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The 13 best football coaches in Mountain West history

Gary Patterson
Gary Patterson is the best football coach in Mountain West history. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The Mountain West has had 48 head football coaches in its history, a number that shrinks to 42 if you subtract interim coaches. Of those 42 full-time head coaches in MW history, a number that will rise by six in 2020, only 21 of them have posted a winning record during their tenure in the conference. So who are the best coaches in MW football history? Let's make the list. And, for reference, we are only including what each coach did during his tenure in the MW, so Urban Meyer doesn't get any credit for his national titles at Florida and Ohio State and Chris Ault doesn't get any credit for the 27 seasons he coached Nevada prior to his one year in the MW.

1. Gary Patterson, TCU

Patterson's seven-year tenure in the MW is unassailable. TCU joined the conference after four years in Conference USA, and Patterson's Horned Frogs dominated. He was 77-13 overall and 48-7 in MW play, posting an 85.6 win percentage, the best of any coach with more than two seasons in the league. His teams won four conference championships, all of which came via undefeated league seasons, and TCU won at least 11 games in six of his seven years in the conference. TCU also reached two major bowls, the Fiesta and Rose bowls; went 6-1 in the postseason; and finished in the final AP Top 25 six times, including the No. 2 ranking in 2010. TCU jumped to the Big 12 in 2012 and is just 63-40 since then, but the MW run was amazing.

2. Rocky Long, New Mexico/SDSU

The dean of the MW, Long has been a head coach in the MW in 19 of the conference's 21 seasons, although he'll only be a defensive coordinator in 2020 after resigning from his post at San Diego State. Long's 19-year MW head-coaching tenure is split between New Mexico (10 seasons) and SDSU (nine seasons). He was 62-60 in New Mexico's MW era, including a 40-34 league mark, which doesn't look great, but he took the sad sack Lobos to five of their eight bowls since 1947. He shined at SDSU, going 81-38 overall and 51-20 in the MW while winning three MW titles in a five-year period from 2012-16. Long's 143 wins in the MW are 45 more than second-place Troy Calhoun. He's the only three-time MW coach of the year.

3. Urban Meyer, Utah

It's hard to pin down where to put Meyer given his short MW stint (just two seasons). The Utes hired Meyer after two years as Bowling Green's head coach, and he did wonders in Salt Lake City. Inheriting a team that went 5-6 the year before his hiring, Meyer went 10-2 in his first season at Utah and 12-0 in his second. That's a 22-2 record in two seasons with the lone losses coming at Texas A&M (by two points) and to Rocky Long-led New Mexico (by 12). Utah won MW titles in both of Meyer's seasons (and he was coach of the year twice), including a 2004 campaign in which the Utes won the Fiesta Bowl (by 28 points over Pitt) while finishing fourth nationally. Meyer went on to win three national titles at Florida and Ohio State.

4. Kyle Whittingham, Utah

Whittingham was elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach after Meyer's departure and kept the train chugging into Pac-12 admission. During six full seasons in the MW, Whittingham went 58-20 overall and 35-13 in the MW with one league title, that coming in an undefeated 2008 season that saw Utah win the Sugar Bowl with a 31-17 win over No. 4-ranked Alabama, led by Nick Saban (one of three non-title game bowl losses for Saban at Alabama). Utah went 6-1 in bowl games under Whittingham (we'll give him credit for the 2004 Fiesta Bowl, too). While Whittingham had more sustained success at Utah than Meyer, he only won one MW crown and inherited a much better program than what Meyer got.

5. Bronco Mendenhall, BYU

It may have seemed like Mendenhall would be at BYU forever, but he did eventually leave for a Power 5 job at Virginia. Not until he cemented his legacy as an elite coach for the Cougars. Mendenhall coached for six seasons in the MW before BYU turned independent (he coached the Cougars for five seasons as an Indy). During that MW tenure, Mendenhall went 56-21 overall, 39-9 in MW play and won two conference championships with undefeated league marks (his team also finished in second place one year with a 7-1 MW record). Mendenhall was 4-2 in six bowl games in his MW era and finished in the final Top 25 four times. BYU wasn't all that good before or after Mendenhall, which illustrate his value.

6. Bryan Harsin, Boise State

Harsin is always a tough evaluation given the smooth-running machine he inherited at Boise State, but all the guy has done is win, even if it hasn't been at the same inside level of his predecessor, Chris Petersen. Harsin is 64-17 at Boise State, his 79 percent winning mark the second best among MW coaches with more than three years on the job. He's 40-8 in MW games and has won at least a share of the Mountain Division in five of his six seasons, including three overall championships, tied for the second most of any MW coach. Harsin is 3-2 in bowl games, including a Fiesta Bowl win in 2014. He hasn't been to a New Year's Six bowl in the last five seasons and has never won MW coach of the year, but he's averaged more than 11 wins per season with the Broncos. Pretty good.

7. Troy Calhoun, Air Force

Calhoun is the longest consecutively tenured coach in the MW entering the 2020 season, serving as the head man at Air Force since 2007. He's 98-69 overall in Colorado Springs, giving him the second-most wins in conference history, and 59-44 in MW games. Air Force isn't the easiest place to win, but Calhoun has done that with consistency with 10 bowl appearances in 13 seasons, posting a 5-5 record in the postseason. Calhoun was the 2007 MW coach of the year and could have won in 2016 and 2019 when his team won 10 and 11 games, respectively. The biggest knock against his tenure is he's never won a MW title, although he reached the conference championship game in 2015, losing to San Diego State, 27-24.

8. Chris Petersen, Boise State

If we were ranking overall coaching career, Petersen would easily be in the top five (with guys like Urban Meyer, LaVell Edwards, Chris Ault, John Robinson and Gary Patterson), but we're only including MW tenure, and Petersen coached in the conference for three seasons before leaving for Washington. It was a strong three seasons as Petersen went 31-7 overall and 19-4 in the MW, although that netted only one MW title, that being a three-way share in 2012. Petersen went 2-0 in bowl games in his MW tenure with Boise State finishing in the AP Top 25 in two of those three seasons, including being ranked No. 8 in the nation in 2011, a year in which the Broncos went 12-1, the lone loss coming by one point to 11-2 TCU on a late missed field goal.

9. Sonny Lubick, Colorado State

Lubick is one of three head coaches to log more than 100 games in the MW, which is surprising. You either win big and upgrade to a bigger conference or you don't win enough and get fired. Not a lot of coaches make it seven or eight seasons in this league. Lubick lasted 15 in Fort Collins, with nine of them coming in the MW. Lubick's best seasons came in the WAC, but he did win three MW championships in the conference's first four years of existence, which puts him on the list. Lubick was 59-51 at Colorado State in the MW, which puts him fifth on the all-time wins list in the conference, albeit without an impressive winning percentage. He went 37-29 in MW games and led his team to six bowls in its MW era, going 4-2.

10. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State

Despite a short tenure at Fresno State, Tedford deserves a spot on the list for engineering a quick turnaround, although his exit was just as hasty. Tedford inherited a program that went 1-11 the season before his hiring and was 4-20 the two years prior. He responded with back-to-back double-digit-win seasons, including two MW championship game appearances, including the 2018 crown. Tedford's three-year run ended with a 4-8 campaign, but he went 26-14 overall, 16-8 in the MW and didn't require a rebuilding season after inheriting a mess. Tedford stepped down after the 2019 season due to health reasons, but his Fresno State tenure, which included two wins over rival Boise State (the same amount of wins the Bulldogs had over the Broncos in its previous 15 games), was a huge success despite its brevity.

11. Matt Wells, Utah State

Wells had an up-and-down tenure at Utah State, going from rising star to hot seat to bolting for a Power 5 job. Overall, he did good work in Logan, which isn't the easiest place to win. He inherited a nice situation after Gary Andersen left for Wisconsin and kept the winning going before a lag and then a historic campaign in 2018. Wells is a two-time MW coach of the year, one of only five coaches to win the honor multiple times along with Long, Meyer, Lubick and Patterson. Wells went 44-34 overall and 30-18 in MW play, earning a share of the Mountain Division title twice (the Aggies lost to Fresno State in the 2013 MW championship game). Wells' teams made five bowls in six seasons, including two 10-plus-win years.

12. Nick Rolovich, Hawaii

The pickings get thin after the first 10, so we'll finger a former Nevada assistant in Nick Rolovich, who deserves the honor given the turnaround he did at his alma mater. Hawaii was a dumpster fire when Rolovich was hired, going 10-36 overall and 4-26 in MW play in four seasons under Norm Chow. The fact he was able to turn that into a Pac-12 job in four seasons in nearly miraculous. Rolovich's 28-27 overall record and 15-17 MW mark doesn't look great, but you must look at the roster and situation inherited. He got to three bowl games in four seasons and led the Rainbow Warriors to their first West Division title in 2019, which earned him the MW coach of the year award. He turned a lemon into lemonade.

13. Fisher DeBerry, Air Force

We could go in a number of directions with our final spot, including BYU's LaVell Edwards (but only two years in the MW); Fresno State's Tim DeRuyter (great early success but things collapsed quickly); Colorado State's Jim McElwain (had one big season and ditched the Rams); or Wyoming's Craig Bohl (who continues to overachieve but is under-.500 in his Cowboys career). We'll go with the Air Force legend. Like Lubick, DeBerry had a long tenure at his Colorado-based school with most of his success coming in the WAC days, although he had some good seasons at Air Force in the MW. DeBerry coached the Falcons for 23 seasons, including eight in the MW. DeBerry went 49-45 overall and 26-32 in MW play. Not great numbers, but he was the best of the rest.

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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