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Andy Wittry | | July 16, 2020

The college football head coaches who had the best FBS playing careers

Alabama stays on top after week one

Almost every current FBS head coach played some level of college football and many competed at the FBS level during their playing days.

Here are active college football head coaches who had some of the best FBS playing careers.

Josh Heupel, UCF

Alma mater: Oklahoma
Position: Quarterback

  • 2001 national champion
  • 2001 AP Player of the Year
  • 2001 Walter Camp Award winner
  • 2001 Archie Griffin Award winner
  • 2001 consensus All-American
  • Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2000

Heupel finished just 76 votes behind Florida State's Chris Weinke (and more than 900 votes ahead of third-place Drew Brees) in the 2000 Heisman Trophy voting after he threw for 3,606 yards and 20 touchdowns, along with seven rushing touchdowns. The Sooners went 13-0 that season, including six wins over opponents that were ranked at the time of the matchup and three top-three opponents.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

Alma mater: Northwestern
Position: Linebacker

  • 2008 College Football Hall of Fame inductee
  • The first two-time Bronko Nagurski Award winner
  • The first two-time Chuck Bednarik Award winner
  • Two-time First Team All-American
  • 1995 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year
  • 299 career tackles, five forced fumbles, three interceptions

A very strong case could be made that Pat Fitzgerald is the single most impactful figure in the history of Northwestern football. The standout linebacker helped the Wildcats lead the country in scoring defense in 1995 and earn at least a share of back-to-back Big Ten championships.

He became the winningest coach in Northwestern history in 2013.

Lovie Smith, Illinois

Alma mater: Tulsa
Position: Defensive back/linebacker

  • Two-time First Team All-American
  • Three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference
  • 1976 Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year
  • 367 career tackles

Scott Frost, Nebraska

Alma mater: Nebraska
Position: Quarterback

  • 1997 national champion
  • 1996 Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year
  • Became the 10th player to pass for 1,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season

After two seasons at Stanford, Frost transferred to Nebraska in 1995, when the Huskers won the national championship. In his first year as Nebraska's starting quarterback he was named Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year in 1996. As a senior, he led the Huskers to a 13-0 record and a national championship, while being named a Johnny Unitas finalist.

He rushed for 1,095 yards and 19 touchdowns in 1997 as the team's second-leading rusher in former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne's option offense.

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Mario Cristobal, Oregon

Alma mater: Miami (FL)
Position: Offensive tackle

  • Two-time national champion (1989, 1991)
  • First Team All-Big East

A two-time national champion who was named an all-conference player? Enough said.

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Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

Alma mater: Oklahoma State
Position: Quarterback

  • Finished college career as the Big Eight Conference's all-time leader in passing yards (8,473) and total offense
  • Threw 57 career passing touchdowns
  • 1986 Big Eight Newcomer of the Year
  • Second in the NCAA in passing yards in 1988 (2,163), third in passing efficiency
  • Set an NCAA record (that was broken in 2008) by throwing his first 138 passes without an interception
  • Four-year starter at Oklahoma State
  • Led Oklahoma State to wins in the 1987 Sun Bowl and 1988 Holiday Bowl
  • Holds OSU records for completion percentage in a bowl game (83.3%)

Kirby Smart, Georgia

Alma mater: Georgia
Position: Safety

  • 1998 First Team All-SEC
  • 1997 Second Team All-SEC
  • 1998 Georgia Defensive Most Outstanding Player
  • Led the SEC in interceptions in 1998
  • 13 career interceptions (T-6th in Georgia history)

Kirby Smart was a ballhawk as a player, intercepting six passes as a junior and five as a senior. He was a team captain who won team awards for his hustle and for being a four-year player with a GPA above a 3.0. Smart led Georgia in kick returns as a freshman, when he averaged more than 22 yards per returner.

He was a member of the Bulldogs' victorious Outback Bowl and Peach Bowl teams in the late '90s, and he was the first Georgia player to ever return a blocked PAT for two points.

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Jonathan Smith, Oregon State

Alma mater: Oregon State
Position: Quarterback

  • 2001 Fiesta Bowl Offensive MVP
  • Led Oregon State in passing four consecutive years
  • Left Oregon State as the school's all-time leader in passing yards (9,680) and passing touchdowns (55) – now ranked third all-time in both categories

With the help of future NFL receiver tandem Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Smith threw for at least 300 yards in a game 11 times and he had four passing touchdowns of at least 80 yards. He led the Beavers to an 11-1 season in 2000 that resulted in Oregon State finishing the season ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25 – the best final ranking in program history.

Kyle Whittingham, Utah

Alma mater: BYU
Position: Linebacker

  • First Team All-WAC in 1981
  • Team-high 132 tackles in 1981

Whittingham was a standout linebacker at BYU, where he was part of 43 wins and played in the Holiday Bowl four times in his career. He's tied for second in school history for sacks in a game with four and he once had 18 tackles in a game.

Nick Rolovich, Washington State

Alma mater: Hawaii
Position: Quarterback

  • Holds six school passing records
  • Holds Hawaii records for two-game (1,048 yards), three-game (1,548) and four-consecutive game (1,806) passing marks
  • Averaged 298 passing yards per game in his career
  • Threw for 500+ yards in three consecutive games in 2001 (a single-season program record)

Nick Rolovich only played for Hawaii for two seasons but he left his mark on the program and its record book. As a senior he threw for 3,365 yards and 34 touchdowns, including three consecutive 500-yard games to end his college career. In his collegiate finale, he threw for 543 yards and eight touchdowns in a 72-45 win over previously undefeated No. 9-ranked BYU.

Brian Spurlock | USA TODAY Sports Images harbaugh

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Alma mater: Michigan
Position: Quarterback

  • Led Michigan to a 21-3-1 record as a full-time starter
  • First Team All-American
  • Heisman Trophy finalist in 1986
  • Completed 62.4% of his pass attempts in his career for 5,449 yards and 31 touchdowns
  • The first Michigan quarterback to throw for at least 300 yards in a game
  • Led the nation in pass efficiency in 1985 and finished second nationally in 1986

Michigan went 10-1-1 then 11-2 when Harbaugh was a junior and senior, respectively, as the Wolverines peaked at No. 2 in the AP Top 25 poll in each year. He led them to a Fiesta Bowl win in 1985, followed by a Rose Bowl appearance in '86.

Harbaugh finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior behind Miami's Vinny Testaverde and Temple's Paul Palmer.

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Jeff Brohm, Purdue

Alma mater: Louisville
Position: Quarterback

  • 5,451 career passing yards, 38 career passing touchdowns
  • MVP of the 1993 Liberty Bowl
  • 2,626 passing yards, 20 touchdowns as a senior

Brohm is in the top 10 in Louisville history in wins by a starting quarterback (15) as the Cardinals went 9-3 in 1993 with him as the starter, finishing the season with a Liberty Bowl victory and a spot in the final AP Top 25 poll.

Tim Lester, Western Michigan

Alma mater: Western Michigan
Position: Quarterback

  • Became the 7th player to throw for at least 2,000 yards in a season four times
  • Finished his career 25th all-time in career yards per game (min. 5,500 yards of total offense)
  • Finished his career 5th all-time in career passing yards and total yards (11,299 yards)
  • Set 17 school passing records and eight MAC records
  • 1996 MAC Freshman of the Year
  • 2011 Western Michigan Athletic Hall of Fame inductee
  • Led Western Michigan to the MAC Championship game as a senior

Skim through the 2000 NCAA Football Division I-A (that's what it was called back then) record book and you'll notice Tim Lester's name appears one spot ahead of Peyton Manning's on the list of career passing leaders. That's how good Lester was at Western Michigan.

Lester averaged more than 250 yards of offense per game in his career and his career passing efficiency was 133.6.

Barry Odom, Missouri

Alma Mater: Missouri
Position: Linebacker

  • 7th in Missouri history in career tackles
  • Three-time All-Big 12 honoree, according to Big 12 coaches
  • Team captain as a senior
  • Helped end Missouri's 14-year bowl drought

As a senior, Odom recorded a team-high 113 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss, to give him 362 stops for his career. He helped the Tigers reach back-to-back bowl games, including an Insight Bowl victory in 1998, as Missouri was ranked in the final AP Top 25 poll both years.

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

Alma mater: Northern Illinois
Position: Wide receiver

  • First Team All-MAC
  • 179 career catches for 2,162 yards and 11 touchdowns

Fleck is third in school history in career receptions and seventh in receiving yards, while his 2003 stats (77 catches for 1,028 yards) rank among the 10 best individual marks in program history.

Fleck's 14-catch, 234-yard game against Ohio in 2003 is the second-best single-game performance in Northern Illinois history in both categories.

Jesse Johnson | USA TODAY Sports Images fleck

Kevin Sumlin, Arizona

Alma Mater: Purdue
Position: Linebacker

  • 7th in Purdue history in career tackles
  • Four-year starter at linebacker
  • Named to Sports Illustrated's All-America Walk-On List as a freshman after leading Purdue in tackles (91)
  • All-Big Ten Honorable Mention as a senior after finishing fifth in the Big Ten in tackles (114)

From a walk-on to a four-year starter who played in the Peach Bowl and racked up 375 career tackles, Kevin Sumlin likely exceeded whatever expectations were placed upon him when he arrived in West Lafayette.

Jay Norvell, Nevada

Alma Mater: Iowa
Position: Defensive back

  • First Team All-Big Ten in 1985
  • Led the Big Ten with seven interceptions in 1985
  • Helped Iowa win the Big Ten Championship, reach the Rose Bowl

The Hawkeyes have made the Rose Bowl just twice since Jay Norvell's Iowa team made it in 1985. He was an all-conference performer who led the Big Ten in interceptions.

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