Hot Reads: Power Programs and 'Rough Patches'
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: Power Programs and ‘Rough Patches’

July 26, 2018

"If you look at some of the great programs in college football," Scott Frost said from the podium in Chicago at Big Ten Media Days this week, "to me, they have their glory days and their golden era, and almost every single one of them has gone through a rough patch afterwards. And then they get the right people back in place and get moving in the right direction and they become what they should be again."

I almost leapt out of my seat. Finally, a coach is saying what is plainly obvious if you take any sort of long-range look at the best programs in college football history. Sure, plenty will say that college football is "cyclical," but it barely feels like a strong enough word. Predictable is better.

Because that's what history show us –– it's very hard to replace a coaching legend, even for the most powerful programs in the country.

I took a close look at this for last year's Hail Varsity Yearbook. Rather than using wins or championships as a way to measure when prestige programs fell off (and returned), I used the Associated Press poll. It's the metronome that beats behind the widest swath of college football history. It has been around since 1936, but in its 25-team, last-poll-after-the-bowls form since 1968, so that's where I started. I wanted to see what percentage of all AP polls teams appeared in over that span. This method is also a little more forgiving than a show-me-the-titles approach. I know that's how the best of the best are ultimately judged, but you can win a bunch of games, be highly ranked consistently and not win the ultimate prize.

I just updated those numbers to include the 2017 season, so now we're talking about a 50-season sample. Here's how the 10 winningest programs of all time rank based on AP Poll percentage.

Ohio State 694 86.5%
Michigan 659 82.2%
Nebraska 649 80.9%
Oklahoma 636 79.3%
Alabama 606 75.6%
USC 575 71.7%
Florida St 556 69.3%
Penn St 547 68.2%
Notre Dame 537 67.0%
Texas 519 64.7%

That's interesting enough to look at, but let's look more closely about what Frost was talking about –– program swoons.

NEBRASKA: Based on titles you might view Nebraska's dark period as everything post-1999, but using the polls you have two dramatic departures: Bill Callahan and Mike Riley. The Riley era was actually a little worse with his Huskers appearing in 25% of all AP polls, Callahan 31.3%. But you are already well aware of Nebraska's struggles.

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines won one (half?) national title over the 50 seasons here, but they're a fixture in the polls. Michigan did well post-Bo Schembechler, but the Rich Rodriguez hire quickly removed the Wolverines from the polls (14.3%). Brady Hoke was their Bo Pelini (almost got there) and now we're into the Jim Harbaugh era, which is better but still with room for improvement.

OHIO STATE: The Buckeyes are the outlier here. Ohio State has been a fixture in the polls from Woody Hayes to Earle Bruce to John Cooper to Jim Tressel to Urban Meyer. Luke Fickell's interim year was a unique circumstance, but the Buckeyes had enough residual talent to remain ranked for a portion of that 2011 season. Ohio State has been ranked in at least one AP poll every year for 50 years, the only program in this group that can say that.

ALABAMA: Nick Saban has been so good that it's easy to overlook this, but the Tide had a solid decade in the doldrums post-Gene Stallings, appearing in just 33.3% of polls between 1997 and 2006.

TEXAS: The Longhorns swoon between Fred Akers and Mack Brown was also about a decade long. David McWilliams and John Mackovic only had the Longhorns ranked 32.8% of the time between 1987 and 1997.

USC: The Trojans struggled to replace John Robinson twice. Ted Tollner got four seasons between 1983 and 1986 and had the Trojans ranked 45.3% of the time. Paul Hackett got his shot between 1998 and 2000, posting a 36% poll percentage. In the grand scheme of things, those are relatively short falls from grace, but still there.

NOTRE DAME: The still-astounding decision to replace Dan Devine with high-school-coaching legend Gerry Faust was a big bet that didn't pay off (36.3%), and the post-Lou Holtz era (Davie/Willingham/Weis) was nearly as bad (46.1%). 

I could finish out the rest of the top 10, but you get the picture. This is essentially the natural biorhythm of the best programs in history. Most people have a sense of this inherently, but what continues to amaze me about Frost is that he seems to really know it.

I think he's a college football junkie in the truest sense of the word. When he talks about sustaining excellence or the playoff expansion, it's more than just the typical talk. It's clear he really knows this stuff, which might not seem out of the ordinary for a college football coach but in my experience it actually is.

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