Most fans could easily name five of the ten college football coaches with the most career wins, though the coaches that worked at lower levels may be more challenging to recall. (Two coaches tied for tenth place, so the top ten includes eleven coaches.) The coaches that achieved that level of success had two things in common: they won at a high percentage (.605 or above) and were head coaches for many years (at least twenty-seven).
If longevity and winning percentage explain the winningest coaches, what explains the losingest? Like high-level winning, the primary explanation for high-level losing is longevity. Amos Alonzo Stagg and Eddie Robinson coached fifty-five years apiece, which helped them qualify for both top ten lists. The other eight losers coached at least thirty-one years, with four of the eight winning more than they lost over their careers. Those four commonly suffered numerous losses as they shifted losing programs into respectability. Several, such as Hayden Fry, had excellent seasons interspersed among average or mediocre years.
But what about the four coaches who are on the list of the ten losingest who also had losing career records? Let's review them in order from the fewest losses to the most.
Buddy Teevens, Dartmouth's coach, is the only active top-ten losing coach today. A quarterback at Dartmouth in his playing days, he had reasonable success at Maine during his first two years as a head coach and then took over a losing Dartmouth program. They quickly became respectable and won the Ivy title in his fourth and fifth years there, qualifying him to take over a losing Tulane program. He failed to turn them around, going 11-45 in five seasons. Then, after eight years as a Power 5 assistant, he took over a losing Stanford program, which he also could not turn around. After returning to Dartmouth, he had five difficult years and is now in a run of thirteen solid years, including three Ivy titles.
Mike Price played junior college football, as well as at Washington State and Puget Sound, before spending a dozen years in assistant roles. His first head coaching job came at Weber State, where he stayed for eight years with seven average teams and one FCS playoff team, finishing two games over .500 during that stretch. From there, he took the Washington State job, staying for fourteen up-and-down years, including two Rose Bowl appearances. Then, after finishing four games over .500 in Pullman, he took the Alabama job but never coached a game after being fired for alcohol-related and financial misbehavior. Price then became the head honcho at UTEP, having success his first two years before seven losing seasons and an eighth as an interim coach. His final UTEP record was 48-68.
Roland Ortmayer played only one year at Northwestern due to injuries, coached high school ball, and took over at William Penn (IA) after WWII. He stayed two years, going winless, before leaving for La Verne (CA). His La Verne teams were up and down, mostly down, winning eight games one season and seven games twice. A philosopher-coach, he was among football's most unorthodox leaders in that he did not:
Use a playbook
Require attendance at practice
Kick players off the team
Encourage weight training or film study
Ortmayer’s focus was on his players having fun, a philosophy that fit La Verne, where winning wasn't the only thing. His philosophy and 182-195-2 record at La Verne led to a nine-page Sports Illustrated profile in their 1989 college football season preview. It is worth a read.
Finally, Watson Brown tops the chart among losing coaches and is the only one to lose more than sixty percent of his games. The older brother of North Carolina's Mack Brown, Watson played at Vanderbilt. He spent eight years as an assistant before taking over at Austin Peay, winning two-thirds of his games in two years. Brown then spent two years as Vanderbilt's Offensive Coordinator before leading Cincinnati for one year, Rice for two, and Vanderbilt for five, never producing a winning season and winning only one game in four of the seasons in Nashville. After four more years as a Power 5 Offensive Coordinator, he took over a UAB program transitioning from I-AA to I-A. In twelve years there, he had three winning seasons, producing a 62-74 record and one appearance in the Hawaii Bowl. Brown then took over at Tennessee Tech, earning two winning seasons and one I-AA playoff appearance in nine seasons. That means Watson Brown had a losing record at each head coaching stop other than his first and joins Roland Ortmayer as one of two coaches to lose 200 or more college football games.
The primary takeaway is that coaching success depends, in large part, on fit. In two stints at the major college level, Buddy Teevens fared poorly, yet he rebuilt and had success in both tours at his alma mater. Similarly, Roland Ortmayer's approach would fit few schools, but it worked at La Verne, allowing him to lose a lot of football games over a lengthy career. Of course, coaches who have sustained success tend to be hired by schools that have had the same, while schools with lesser resumes often hire those who have enjoyed periodic success, hoping to awaken the genie in the lamp. Mike Price and Watson Brown fit the latter model as both struggled to recapture their few glory years.
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