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Andy Wittry | | August 9, 2021

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

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

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

Josh Heupel, Tennessee

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, who was hired after the 2020 season to become Tennessee's head coach, 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.

In three seasons at UCF, Heupel posted a record of 28-8, including a 12-1 season in 2018.

Ohio State Athletics Eddie George won the Heisman Trophy in 1995.

Eddie George, Tennessee State

Alma mater: Ohio State
Position: Running back

  • 1995 Heisman Trophy winner
  • 1995 Doak Walker Award winner
  • 1995 Maxwell Award winner
  • 1995 Walter Campbell Award winner
  • 1995 Big Ten MVP
  • 1995 First Team All-Big Ten
  • 1995 Team MVP
  • Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award
  • Then-Ohio State-record 1,927 rushing yards in 1995 (now second in program history)
  • Ohio State-record 314 yards in a game (vs. Illinois on Nov. 11, 1995)
  • First in Ohio State history in rushing yards per game in a season: 148.2 rushing yards/game (1995)
  • Tied for the most 100-yard rushing games in a season in Ohio State history: 12 games (1995)
  • Second in Ohio State history in rushing touchdowns in a season: 24 rushing touchdowns (1995)
  • Third in Ohio State history in career rushing touchdowns: 44 rushing touchdowns
  • Fourth in Ohio State history in career rushing yards: 3,768 rushing yards

The former Ohio State great was hired in April 2021 to be the head coach of Tennessee State. The Big Ten named its offensive player of the year award after George and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.

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. In 16 seasons at Northwestern, he has a 106-81 record (.567), including four consecutive bowl wins – most recently a Citrus Bowl win during the 2020 season.

    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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    Florida State Athletics Deion Sanders was an All-American at Florida State.

    Deion Sanders, Jackson State

    Alma mater: Florida State
    Position: Cornerback/punt returner

    • 1988 consensus All-American
    • 1988 Jim Thorpe Award winner
    • 1988 team captain
    • 1987 consensus All-American
    • 1986 Third Team All-American
    • Tied for the longest touchdown in Florida State history: 100 yards vs. Tulsa (interception return)
    • Tied for the most interceptions returned for a touchdown in a season in Florida State history: Two (1988)
    • Tied for the most interceptions returned for a touchdown in a career in Florida State history: Four
    • Most punt returns in a career in Florida State history: 126
    • Most punt return yards in a career in Florida State history: 1,429 yards
    • Tied for the most punt return touchdowns in a career in Florida State history: Three
    • Third-most interceptions in a career in Florida State history: 14

    Jackson was a supremely talented athlete, playing three sports at Florida State – baseball, football and track. Florida State went 38-9 on the gridiron when Sanders was in Tallahassee, with four bowl wins: the Gator Bowl, All-American Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl.

    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.

    In three seasons as Oregon's full-time head coach, Cristobal has posted a 25-9 record, including a 12-2 season in 2019 that culminated in a Rose Bowl win.

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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%)

    In his first 16 seasons at his alma mater, Gundy has compiled a 137-67 record (.672), including 15 consecutive seasons with at least seven wins.

    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.

    Smart has taken the Bulldogs to the brink of a national championship, as the 'Dawgs fell in overtime to Alabama in the 2018 College Football Playoff championship. His record is 52-14 through his first five seasons in Athens, including 36 wins in the three-season span from 2017 to 2019.

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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.

    Smith is 9-22 at his alma mater through his first three seasons as head coach.

    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.

    In 16 full seasons as Utah's head coach, Whittingham's record is 133-66, with six finishes in the AP Top 25.

    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.

    Washington State went 1-4 in Rolovich's first season.

    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.

    In six seasons as Michigan's head coach, Harbaugh's record at his alma mater is 49-22.

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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.

    In four seasons as Purdue's head coach, Brohm's record is 19-25.

    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.

    In his first four seasons as Western Michigan's head coach, Lester's record is 24-20, with the Broncos finishing .500 or better in each season.

    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.

    In his first four seasons as Minnesota's head coach, Fleck's record is 26-19, including an 11-2 season in 2019.

    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.

    Norvell posted a 25-22 record in his first four seasons at Nevada, including a 7-2 season in 2020.

    Steve Sarkisian, Texas

    Alma Mater: BYU
    Position: Quarterback

    • 1996 second-team All-American
    • 1996 WAC Offensive Player of the Year
    • 1996 Sammy Baugh Trophy recipient

    Sarkisian transferred to BYU from El Camino College after starting his college career as a baseball player at USC. As a junior, he threw for a WAC-best 3,437 yards on 8.9 yards per attempt, with 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, before posting senior-year totals of 4,027 yards, 10.3 yards per attempt and 33 touchdowns. His 68.8-percent completion percentage as a senior led the country, as did his 173.6 passing efficiency rating, and his 33 touchdowns ranked second nationally. He led the WAC in passing yards per attempt in both seasons.

    Marcus Arroyo, UNLV

    Alma Mater: San Jose State
    Position: Quarterback

    • Highest passing efficiency rating in a game in San Jose State history (min. 15 attempts): 298.02 vs. Nevada (Nov. 10, 2001)
    • Sixth-most passing yards in a game in San Jose State history: 476 yards vs. Nevada (Nov. 10, 2001)

    Arroyo finished his college playing career with 4,672 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and 28 interceptions.

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