by Keith Aksel
No major American sport demands higher rates of winning from its coaches than college football. On an annual basis, coaches from big-time programs are fired after 9-3 or 8-4 seasons, a success rate coaches in any other sport would likely kill to achieve. Facts like this seem to underscore the point that winning on a weekly basis matters more in college football than anywhere else.
That said, it is ultimately conference and national championships, not winning percentages, which define a coach’s career. One historical trend fans should consider in evaluating any coach’s performance is that national championships are won in chunks; coaches in the modern-era (from 1972 to now) typically win titles at the early, middle, or final stages of their careers, but rarely win titles across these eras. Those coaches that have won multiple championships win them within a limited ten year window of time, outside of which they may enjoy success in conference, but never win it all again.
This “chunking” trend shows us some realities about coaching careers. First, coaches that won a title a long time ago are likely not to win again, regardless if they won multiple times. Second, coaches that have won within the past ten years are more likely to win again than a coach that won more than a decade ago.
The coaches that win early in their careers, we’ll call them “early peakers”, are best embodied in the person of Lloyd Carr of Michigan. Carr took over for the fired Gary Moeller in 1995, and won a co-national championship in 1997 with Heisman winner Charles Woodson. Carr also saw enormous success in conference throughout his career, winning Big Ten championships in five of his thirteen years at the helm. Although he got close to the national title in 2006, he was unable to reach the pinnacle again by the time he stepped down as head coach in 2007. Carr’s early-peaker career arc mirrored that of Miami’s Larry Coker and Ohio State’s Jim Tressel, who won in years one and two of their respective tenures.
The second category of coaches, the “bell curves”, are coaches who won their national championship(s) in the middle of their careers, bookended by comparatively less successful seasons. This group’s archetype is Penn State’s Joe Paterno. Paterno took over at Penn State in 1966, and saw big success almost immediately. However, Paterno’s two national championships were won within a four year period (1982 and 1986), with considerably less success through 2011 when he was fired. Although there were certainly glimmers of championship football in Happy Valley in that time frame, the Paterno championship window was firmly seated in the 1980s. His trajectory was similar to figures like Texas’s Mack Brown and Tennessee’s Phil Fulmer, who won in year seven of their respective fifteen and seventeen year-stints as head coaches, but never again.
The last category of coaches is the “late-peakers”, those who won national championships exclusively at the end of their careers. The archetype of the late-peakers is Tom Osborne of Nebraska. Osborne was hired to succeed the legendary Bob Devaney in 1973, and experienced more big-game losses than perhaps any coach in college football history. Osborne took Nebraska to the proverbial brink of titles in 1975, 1978, 1983, 1984, and 1993, only to lose a late-season matchup that knocked the Cornhuskers from contention (he usually lost in the Orange Bowl- he was notorious for losing in South Florida). Either due to program loyalty, or his connection with then-athletic director Devaney, Osborne was allowed to maintain control over the Cornhuskers in spite of his big-game letdowns.
The Nebraska administration’s patience with Osborne was handsomely rewarded; Osborne’s last four years reflect an era of dominance that has not since been seen in the game. He won national championships in 1994, 1995, and shared the title with Carr’s Michigan squad in 1997. The last back-to-back undefeated seasons in big time football, along with what is widely regarded as the best team in history (1995) provided Cornhusker fans a lifetime of success they are still living off of today.
Chunking is a helpful lens through which to view current active coaching careers. On Thursday I will discuss the implications for this long term trend, and the ways fans and administrators alike might benefit from viewing coaching trajectories through chunking. It'll be almost as fun as actually watching October football. Stay tuned!
 The high winning rates expected in college football do have a certain justification through the nature of scheduling. Most top programs are able to schedule a game or three that can be rightly perceived as “gimmies,” making the high winning standard sort of expected. Then again, aren’t a few gimmies a part of every top sports team’s schedule?
 It should be noted that the “national championship” is itself a problematic subject. It has always existed in the ether, without clear and replicable guidelines for reaching that title. My use of the national championship here is on the basis that a coach’s best years are still best summed up by years they happened to win championships.
 It should be noted that his 1994 and 1969 teams may have been Paterno’s finest ever. At 12-0 PSU won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. Due, to the archaic nature of College Football’s national championship, the Nittany Lions were denied even a share of the title in favor of Nebraska and Texas, respectively.
 Osbourne succeeded Bob Devaney, who similarly won national championships at the end of his career at NU 1970 and 1971 (retired after 1972).