When it comes to college football, the SEC describes itself as the “Conference of Champions.” While some other leagues will view that as the SEC being pompous and arrogant, it’s hard to argue with results, at least in the current century. A big part of the SEC’s success on the gridiron has been a long lineage of coaches who have been able to elevate programs to a championship level over an extended period of time. After all, the story of the SEC’s dominance on the football field can’t be told without taking note of the guys on the sideline calling the shots. For that reason, allow us to share our list of the top-5 football coaches in SEC history.
5. Vince Dooley – Georgia
Despite playing at Auburn and spending almost a decade as an assistant at Auburn, Dooley is a coaching legend because of the quarter-century he spent at Georgia. He even passed on the opportunity to return to Auburn as the head coach and decided to spend his entire career as a head coach with the rival Bulldogs.
During those 25 years, Dooley won 201 games in total and 102 SEC contests, putting him near the top of the all-time wins list in the conference. Along the way, he took home six SEC titles, with his first coming in 1966 and his last coming in 1982, which was the last year of a three-peat for Georgia. Under Dooley, Georgia also won the 1980 national championship. He was also given SEC Coach of the Year honors five times and won several national coaching awards during the 1980 championship season.
4. Steve Spurrier – Florida, South Carolina
In terms of being both a great player and a great coach in the SEC, it’s almost impossible to top Spurrier. He won both SEC Player of the Year and the Heisman as a player in 1966. Many years after a storied playing career at Florida, he returned to the Gators for a 12-year coaching stint. During those 12 years, Spurrier won at least nine games every season, took the Gators to the SEC Championship Game eight times, won the conference six times, and won a national championship.
Following an unsuccessful stint in the NFL, Spurrier returned to the SEC for a 10-year encore with South Carolina. He took over a program with modest expectations that had been to a bowl game just three times in the 13 years since joining the SEC. All Spurrier did was take the Gamecocks to nine bowl games in 10 seasons and win the SEC East for the only time in program history. He sits as the all-time wins leader at both Florida and South Carolina.
3. Robert Neyland – Tennessee
Neyland is not only a coaching legend but one of the most influential figures in football history as well. He was a defensive mastermind, as his teams kept 112 shutouts, including the 1939 Tennessee team, which held every team it played without any points. Neyland was also influential in the jerseys players wear and was one of the first coaches to study game film on opponents.
Despite his military service keeping him from coaching the 1935 season and then again from 1941 to 1945, Neyland led the Volunteers to five SEC titles in the 14 seasons he coached in the SEC, plus two earlier titles in the Southern Conference. Tennessee also won four national championships under Neyland’s command, all of which came after the school joined the SEC in 1933.
2. Bear Bryant – Kentucky, Alabama
There is probably no bigger name in coaching in the history of college football than Bear Bryant. He played at Alabama in the 1930s and when he returned there as the head coach in 1958, he took the program to new heights. Bryant is easily the biggest reason why Alabama is one of the most iconic programs in college football history.
In his 25 years as Alabama head coach, he won 13 SEC titles, including a stretch of eight in nine years from 1971 to 1979. He also led the Crimson Tide to six national championships, including two sets of back-to-back titles. We also can’t forget the eight seasons Bryant spent at Kentucky, leading them to eight winning seasons and on SEC title. Bryant is the overall wins leader at both schools, and between his time at Kentucky and Alabama, he won the SEC 14 times and was SEC Coach of the Year 12 times.
1. Nick Saban – LSU, Alabama
It might be a little controversial to put Saban ahead of Bryant, but we think he’s earned it. Saban has created a dynasty at Alabama in an era with scholarship restrictions and far more overall talent in the game than Bryant’s era. Not to discount all that Bryant accomplished, but sustaining success the way Saban has is far more difficult than it was for Bryant.
We also can’t forget that Saban had great success at LSU, including a national championship, before coming to Alabama. As of the 2019 season, Saban has won eight SEC titles and six national titles. He’s over halfway to matching Bryant’s conference titles and already matched his number of national championships in just over half the amount of time. He’s already a living legend and even had a statue of himself at Alabama before he won most of his national championships with the Crimson Tide. When all is said and done, there will be little doubt that Saban will be the best coach in both SEC and college football history.