Ranking the Best Football Coaches from Ohio

By Mike Young on June 16, 2014 at 11:15a
35 Comments

Football lost a coaching legend, Friday, but Chuck Noll's legacy will live on.

Noll passed away at 82 years old and, naturally, as football fans, we reflect on his indelible career. Perhaps the greatest compliment to the former Steelers' coach is the respect he earned from his biggest rivals. As his career record indicates, he was no friend to Ohioans, but is still embraced by the state that produced him.

In that sense, he was like Bo Schembechler (with more than zero championships), another Ohio native who went on to have success with the state's biggest football rival. The Buckeye State was generous enough to let those two slip outside of its borders, but that's a reflection on the coaching talent that stayed in state. 

While Urban Meyer escaped to Utah and Florida for 8 seasons, the Ashtabula native returned to lead the Buckeyes in 2012.

"Growing up in Ohio, Fridays were high school football, Saturdays were Ohio State and Sundays were the Browns and Bengals and really nothing else," Meyer said, prior to the 2008 national title game against Youngstown's Bob Stoops. "In the offseason, you played basketball and baseball to stay in shape for football. Did that have an impact on my life? Absolutely."

That mentality is pervasive, part of the reason why Ohio is the undoubted mecca of football – not just because it's the birthplace of modern, professional football. Noll, Schembechler, Meyer and Stoops are part of a rich coaching history in Ohio, one that is unrivaled by the other 49 states.

It was difficult to trim this list to only 10, and even tougher to rank them. Regardless, here are the best Ohio has had to offer: 

Notable exceptions

Jim Harbaugh, John Heisman, Don James, Larry Kehres, Bob Stoops.

10. Les Miles

If his career continues on the same path, time might shift his place in these rankings.

Like most successful "Michigan Men," Les Miles is actually from Ohio. The Elyria native played for Bo Schembechler and was an offensive line coach under Gary Moeller. He's been tempted to return since leaving in 1994 (just ask Kirk Herbstreit), but has stayed in the south. 

His first head coaching experience came at Oklahoma State, which ended after a 2004 Alamo Bowl loss to Ohio State. He stepped into a perfect situation at LSU, inheriting Nick Saban's team, and has only won less than 10 games in a season twice. His career record stands at 123-45, with one national title, and has still managed to field dominant teams in a wildly competitive SEC.

9. ARA PARSEGHIAN

For someone to barely creep over .500 in a major college football conference and land the Notre Dame job was unprecedented in his time.

Now, following Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, it's almost expected of the Fighting Irish. Back when Ara Parseghian accepted the job, after going 36-35-1 in eight seasons at Northwestern, he returned to Miami University first. He was not a Notre Dame graduate nor was he catholic, but Parseghian quickly won the trust of fans by going 9-1 in his first season. 

The Akron native finished his career with two national titles (1966 and 1973) and, even more everlasting, changed the culture of Notre Dame. Parseghian established the modern navy uniforms and a reinvigorated rivalry with Michigan.

8. Lou Holtz

His legacy may be defined by sitting next to Mark May and appearing in Discover Card commercials

Before that, however, Holtz jumped around from college to college, putting out fires (on the field) and starting new ones (NCAA violations) right before he left. Still, the wide range of success is the reason why he's on this list – other than growing up in East Liverpool. 

Holtz went 33-12-3 at N.C. State, then was tempted by offers from Tulane and the New York Jets, which he ultimately accepted. His one-year stint in the NFL failed, and he returned to Arkansas, which hasn't been nearly as successful since his departure (sorry, Bert). He won 60 games at Arkansas and was curiously fired after a 6-5 season. Holtz then went to Minnesota, and left due to a "Notre Dame clause" in his contract.

The Irish's last period of unquestioned success occurred under Holtz, who led them to the 1988 national championship and went 100-30-2 in 11 seasons. Once again, he left under peculiar circumstances, only to return to coaching at South Carolina in 1999. 

7. Bo Schembechler

Countless books and TV series' have chronicled Bo Schembechler's impact on Michigan, the rivalry and college football, in general.

Yet, his only failure was never winning a national title, which is why he's so low on this list. The Barberton native was an Ohio guy through and through, playing for Woody Hayes at Miami Univerisity, coaching under Hayes at Ohio State and returning to Miami to lead the Redskins. 

After compiling a 40-17-3 record in Oxford, he challenged his mentor by accepting the Michigan job in 1969. That immediately ignited the "Ten Year War," catapulting the series against the Buckeyes into, what many consider, the greatest rivalry in sports. Schembechler went 5-4-1 against Hayes and 11-9-1 against OSU, overall.

He never had a losing season at Michigan, consistency which would be much appreciated in modern times. Nothing could have been more poignant than his passing, a day before the much-hyped 2006 game.

6. Urban Meyer

The prodigal son returned to Ohio in 2012 after an incredible amount of leaving the cupboard bare success elsewhere.

Meyer, born in Toledo and raised in Ashtabula, shot up the coaching ladder with stints at Bowling Green (17-6) and Utah (22-2, including an undefeated 2004 campaign). He was not the inventor nor the sole innovator of the modern spread offense movement, but he's the undisputed leader, considering the amount of wins he's piled up.

We know about the 2006 national championship season, and, on top of that, won a title with his recruits (and Tim Tebow) in 2008. Over 12 seasons, he's only lost more than four games in a season once. His .837 winning percentage is the highest of any active Division-I coach (with at least 10 full seasons) and continuing this streak of success at Ohio State only seems inevitable, assuming he doesn't flame out again.

5. Jim Tressel

Now that he's the president of Youngstown State, there's no quantifying what Jim Tressel's impact could be in his home state. 

On the field, the Mentor native racked up accomplishments that few in his profession have similarly achieved. Combined with his time as head coach at Youngstown State, he's won five national titles. Until 2001, he rebuffed many opportunities to jump to the (formerly known as) Division I-A level, and only chose to leave for the state's flagship university.

At Ohio State, Tressel led the school to its first national championship since 1970 and won a Big Ten title in seven of his 10 seasons (yes, 2010 still counts). He won, at least, 10 games and finished in the final top 10 poll in each of his last six seasons. You could say he was just hitting his stride before "resigning" in 2011.

4. Chuck Noll

As this list proves, Ohio has an incredibly rich tradition producing college head coaches.

The state's professional head coaches aren't as storied, but it doesn't get any better than the best Ohio has to offer. Lou Holtz's one season with the Jets notwithstanding, Knoll is the first professional coach to appear in the top 10. Born in Cleveland, Noll attended Benedictine and the University of Dayton before the Browns drafted him in 1953.

He was an assistant coach for the Chargers and Colts before heading to Pittsburgh. There, Noll, along with Terry Bradshaw and the "Steel Curtain" defense he helped build, turned the Steelers into an enemy of the state (or destination for bandwagon jumpers). With Pittsburgh, Noll won four Super Bowls, more than any other head coach, and amassed 193 wins. The Steelers organization has been a model of consistency ever since Noll arrived.

3. Don Shula

No professional head coach has more wins than Don Shula.

As if that wasn't enough to cement his legacy, he won two Super Bowls (VII and VIII) and was the head coach of the last team to remain undefeated throughout the season. Considering the longevity – 33 seasons as head coach of the Colts and Dolphins – Shula's 328 career wins might not be surpassed. 

The Grand River native is alive, at 84 years old, and has a chain of decent steakhouses on top of his accomplishments in the game of football.  

2. Woody Hayes

There is no greater Ohio State coach than Wayne Woodrow Hayes. 

He may not have been wanted by Buckeye fans at the beginning of his tenure – the No. 1 guy on this list was a top choice – but, in the end, Hayes' career is unmatched by fellow OSU coaches. 

Like a few on this list, the Clifton native incubated at the University of Miami ("Cradle of Coaches") before being named head coach at Ohio State, prior to the 1951 season. Hayes ripped off an incredible run, winning five national titles and 205 games in Columbus. His legacy endured through a spectacular flameout, largely because he won a Big Ten title in nine of his final 11 seasons. That culmination of a legendary coaching career included the "Ten Year War" and two national titles.

1. Paul Brown 

Born in Norwalk and raised in Massillon, no one had a greater impact on football in the state of Ohio.

Excluding two years, each, with Severn School (Maryland) and the Great Lakes Blue Jackets, Brown spent nearly his entire career coaching in Ohio. He led his hometown Massillon Tigers and helped turn them into the prep powerhouse they are now. At Massillon, he invented the playbook and originated the practice of sending plays from the sidelines via hand signals.

After Massillon, Ohio State hired him and he led the Buckeyes to the 1942 National Championship. Undoubtedly, his greatest accomplishments in the state were his involvement in founding the Cleveland Browns (7 time champions, in multiple leagues), which still bares his name, and the Cincinnati Bengals, whose stadium is named after him. On an entirely different level, the structure of his staff within those organizations were revolutionary and, to a large degree, NFL franchises are still modeled after him. 

Modern football, particularly in Ohio, would have a different feel if not for Brown.

35 Comments

Comments

blueblazer22's picture

Very well done. Cannot argue with any of the choices, though leaving John Heisman off the top 10 is one that I might take issue with after more consideration. Just not sure right now who would be taken out to add him. 

"They say, "these geeks come a dime a dozen.  I'm lookin' for the guy who's supplyin' the dimes." -Classy Freddie Blassie

+3 HS
AndyVance's picture

Great list and a great writeup, Mike. I actually think that Coach Noll may be the most under-appreciated Ohio-born and -raised product on the list. As the only coach to win four Super Bowls in history, he's in extremely rarified air. Paul Brown's coaching tree really is amazing, isn't it?

+3 HS
LoufromOSU's picture

That is the shame that Noll doesn't get the espin praise and treatment that others get.  Noll > Shula any day of the week.  Shula inherited great teams in Indy and Miami, while Noll took over a franchise that was the worst in sports and totally re-wrote the culture of the team and an entire city.  Only one with 4 rings (and I hope Bill B never gets his fourth).  Shula was a very good coach (gets a bit more credit for his longevity but still only won 2 rings) and actually allowed Noll to leave Indy for the Steelers job, but I would take Emperor Charles anyday over him. 

 

There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you. - Woody Hayes

 

 

+1 HS
AndyVance's picture

Right on, Lou. I couldn't agree more - those Steelers teams of the '70s were among the best of any era in the history of the game. They were just dominant in every facet.

Buckeye Chuck's picture

Shula did NOT "inherit great teams in Indy [actually Baltimore] and Miami." The Colts were 7-7 the year before Shula took over, and the Dolphins were a fifth-year expansion team that had never come close to having a winning record. 

Not saying anything negative about Noll, but the history needed correction.

The most "loud mouth, disrespect" poster on 11W.

+1 HS
LoufromOSU's picture

Fair enough.  Lombardi and Shula inherited Hall of Fame Players.  Noll built an entire team from scratch.  Corrected.

There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you. - Woody Hayes

 

 

YTOWNBUCKI's picture

I don't disagree with this list at all.  Although I do think there's a place for Bob Stoops on the list.

+1 HS
daveyt11's picture

well done...Agree on PB #1, I would have to give the edge to Chuck Noll (and I despise the Steelers) over Woody...4 Super bowls. Great post!

+1 HS
RoyWalley's picture

9. ARA PARSEGHIAN - Wow, he is low on this list.  He should be ahead of Holtz and Bo S. for sure.   Bo is very overrated IMO.

 

+1 HS
Fear The Elf's picture

Paul Brown had to be #1. You could just make a list of American coaches, regardless of sport, level or state, Paul Brown has an argument for #1.

Think about this: he coached the most successful HS program in the state, won the first Nat'l Title for the most successful college program in the state, and FOUNDED the 2 NFL Franchises.

+8 HS
Remy's picture

I would have Larry Kehres in the top 10.
Overall Record: 332–24–3
Playoff Record: 77–12
11 National Championships
Has the two longest winning streaks in NCAA history, 54 wins in 1996–1999 and 55 wins in 2000–2003.
Won 100 consecutive games in the OAC.
Won 23 OAC titles in 27 years (21 straight).
And to top it off he has the highest winning percentage in college football history (.929)
 

Not in the Top 10?

 

"I'm sick of following my dreams. I'm just going to ask them where they're goin', and hook up with them later." ~ Mitch Hedberg

+17 HS
BroJim's picture

Beat me to it, Remy, great post!  Im not a big fan of Mount Union's football program, being an Ohio Northern Alumni, but Kehres dominate the O.A.C. and all D-III football programs for years.

Fun Fact, Ohio Northern snapped the nation's longest home winning streak (of any division) by beating Mount Union is 2005. It was awesome, my brother was on the team. Go Polar Bears!

I season my simple food with hunger

+1 HS
jamesrbrown322's picture

They must have tons of Bag Men!

My favorite fact about Mount Union - No player is ever cut. You are only off the team if you quit. (At least that's what I read in SI like 10 years ago...)

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill

+3 HS
BroJim's picture

In my experience that's most of D-III football, it's a great thing.

I season my simple food with hunger

+2 HS
HouseHarleyBuilt's picture

My father played with Larry Kehres and I played (for a year) for Larry Kehres. He is one of the greatest men I've ever met. He does not get enough credit, but he has produced elite NFL talent as well. Not to mention college footballs (on any level) most prolific running back (Nate Kmic). Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts III are Kehres products. His accomplishments will never be repeated, save for maybe by his son who is their current head coach. Mount Union was a JOKE before he took over. He built college footballs biggest dynasty, without ever being able to offer an athletic scholarship.

+3 HS
WC Buckeye's picture

There is no arguing that Kehres is a great coach that left a tremendous legacy and mark on the program. But a joke? Wable was arguably the guy that turned the program in the right direction - he was 123-91-2. Before Wable, going back to WWII, the program was 54-80-4. Wable's numbers were not Kehres-like, but he had a winning record and it was respectable.

The only thing that's new in the world is the history that we have forgotten.

+1 HS
Chief B1G Dump's picture

I have all the respect for Bo Schembechler in the world and consider myself lucky to have met him and spent time with him on a couple of occasions.  He stood for everything pure and good about college football, even if he was a Benedict Arnold and defected to that hell hole up north...HOWEVER, simply to troll the scUM fans, I would have ranked him 10th on this list and hid it behind that fact that Miles, Holtz and Parseghian have all won National Titles and Bo has not.

+9 HS
prdoctor's picture

Nicely done. I would add an honorable mention for Paul Dietzel, who grew up in Mansfield and coached LSU to a national title in 1958. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Dietzel

NuttyBuckeye's picture

Great post, Mike!  You absolutely nailed Brown at #1.  Look at everything he did for the game of football.  He even had the first helmet with a speaker in it to send in the play call to the QB.  While Coach Brown did not invent the game, he may have done more for the game than any other has.

Marc Pocock (a.k.a NuttyBuckeye)

What's round on the ends and high in the middle? Tell me if you know!

+1 HS
Lincoln Linworth's picture

This is a really great article.  Not saying he should be in the top 10, but JOHN Harbaugh deserves to be honorable mention over his brother, Jim.  He, at least, played college football in Ohio (Miami) and has won a NFL title.

+1 HS
RedStorm45's picture

This doesn't even include coaches who either played or coached at Ohio State, Miami, etc. aka got their coaching careers started in Ohio.  It's almost every great coach you can name.  (Ok, I'm exaggerating a bit at the end there)

RedStorm45's picture

No love for Ron Zook though?

+3 HS
buckguyfan1's picture

Um, this guy is from Ohio too and he can't figure out why he didn't make the list

 

+4 HS
BUCKSOMIES's picture

Fantastic stuff Mike.  I got chills just listening to Woody.  What a great football state and just a great state overall we have here in Ohio.  We are second to none.

+1 HS
AndyVance's picture

Ditto - that Woody video was fantastic. What a great man - if ever a coach cared more about the education of his young men, I couldn't name him.

+1 HS
jamesrbrown322's picture

WHERE'S RON ZOOK!?!?!? WE WAS ROBBED!

 

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill

HouseHarleyBuilt's picture

Larry Kehres has the longest winning streak on any level, 11 national championships, highest winning percentage, and has developed solid NFL talent (Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts III) from NON-scholarship athletes. All Kehres knew how to do is win. Through 27 seasons he lost 24 games. That will never be duplicated. I'm not saying he's number one, but he deserves a spot on this list as more than an honorable mention.

+2 HS
rkylet83's picture

It's really hard to rank them, because each Coach brings something special to the table.  For innovation, I'd pick Brown.  For motivation, I'd pick Coach Hayes.  For game plan/recruiting I'd pick Coach Meyer.  For consistency, I'd pick Coach Tressel.

+1 HS
Fort Seneca Steve's picture

I have said for years that Paul Brown is the greatest Ohio coach ever.  At every level he has been innovative and a winner.  I have and will always admire Coach Woody Hayes, but Paul Brown rightfully deserves the title as greatest coach in the greatest state for football -- OHIO.  And thanks for a wonderful article.

Before there was Larry Bird, there was "Hondo" John Havilcek! The Pride of Martins Ferry, Ohio!

+2 HS
IMA Buckeye's picture

Great list and I agree on picks. Honorable mention or more should go to Dick Lebeau. London, Ohio boy and Ohio State Student ~~LeBeau attended OSU playing for Woody Hayes, and was on the 1957 national championship team, playing as a halfback on offense and a cornerback on defense. Also in 1957, playing both sides of the ball, he scored two touchdowns as Ohio State came back to beat Michigan 31–14.- Although only a brief stint has head coach, the impact he has had as Assistant Coach on players who are in the hall of fame, as well as himself, and NFL defensive schemes he developed that changed playing in the NFL is amazing.

+3 HS
lvccacamcrca's picture

Great Job...............Kehres has to be in here and I am not sure if Tress is over UFM. Noll may have to be #2.......not only 4 Super Bowls but instrumental in drafting 10 Hall of Famers.

 

+1 HS
Crumb's picture

I would've had Stoops instead of Miles but that's just my bitterness from 07, great list, great read. It always makes me laugh that the best blue can do is turncoats.

"The only good thing about it is winning the d*** thing" - Urban Meyer on The Game The War

Jpfbuck's picture

here is one nobody ever mentions

Mike Kelly U of Dayton - Kelly went 246-54-1 in 27 years at UD and won a D3 national title in 1989 and played in 3 others between 1981 and 1991.

after moving to D1A non scholly in 1992 he won 9 Pioneer Conference Titles in 15 years including 2 "Mid-Major" national titles in 2002 and 2007, awarded to the top D1AA non-scholarship program

Born in West Milton Ohio he was the DC for Dayton in their other National title in 1980.

he was 7 times awarded national coach of the year for his division and he was indicted in the college football HOF back in 2011 and was inducted by one of his former players Jon Gruden

he was the 2nd fastest coach in college history to win 200 games doing it in only 242 games

bucksfan92's picture

I would not have Lou Holtz on this list.  The 4 places he coached (Arky, Minn, ND, and USC) all had significant downturns after he left, AND were placed on some kind of NCAA probation due to his actions as coach.  He never stayed anywhere very long, and was just about 5 minutes ahead of the sheriff in all places.  I think he is a cheater and am very glad he never got the OSU job.

+1 HS
orlbuckeye's picture

Don James should be on a list before Les Miles. He is the main reason for the decline of USC football pre Pete Carroll. Don james even got Kent State to a bowl. He was 153-57 with Washington and had a winning record at Kent at 25-19 in 4 years.