Ranking of NU's Coaches


Rating the NU Football Coaches:
The All-Time List

Recently on the football message board at Rivals.com, some posters were debating the greatest coaches in NU history.  There were a lot of different opinions and a lot of very interesting perspectives.  Some fans based their decision on the coach's winning percentage, or on the number of wins, or on the challenge that the coach and his teams faced.  These were all good criteria, and each of the lists provided a good base for debate.

But the exercise started to make me wonder: what would a ranked list of all the coaches look like?  Who would fall where on a complete list of NU's head football coaches?  The coach at #1 would be fairly clear (at least as clear as he was in the Rivals discussion; that is to say, not entirely clear at all...).  But who would take the bottom spot?

The list below is of all the former Wildcat head coaches, from top to bottom.  This list is entirely my own opinion and is totally open for debate-- except for one ranking.  One of the following 30 rankings is simply not debatable.

For the sake of completeness, here is Coach Fitzgerald's entry, which is not ranked:   

Pat Fitzgerald

7+ Seasons, 2006 - present
50 Wins, 39 Losses, (0.562) as of the end of 2012 season
No conference titles.  Five bowls.  Northwestern alumnus.

Coach Fitz is unranked since he is the current coach, but so far, so good.  Six straight seasons with at least six wins, five straight bowls and one bowl trophy, and NU's third-ever season with ten wins is pretty brilliant.

1. Gary Barnett

7 Seasons, 1992-1998
35 Wins, 45 Losses, 1 Tie (0.438)
Two conference titles.  Two bowls.  Not an alumnus.

Would he have been a great lifetime coach at NU?  Would he have made NU a consistent competitor?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  What is more certain is that without Barnett showing up at NU in December 1991 there would have been no turnaround of the program.  We'd still be waiting for it, in a crumbling Dyche Stadium with half of the student bleachers still draped in chicken wire.  Only Barnett was enough of a master of motivation to forge the single greatest resurrection of a program in college football history.  NU's football history will always be delineated as what came before Barnett, and what came after him.  While the terrible 1998 season and the way in which Barnett left NU are marks against picking him #1, they just aren't enough to tarnish completely what he accomplished for Northwestern athletics.

2. Ara Parseghian

8 Seasons, 1956-1963
36 Wins, 35 Losses, 1 Tie (0.507)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

No conference titles or bowls?  How is Parseghian #2?  How about the fact that Parseghian is the only coach (other than Fitzgerald) in the postwar period to have a winning record.  He didn't snag any titles or bowls (keep in mind that bowls and titles were the same thing during this period, since only the Big Ten champ went to a bowl), but he did lead NU to several #2 Big Ten finishes and, in 1962, had NU nationally ranked #1 for the last time.  Parseghian is arguably the best recruiter in NU's history, and its best "all-around" coach (recruiting, training, motivation, gameday execution, "Xs and Os"). 

3. Glenn Thistlethwaite

5 Seasons, 1922 - 1926
21 Wins, 17 Losses, 1 Tie (0.553.  Adjusted: 0.551)
One conference title.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

The turnaround Thistlethwaite helmed wasn't as daunting as the one Barnett faced, but it was still really big.  After over a decade of false starts at rebuilding the program (after varsity football was axed by NU in 1906 and 1907), NU brought in Thistlethwaite to start again.  Did he ever.  "Gloomy Glenn" started from scratch and, along the way, he transformed the program, bringing in spring practice (in 1923) and a host of other improvements.  By 1924 the team was still losing, but was now at least fiercely competitive (and deserving of the "Wildcats" nickname); by 1925 the 'Cats were winning; and in Thistlethwaite's final year NU won the Big Ten title and was set for a decade of dominance.

4. Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf

12 Seasons, 1935 - 1946
49 Wins, 45 Losses, 7 Tie (seven ties??) (0.521.  Adjusted: 0.520)
One conference title.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

The "ironman" of NU coaches: most wins and longest tenure.  The program was in good shape when Pappy arrived; he made it even better.  Beating Notre Dame in your first season at NU is always a good start; it was good enough to land Pappy the first-ever National Coach of the Year Award.  Losing to Notre Dame during the next season might seem like a slump, until one realizes that the '36 game was for the national championship.  Even with the loss to the Irish, Pappy's 'Cats could still claim a (small) piece of the '36 title, having beaten AP title-holder Minnesota to take the unshared Big Ten crown.  Under Pappy NU was regularly featured in the AP top ten.  And, oh, he did discover Otto Graham's football talent.  So there's that.

5. Randy Walker

7 Seasons, 1999 - 2005
37 Wins, 46 Losses (0.446)
One conference title.  Three bowls.  Not an alumnus.

Barnett might have given Wildcat fans the turnaround, but Walker gave them a program that was built to be consistently good.  Erratic at first (picking up the pieces Barnett left with his unpleasant exit, followed by the spectacle of the 2000 championship season, followed by crash and burn seasons in 2001 and 2002), Walker stabilized the program in 2003, notching three straight seasons with at least six wins and putting NU in constant bowl contention.  In the 21st Century Big Ten, this is a fantastic achievement.

6. Walter McCornack

3 Seasons, 1903 - 1905
25 Wins, 6 Losses, 4 Ties (0.806.  Adjusted: 0.771)
One conference title.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.*

McCornack is only hampered by his short tenure.  However, during his three seasons at NU, he compiled the highest winning percentage and did not have a down year.  His one conference title was not recognized until decades later, and McCornack's teams usually smoked non-conference foes, while stumbling in the conference.  McCornack was a master recruiter, bringing national talent to NU for the first time.  He instituted off-campus preseason practice (in Wisconsin, no less), radically improved the way NU trained, and had NU set to become a football titan for years to come.  Disastrously, NU chose to disband varsity football after 1905, and McCornack left the sport entirely.  [Note: NU officially shows McCornack's record incorrectly as 24 wins, 7 losses and 4 ties]

*McCornack was, however, a student in the Law School while he was coach, and he earned his law degree before resigning.

7. Alvin Culver

Just under 2 Seasons, mid-1895 - 1896
12 Wins, 4 Losses, 2 Ties (0.750.  Adjusted: 0.722)
No conference titles.  Bowls not applicable.  Northwestern alumnus.

The intangibles are important with this pick.  In 1894, as a player (and for all purposes, also NU's coach), Alvin Culver essentially saved NU's program after it disbanded in the middle of the 1894 season.  He held it together again when NU's next coach, Joe Flint, lasted only two games in 1895.  Culver took a team in shambles and (along with some new excellent talent) fashioned two solid seasons, coming close to winning the Big Ten's debut championship, and setting the stage for a very successful decade of football for the Purple. [Note: NU officially shows Culver's record as 12 wins, 6 losses and 2 ties.  That includes the 2 losses that Joe Flint had as coach at the start of the 1895 season.]

8. Dick Hanley

8 Seasons, 1927 - 1934
36 Wins, 26 Losses, 4 Ties (0.581.  Adjusted: 0.576)
Two conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

In some ways Hanley was the Barnett of his day: undeniably successful (both Barnett and Hanley sport back-to-back conference titles) and very divisive.  Hanley did not have good relations with the university administration, which was eager to replace him.  However, Hanley continued to bring in top-flight talent and flirted with a national championship during both of the title seasons.  Unlike Barnett, Hanley was handed a program that was already very strong.  That Hanley kept it strong earns him a spot in the coaching top ten.

9. Dr. Charles M. "Doc" Hollister

4 Seasons, 1899 - 1902
27 Wins, 16 Losses, 4 Ties (0.628.  Adjusted: 0.617)
No conference titles.  Bowls not applicable.  Not an alumnus.

This guy is no longer remembered, which is a shame.  Doc Hollister had a really nice run as head coach and built a very solid program, setting the stage for McCornack's even greater success later.  Like McCornack, Hollister was a great recruiter.  Under Hollister, NU scored big wins against both Notre Dame  (in 1901) and Chicago (back-to-back in 1900 and 1901, a nearly unthinkable feat).  However, the school's football expectations were very high during this era, and some students actually called for Hollister to be fired.  Until 1902 there wasn't much chance of that: Hollister also served as athletic director (the first of five NU football coaches who were also A.D.).  Hollister would return to coaching NU in 1906, as the Purple's baseball coach.

10. Dennis Green

5 Seasons, 1981 - 1985
10 Wins, 45 Losses (0.182)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

"Dennis Green??"  You might well ask.  Yes, Dennis Green rounds out the top ten.  Green's debut season also happened to be the worst year in NU football history.  But let's not blame Coach Green.  He walked into a house that was not only on fire; it had been napalmed and paved under as well.  Green was able to quell the brutal animosity that developed at the end of the Pont / Venturi era.  Green was not able to bring the true turnaround to end the Dark Ages, but he did do a heck of a job starting from scratch and with nearly no administrative support.  In his second year on the job, going from the blasphemous 1981 season to a three-win campaign in '82 that featured a road win in the Big Ten, Green won Big Ten Coach of the Year.  It was well deserved.

11. Bob Voigts

8 Seasons, 1947 - 1954
33 Wins, 39 Losses, 1 Tie (0.458.  Adjusted: 0.459)
No conference titles.  One bowl.  Northwestern alumnus.

It is painful to put Bob Voigts this low on the list.  As a player, Voigts was a hero at NU, an All-American who helped lead the 'Cats to a Big Ten title and nearly a national title.  As a head coach, he accomplished the legendary: he won the 1949 Rose Bowl in his second season.  So why is he not in the top ten?  Because we can't count what Voigts did as a player, only as head coach.  And, after the fantastic Rose Bowl season, Voigts never regained his initial success.  Even though there was talent to be had, and NU should have enjoyed continued success, Voigts' last few seasons were subpar, and fans were driven to call for his firing.  Finally, Voigts did resign, essentially forced out by administrative and alumni pressure.  Thankfully, history has been very kind to Coach Voigts: we don't remember the acrimonious end to his tenure at NU, only the glory of the Roses.

12. Alex Agase

9 Seasons, 1964 - 1972
32 Wins, 58 Losses, 1 Tie (0.356.  Adjusted: 0.357)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

When Agase began his long tenure at NU, the program was very strong.  When he finished, it was ready to descend into the Dark Ages.  However, this was not Coach Agase's fault.  Blame the one-two punch of a college football environment that began to favor the big state schools more than ever and a Northwestern administration (Strotz!  Strotz!) that just hated athletics.  Even so, Agase was a solid coach who was able to knock off the national #1 team in '67, earn Coach of the Year in '70, and take two nice shots at a Big Ten title in 1970 and 1971.  By the end of 1972, however, the hostility from the administration was just too much, and Coach Agase took his 0.356 record and left for Purdue.  In his wake, the Darkness lurked...

13. W.H. Bannard

1 Season, 1898
9 Wins, 4 Losses, 1 Tie (0.692.  Adjusted: 0.679)
No conference titles.  Bowls not applicable.  Not an alumnus.

Nine wins are nice; however, his one-season tenure works against Coach Bannard.  He'd be ranked higher if he had contributed more to the program, and he'd be lower if his short tenure had caused a disruption to NU's strength at the time.  It didn't: Coach Hollister took up seamlessly where Bannard left.

14. Jesse Van Doozer

1 Season, 1897
5 Wins, 3 Losses (0.625)
No conference titles.  Bowls not applicable.  Northwestern alumnus.

Also a very short tenure.  However, Van Doozer did accomplish some good during this season.  He brought back some of his fellow alumni for a varsity - alumni game that also brought back a lot of alumni fans (the first prototype of a Homecoming event centered on football).  His departure also did not cause a disruption to the program.

15. The Players

Officially: 9 Seasons, 1882 - 1890
9 Wins, 6 Losses, 1 Tie (0.600.  Adjusted: 0.594)

Unofficially: Parts of 14 Seasons, 1876, 1879, 1882 - 1892, 1894
19 Wins, 14 Losses, 6 Ties (0.576.  Adjusted: 0.564)

Bowls and alumni status not applicable.
One small conference title.

Officially known as "No Coach." For these seasons the team was led by the players, typically either the football team president or the team captain.  Starting with F.F. Casseday in 1876, this group of student - coaches also included Harry Hamill, M.E. Fawcett, A.H. Henry, Erman Ridgway, Thomas Moulding (who notched a 4-1-1 record, including a whipping of Wisconsin-- not bad!), Ransom Kennicott, and of course Paul Noyes and Alvin Culver (both of whom would go on to become formal head coaches).  Despite having no coach, this group of players actually did a solid job.  It was Noyes, as team captain and de facto head coach in 1892, who led NU to its first football title of any kind: NU beat Beloit and Lake Forest, and tied Illinois to take the Midwest League's minor division championship.

16. Fred Murphy

5 Seasons, 1914 - 1918
16 Wins, 16 Losses, 1 Tie (0.500)
No conference titles.  No Bowls.  Alumnus status not known.

It's appropriate that Coach Murphy had an even win-loss record; his ranking marks the boundary between the successful NU coaches from the not-so-successful.  During World War I, Fred Murphy was the NU athletic department: he was the athletic director, football coach, basketball coach, and baseball coach.  Murphy was unlucky enough to be in the midst of NU's attempts to rebuild its football program after canning it until 1908.  Murphy kept the program going while it was trying to find itself, but never achieved the stability it needed.  His record was helped by the success of one player: Paddy Driscoll, who nearly single-handedly drove NU to wild success in 1916.

17. Paul Noyes

1 Season, 1893
2 Wins, 5 Losses, 3 Ties (0.286.  Adjusted: 0.350)
Conference titles and bowls not applicable.  Northwestern alumnus.

Paul, who had been coaching as a student and was elevated to head coach for 1893, was in a fairly challenging position.  His season was sandwiched in between two MIA coaches who virtually wrecked the program.  Since the "coach" who preceded Noyes never actually coached a game for NU, Noyes essentially had to introduce formal coaching to the team.  All told, Coach Noyes literally gave it the college try.

18. Alton Johnson

1 Season, 1908
2 Wins, 2 Losses (0.500)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Northwestern alumnus.

Paul Noyes and Dennis Green might have stepped into a big challenge upon arriving as NU head coach, but those messes were nothing compared to what faced former NU star player Alton Johnson.  NU had disbanded varsity football in 1906 and 1907.  In 1908, the administration agreed to bring back the varsity team, but with very tight restrictions on recruiting, on the number of games to be played, and on the program's budget.  Oh, and only one player was left from the final 1905 team.  Oh, and every other team had now been using the forward pass for two years.  Johnson tried to cobble a team together from some of the players on the NU Law School team and some other students who had not come to NU for athletics.  His team actually won its two warm up games, before being beaten by its two Big Ten opponents.  That was enough for Alton. 

19. Charles Hammett

3 Seasons, 1910 - 1912
6 Wins, 10 Losses, 2 Ties (0.375.  Adjusted: 0.389)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

Coach Hammett was another casualty to the great rebuilding period.  His teams weren't terrible (his two Big Ten wins in 1912 was the best conference performance since 1901), but they couldn't take the program to consistent competitiveness.  Hammett was the second NU football coach to serve also as A.D..  By 1912 Hammett was head coach for basketball and football as well as A.D.  After '12, he stepped down as coach but remained A.D. for one more year.  Hammett would find success as a coach for Allegheny College.

20. Charles Bachman

1 Season, 1919
2 Wins, 5 Losses (0.286)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

Bachman was the fourth coach from this era to serve also as A.D. (he was also NU's track coach).  If we look at a coach's overall career, not just his time at NU, Charles Bachman would be a lot higher on this list.  Bachman had success elsewhere (he is in the College Football Hall of Fame for his coaching work at Florida and Michigan State), but he was the wrong guy to try to turn around NU's fortunes during the lengthy rebuilding era of 1908 - 1921.  His one season with NU was lackluster, and he quickly moved on.

21. Francis Peay

6 Seasons, 1986 - 1991
13 Wins, 51 Losses, 2 Ties (0.203.  Adjusted: 0.212)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

Here's a coach I wish I could rank higher.  Peay was a good guy, but-- similar to Coach Bachman-- he just wasn't the right guy, not for what the program needed.  Peay's first season (as interim coach, after Green left unexpectedly) was his best, a four win campaign with two nice conference wins.  It was downhill from there.  

22. Elmer McDevitt

2 Seasons, 1920 - 1921
4 Wins, 10 Losses (0.286)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

McDevitt's was the last failed attempt to revamp NU football in the WWI era.  His term started promisingly enough: 1920 conference wins against Minnesota and Purdue.  The following year, however, NU beat DePaul, and did not score against another team.

After McDevitt left NU, he went on to coach at Denver.  The coach he replaced at Denver: Fred Murphy, who had coached at NU from 1914 to 1918.  Ahh, Northwestern: Denver's Cradle of Coaches.

23. Bill Horr

1 Season, 1909
1 Win, 3 Losses, 1 Tie (0.250.  Adjusted: 0.300)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

After Alton Johnson's one season attempt to bring football back to NU, Coach Horr took a crack at it.  It, however, cracked him.  Horr's one team notched a nice win at Purdue (payback for Purdue ruining NU's return to Big Ten football the previous year).  That was the lone bright spot.  Coach Horr, taking a page from Johnson, called it quits at the end of the season, taking the head coaching job at... Purdue.

24. John Pont

5 Seasons, 1973 - 1977
12 Wins, 43 Losses (0.218)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

Pont, who had taken Indiana to the Rose Bowl a few years before coming to Evanston, seemed to be a good choice to follow Agase.  Instead, Pont took an ailing Wildcat program and buried it.  The Dark Ages officially commenced with his hire, and they would hang around Central Street for nearly 20 years.  Tracking Pont's "progress" is as simple as tracking the number of wins his teams had: 4, 3, 3, 1, 1.

25. Lou Saban

1 Season, 1955
0 Wins, 8 Losses, 1 Tie (0.000.  Adjusted: 0.056)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Not an alumnus.

After Coach Voigts left the helm, fans and alumni were hopeful for a return to the success of the 1940s.  Instead, they were treated to a preview of the 1970s.  Lou Saban was a young, energetic new coach who would go on to coach at a host of other schools and the NFL in a career spanning six decades.  His major college head coaching career began here, and it looked like it would end here as well.  His debut team ran the table, losing its first seven games.  It escaped the humiliation of the first all-losing season since 1886 by tying Illinois in the final game of the year.  Winless and shell-shocked, Saban departed.  Saban would return to coaching two years later at Western Illinois.

26. Dennis Grady

1 Season, 1913
1 Win, 6 Losses (0.143)
No conference titles.  No bowls.  Northwestern alumnus (Law School).

Let's just say that Dennis Grady may have been distracted.  In 1913, Grady was put in charge of the football, basketball, and baseball teams, a stunt at athletic simplificatoin and efficiency that would fail.  Of all the football rebuilding attempts of 1908 - 1921, Coach Grady's was the worst.  1913 was a total disaster of a year.  Yes, it started with Grady's lone win, over Lake Forest.  It then descended into nightmare: a 34-0 loss to Purdue, followed by a 37-0 pounding by Illinois, followed by a 78-6 beatdown by Iowa-- the worst loss in NU history.  A 58-0 edging by Ohio State ended the season, and Coach Grady's coaching career.

27. Rick Venturi

3 Seasons, 1978 - 1980
1 Win, 31 Losses, 1 Tie (0.031.  Adjusted: 0.045)
Conference titles and bowls: Come on.    Northwestern alumnus.

Believe it or not, Coach Venturi is not at the bottom of the list.  In fact, there are three coaches below him!  As for Venturi's time at NU, what is there to say?   Maybe Venturi said it best himself: "The only difference between General Custer and me is that I have to watch the game film on Sunday."

28. Knowlton "Snake" Ames

2 Seasons, 1891 - 1892
7 Wins, 5 Losses, 5 Ties (0.583.  Adjusted: 0.559)
Conference titles and bowls not applicable.  Not an alumnus.

"Snake" is right.  Never mind Coach Ames' win-loss record at NU: he was responsible for none of it.  While Ames, a former Princeton star, is officially considered the very first formal head coach of NU (before 1891 the players coached themselves), in reality Ames spent nearly this entire time in West Lafayette, Indiana.  Why?  Well, he was actually coaching Purdue.  During the two seasons that Ames was supposed to be helping the players at Sheppard Field, the team was actually still being coached by players.

29. Joe Flint

2 Weeks, 1895
0 Wins, 2 Losses (0.000)
Conference titles and bowls not applicable.  Not an alumnus.

After the destruction of NU football in 1894 (see Coach #30, below), the program was desperate for a loyal and competent coach to lead the team.  So NU chose the opposite and tapped Joe Flint, who had been head coach at Butler.  Coach Flint actually did find some talented players in the offseason, but 1895 began miserably.  Wisconsin and Iowa State pounded the Purple (Iowa State actually earned its nickname, the Cyclones, from this game!), and Flint had no answers, and no way to use the talent he brought in. 

So... he packed up and returned to Butler, just three weeks into the season!  Former player Alvin Culver, who had saved the team at the end of 1894, was forced to step back in as the new head coach.  Culver, who actually could coach, took the new talent and finished 1895 with a 6-3 record.  Flint, however, would capture the distinction as the ONLY Northwestern head coach to finish his term with nothing but losses-- no wins, no ties. 

[Note: officially, NU does not even recognize Joe Flint's stint as head coach.  The school lumps his two losses in with Coach Culver's 1895 record, which is quite unfair to Mr. Culver.]

30. A.A. Ewing

1 Season, 1894
4 Wins, 5 Losses (0.444)
Conference titles and bowls not applicable.  Not an alumnus.

Remember that I mentioned that one ranking was beyond dispute?  Well, here it is!  No one can claim the NU coaching basement besides A.A. Ewing.

After the 1893 season, Coach Paul Noyes left Evanston and Alvin Culver dropped out of NU to play semi-professionally with the Chicago A.A. NU was left without a coach and went into the 1894 season in chaos. The team was blown out by Chicago at the beginning of the season, but saw a glimmer of hope: Chicago player A.A. Ewing agreed after the game to suspend his spot with Stagg's team and become NU's new coach.

This, unfortunately, led to even worse conditions for the Purple. Within a couple of weeks Ewing stopped even showing up at NU's practices and games, even though he was still formally the coach, and was still being paid. "Disgusted" (his term) with the NU team, he began playing again for Chicago.  By mid-season NU's admin. stepped in and shut the team down, scrapping the rest of the season.  When he learned of NU's suspension, Culver returned and requested a chance to put the team back together, in order to play the last game of the season, a return game against Chicago.  Technically, NU's head coach for this game was still Ewing.  Ewing, however, was playing for the opposing team.  Worst.  Coach.  Ever.