July 2, 2010

Dienhart: Ranking the non-Big Six coaches

They don't work in college football's biggest houses, but they still are among the sport's coaching giants. Here are the best of the nation's non-Big Six conference coaches.

1. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Until the Utes leave for the Pac-10, he'll be the leader on this list. Urban Meyer made the Utes relevant when Utah became the first "BCS buster" in 2004. But Whittingham, 50, has kept Utah at an elite level, which is an even more impressive feat. Whittingham is 47-17 in five seasons in Salt Lake City and reportedly turned down the Tennessee job last offseason.

2. Chris Petersen, Boise State
He's the only coach on this list who has led his team to two BCS victories. He has thoroughly dominated the WAC, forging a 31-1 league mark in four seasons. Other Boise State coaches have bolted after tasting success -- Houston Nutt, Dirk Koetter, Dan Hawkins. Not Petersen, 45, who often is wooed but evidently has no plans to leave his fiefdom after signing a five-year extension that pays him $1.6 million. His tremendous success is why Boise State recently accepted an invitation to join the Mountain West.

3. Gary Patterson, TCU
He's had chances to leave. Remember Minnesota's offer of $2 million per year after the 2006 season? But Patterson is no fool. He knows his job is better than about two-thirds of the Big Six gigs. Patterson, 50, is 85-28 in nine seasons in Fort Worth and finally recorded his breakthrough season in 2009 by guiding the Horned Frogs to their first BCS appearance.

4. Kevin Sumlin, Houston
Sumlin, 45, is one of the hottest coaches in the nation. Houston kept him with an extension through 2015 ($1.1 mil per year) after a 2009 season that saw the Cougars go 10-4 and beat Big Six programs Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State. Enjoy the smart and personable Sumlin while you can, Houston, because he soon will be gone.

5. June Jones, SMU
It has taken him just two seasons to work his magic after leaving Hawaii for Highland Park, making the Mustangs the most improved team in the nation by pushing them from a 1-11 mark in 2008 to 8-5 last season. The cherry on top: SMU's first bowl appearance since 1984, a rousing 45-10 rout of Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. This is why Jones, 57, is being paid $2 million per season. For Jones' next trick, he'll try to lead the program to a league title for the first time since 1984.

6. Pat Hill, Fresno State
Hill has made Fresno State into a nationally respected program with the mantra to "play anybody, anytime, anywhere." He's the longest tenured coach on this list, entering his 14th season in his job with a 100-66 mark. No, Hill hasn't taken Fresno State to a BCS bowl, and his Bulldogs haven't won the WAC since 1999. But he's also had to work with resources that pale compared to his peers.

7. Bronco Mendenhall, BYU
Mendenhall, 44, has led the Cougars to at least 10 wins in each of the past four seasons. And BYU is the only school from a non-Big Six league to be ranked in the final polls and the final BCS standings in each of the past four seasons, as the Cougars have gone 43-9 in that span under Mendenhall. The only thing missing: a BCS bid.

8. Troy Calhoun, Air Force
It usually isn't good to follow a legend. But Calhoun has thrived in Fisher DeBerry's wake, posting a 25-14 record in three seasons. It's not a matter of if but when Calhoun will move onto the big-time stage, perhaps even to a coaching job in the NFL, where Calhoun worked as offensive coordinator of the Houston Texans before arriving at Air Force.

9. Chris Ault, Nevada
Bet you didn't know he's one of three active coaches -- along with John Gagliardi of St. John's (Minn.) and Joe Paterno -- who already have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Ault, 63, is a true innovator who's credited with developing the "Pistol" offense -- a modified version of the shotgun -- that more schools are beginning to use. Ault also is a proven winner, with 206 career victories.

10. Jerry Kill, Northern Illinois
Before taking over a 2-10 Northern Illinois squad in 2008, Kill led Southern Illinois to three consecutive Gateway titles en route to turning around that FCS program. He's now making his mark at NIU, going 13-12 in two seasons with two bowl bids. Look for him to augment that resume this fall, as the Huskies are a MAC favorite. Kill, 48, also is an inspirational story, winning a battle with kidney cancer in 2005. Think he could make the University of Illinois a winner?

11. Al Golden, Temple
Keep an eye on Golden, who has made Temple one of the hottest non-Big Six programs in the nation. He led the Owls to a 9-4 mark in 2009, the school's best record and first bowl appearance since 1979. Golden has been wooed by schools such as UCLA and Tennessee and figures soon to be leading a more prominent program. Penn State, perhaps?

12. Larry Blakeney, Troy
Blakeney is entering his 20th season with the Trojans; only Penn State's Joe Paterno and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer have been on the job longer. Troy has won at least a portion of four consecutive Sun Belt Conference titles, and Blakeney and his staff do a good job of identifying second-tier recruits and junior college players who fit their scheme. Troy also does a nice job incorporating transfers from bigger schools. Blakeney is a former Pat Dye assistant, but he has adapted with the times. A former run-first guy, Blakeney now is an ardent supporter of the spread and doesn't mind throwing the ball around.

13. Todd Graham, Tulsa
In 2006, in his first season at the school, he guided Rice to first bowl since 1960. Graham then left for Tulsa, where he has continued to coach at a high level in building a 26-14 record with two bowls and two C-USA West titles. That's why Graham, 45, is one of the highest-paid non-Big Six coaches ($1.1 million per season).

14. Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
"Stock" paid his dues, serving a long time as an assistant -- mostly at Clemson (1989-2002) -- before finally getting his chance at Middle Tennessee in 2006. Stockstill, 52, has made the most of it, compiling a 27-23 mark in four seasons with two bowls and a Sun Belt title. He's a masterful recruiter and sharp offensive mind who could have left for the Memphis or East Carolina jobs after last season but is back for what could be his best team yet at MTSU. If it is his best team, look for him to move up the coaching ladder in the offseason.

15. Dave Christensen, Wyoming
He's been a head coach for just one season, but Christensen -- the former offensive coordinator at Missouri -- did one of the best jobs in the nation last fall. Despite having an offense that ranked last in the Mountain West and 107th in the nation (309.4 ypg), Christensen led the Cowboys to a 7-6 record and their first bowl since 2004 with defense and special teams. Expect Wyoming's offense to begin to come around this season. Christensen is a future coaching star.

OTHERS CONSIDERED: Dave Clawson, Bowling Green; Larry Fedora, Southern Miss; George O'Leary, UCF; Mike Price, UTEP; Howard Schnellenberger, Florida Atlantic; Frank Solich, Ohio.


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