boast about it.