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Why ‘can’t win the big one’ is a dumb label for college football coaches

The brief history and predictable future of a silly argument.

Minnesota v Nebraska
Tom Osborne “couldn’t win the big one,” then won three of them
Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images

It’s hard to take a data-based approach to college football. It’s a massive sport, governed for years by a patchwork of rules that had different teams playing under varying circumstances, with no more than 15 data points for each team each year. It doesn’t have the standardized sets of data some other sports have, so it’s hard to put coaches into proper context.

But that’s no reason to toss around labels and generalizations that don’t make sense. One of the worst: the coach who “can’t win the big one.”

Take military history as an example. We don’t deride Hannibal as a choker because he failed to take Rome and then lost at Zama. We don’t say Napoleon failed to win the big one because his invasion of Russia failed and he lost at Waterloo. Those two are still studied at military colleges for a host of reasons, even if they both lost in the end. We judge them in context and don’t let recency or anecdotes color our assessments of them.

All of these coaches have gotten the “can’t win the big one” tag before:

  • Bobby Bowden needed until his 24th head coaching season and 18th at Florida State to win a national title. He had all manner of close calls along the way. Just some examples: his 1987 Seminoles blew a 16-point lead and still came a two-point conversion shy of Oklahoma in a national title game. His 1991 team came a foot from beating Miami and being favored in a title game against Nebraska. His 1992 team fell short because of some treacherous kicking. Bowden could’ve had a handful more national titles before he won one, but he spent years as the grandfather who couldn’t get over the hump.
  • Tom Osborne needed 22 seasons to get his first title. From 1973 to 1993, Nebraska never lost more than three games. The Huskers touched a top-five ranking in 18 of his first 21 seasons and ascended to No. 1 in four of them. Osborne had title-caliber teams, but Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma and various Florida schools in bowl games kept stymieing him until 1994, when he (fittingly) beat Miami in the Orange Bowl for the championship, then kept winning.
  • Bo Schembechler has Michigan’s football headquarters named after him. UM’s players run onto the field underneath his slogan: “the team, the team, the team.” Its fans can buy T-shirts from the Bo Store on Main Street. And yet, thanks to a 2-8 record in Rose Bowl and a dropped interception in Iowa City in 1985, Schembechler never won a national title. So, a coach who won or shared 13 conference titles and had 16 top-10 finishes in 21 seasons at Michigan kept the “can’t win the big one” label into retirement.
  • Mack Brown had the label at Texas until Vince Young came along. He recruited well but lost five straight to Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma from 2000 to 2004, including a couple by huge margins. Going into 2005, Brown had the reputation of a good recruiter and suspect game day coach. He won the title in 2005, ending USC’s 34-game winning streak. He missed by a little bit twice more after that.
  • Bob Stoops’ “Big Game” nickname was often mocked, but a closer look at the record showed his Sooners were not only good enough to play in lots of big games, OU also performed well in them.

College basketball has a bunch of examples, too. Fans and media apply the label often.

But “can’t win the big one” is rarely a good or fair descriptor for a coach.

A few reasons for that:

  • It is hard to win a national title. Joe Paterno, Osborne, Bowden, Brown and others had several close calls during long, successful careers before they got their titles.
  • Sometimes, a small change will get a coach over the hump. Bowden needed a better kicker. Mack needed better quarterbacks. Osborne needed better athletes on defense.
  • Sometimes, it’s just a matter of luck. Is Schembechler a better coach if Brad Cochran holds onto a late interception in Iowa City in 1985, so the team then gets to play an 8-2-1 UCLA for the national title in Pasadena? Is Bowden a worse coach and Osborne a better coach if Byron Bennett makes this kick? Is Paterno a better coach if Barry Krauss hits Mike Guman with a glancing blow instead of dead-on?

Who’s next? Today’s game has shorter tenures, so it’s harder to even get the chance to get the label. But there are a number of candidates.

  • Mark Richt came close three times at Georgia. If one drop or one wacky game in the very wacky 2007 changed, he could’ve been thought of as one of the country’s best coaches. If he keeps winning at Miami but doesn’t top it off with a title, the tag that haunted him in Athens will return.
  • Gus Malzahn came one play away in 2013, then one win away from a shot in 2017. Any year in which he beats Alabama might subject him to the label.
  • James Franklin’s Penn State has come a whisker from the Playoff two years in a row. Playing in the loaded Big Ten East will tend to produce close calls.
  • Jim Harbaugh has recruited excellently. His record against Ohio State is not excellent.
  • Chris Petersen is on the short list of coaches with a winning percentage above .750. He already has one Playoff berth at Washington, and if he keeps producing excellent teams, he could get attention as an almost coach, though he has a history of winning the biggest games available at Boise State.
  • Kirby Smart, Richt’s successor at Georgia, doesn’t have enough experience yet to get the label. But it’s easy to imagine a 2022 in which Smart does not have a national title, with a combination of excellent recruiting classes (he has those) and close title losses (one of those, too) subjecting him to hot takes.

Who else is a candidate to get the label?

Let me know.