When it comes to football, the ACC doesn’t always stack up well against the other power conferences. Other than Clemson’s rise to prominence, ACC football has a little bit of an image problem. However, the league has actually been home to some elite programs and some of the top coaches in college football history. That might seem hard to believe given the current state of the conference, but to prove to you that it’s true, here is our list of the top five ACC football coaches of all-time.
5. George Welsh, Virginia
Welsh may not have coached a national power, but he performed arguably the most impressive reclamation project in ACC history. The program he inherited when he took over at Virginia in 1982 was frequently at the bottom of the ACC standings. But after going 2-9 in his first season, the Cavaliers had just one losing season during the rest of Welsh’s 19-year tenure in Charlottesville while taking Virginia to 12 bowl games.
Along the way, Welsh won a share of the ACC title twice, an accomplishment that would have seemed almost impossible when he took the job. He also won ACC Coach of the Year honors four times. During his time, the Cavs finished the season in the top-25 on six occasions and were actually the no. 1 team in the country at one point during the 1990 season. Welsh completely turned around a failing program and played a huge role in making Virginia the respectable program that it is today.
4. Bobby Ross, Maryland and Georgia Tech
Ross had a lot of stops in his coaching career, but his 10 years in the ACC (five years at Maryland and five years at Georgia Tech) were some of the best of his career. During his time at Maryland, Ross compiled a record of 24-5-1 in ACC play, winning three straight conference titles from 1983 to 1985. The Terrapins were 17-1 in conference play over those three seasons, dominating the conference the way few teams have.
At Georgia Tech, Ross accomplished a swift and almost unbelievable overhaul. The Yellowjackets were a combined 5-17 and 0-13 in ACC play during his first two seasons in 1987 and 1988. However, by 1990, Ross had transformed Georgia Tech into a national champion. The Yellow Jackets went 11-0-1 and 6-0-1 in the ACC that season, ultimately beating Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl to claim a share of the national title. That almost miraculous turnaround helped Ross land an NFL head coaching job with the Chargers two years later. It’s also worth noting that Ross’s coaching tree includes the likes of Frank Beamer, John Fox, and George O’Leary.
3. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech
Speaking of Beamer, his incredible consistency and longevity helped him surpass his former boss on a list of ACC coaching legends. In fairness, 13 of his 25 seasons at Virginia Tech were spent in the Big East, but there was little drop-off in the program after the Hokies jumped to the ACC in 2004. There’s a strong argument that Beamer is the best coach in college football history who never won a national championship, falling one game short in 1999. Despite never getting that championship, Beamer built something special at Virginia Tech and will have a long-lasting legacy.
In 1993, Beamer took the Hokies to a bowl game for the first time. He would take Virginia Tech to a bowl game in every other season, starting a consecutive bowl streak that still exists and remains the longest active streak in the country. Under Beamer, the Hokies finished the season ranked in 17 of 19 years, including the program’s first eight years in the ACC. Virginia Tech also won at least 10 games in each of those eight seasons while also claiming four ACC championships, immediately becoming the class of the league despite being the new kids on the block.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
If we could go back in time to when Swinney was first hired and the skepticism around making him Clemson’s head coach, a lot of people would look awfully foolish. At the time, Swinney was coaching the Clemson wide receivers and was best known for being a great recruiter, but there was little evidence to suggest he was ready to be a head coach at a major program. Of course, we all know that Swinney was more than ready, and it a little more than a decade, he has turned himself into one of the best coaches in ACC history despite still being in the prime of his career.
In his first full season as head coach in 2009, Swinney led the Tigers to the ACC Atlantic title. In 2011, Swinney won his first ACC championship, and it only took until 2016 for the Tigers to win a national championship. Starting in 2015, Swinney has never failed to get the Tigers to the College Football Playoff. Not only has Clemson become the pre-eminent program in the ACC, but one could argue that Swinney and the Tigers have surpassed Nick Saban and Alabama as the premier college football program in the country.
1. Bobby Bowden, Florida State
The only thing separating Swinney from Bowden is longevity and an almost unprecedented level of consistency. Bowden coached Florida State from 1976 to 2009, a tenure that will be tough for any coach at any program to match. There were just three seasons in Bowden’s 34 years that the Seminoles failed to reach a bowl game. There was also a 22-year streak of FSU finishing in the top-25, a stretch that includes 14 straight years of the Seminoles being a top-5 team at the end of the season.
While only 18 of his seasons at Florida State were spent in the ACC, Bowden led the Seminoles to 12 conference championships, including nine in a row from 1992 to 2000. Florida State also won two national championships during that time. Even Swinney and Clemson have a long way to go to match Florida State’s dominance over the ACC under Bowden, leaving no doubt that he remains the best coach in ACC history and one of the all-time greats to ever coach college football.