From Yale’s Walter Camp and Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson to Miami’s Jimmy Johnson and Alabama’s Nick Saban, these trailblazers left their marks.
College football has been a staple of American culture for more than a half-century longer than the NFL. The professional game owes much of its success to the foundation built by the college sport.
A range of college coaches transformed the game on and off the field. From Yale’s Walter Camp to Alabama’s Nick Saban, here are eight whose innovations or achievements have significantly impacted the sport over the past 15 decades.
1. Walter Camp, Yale (1888-92)
INNOVATION: The rulebook
While still on Yale’s football team in 1880, Camp submitted a revolutionary series of proposals that took football from chaotic scrum to the country’s signature sport. Camp’s seminal submissions included a line of scrimmage, a center-quarterback exchange, the concept of downs and the scoring system itself. Pre-Camp, the sport’s rules—including the number of players per side—varied based on location.
At age 29, Camp took over as Yale’s coach. His prescient mind for the sport helped the Bulldogs win three national championships in five years. One of them came in 1888, the season Yale outscored its opposition, 694-0, in 13 games. Although Camp’s coaching career did not last long, the Yale and Stanford leader became known as “The Father of American Football.”
READ MORE: Who Invented Football?
2. Pop Warner, Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1899-1903, 1907-14)
Camp’s rules still left the on-field product light on creativity during the 11-on-11 era’s initial decades. Operating with undersized teams at Carlisle (Pennsylvania.), Warner unveiled a host of tactics that injected deception into football. The single-wing formation, football’s primary set during the 20th century’s first half, came from Warner’s Carlisle years.
Using shifts, fakes and the newly legalized forward pass, the agricultural school’s football team compiled four one-loss seasons during Warner’s tenure. He also debuted the three-point stance and shoulder pads, which impacted the game much longer than his formations.
At Carlisle, Warner had a 113-43-8 record, boosted, in part, by multi-sport legend Jim Thorpe. He played for Warner during the coach’s second stint at the school. Warner’s tenure at Carlisle included upset wins over national powers Army and Harvard.
3. Fritz Crisler, Michigan (1938-47)
Before World War II, college football featured strict substitution limits. Once a team subbed a player, he could not return until the ensuing quarter. With the war draining football talent nationwide, an emergency rule allowing unlimited substitutions took effect in 1941. A belated Crisler capitalization on this front eventually reshaped the construction of football depth charts for generations.
Against the Doc Blanchard- and Glenn Davis-powered Army team that won the 1945 national championship, Crisler’s Michigan team was forced to use several freshman. To maximize his depleted team’s chances, Crisler subbed out his linemen and linebackers for fresh bodies on offense and broke with ironman football tradition.
“Coaches were asking me, ‘What’s it all about? What are you up to?’” Crisler said in 1964. “A few coaches tried platooning that very season, next year Army went to it and practically everybody else followed suit.”
Army still won, 28-7, and the college game reverted to substitution restrictions until the 1960s. But Crisler’s emergency tactics ultimately led to the demise of players playing on both offense and defense during a game.
4. Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma (1947-63)
INNOVATION: No-huddle offense
The longest win streak in college football’s top division belongs to Oklahoma, which had a 47-game run from October 1953 to November 1957. Wilkinson’s Sooners established one of the game’s great dynasties, dominating with a rushing attack and becoming the first team to regularly deploy a 3-4 defense. To wrap up Year 3 of the streak, Oklahoma sprung a midgame surprise that would impact offenses for decades.
Down 6-0 to Maryland at halftime of the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma quickly erased the deficit with two second-half drives. Sooners players sprinted to the line after plays, catching the Terrapins off guard. Wilkinson waited all season to unleash the Sooners’ “Go-Go” package, and it made the difference in securing his second national championship.
Oklahoma beat Maryland, 20-6, and claimed its third national title the following season. The no-huddle remains a staple for offenses at all levels, particularly in college, more than 60 years later.
5. Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State (1954-72)
NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT: Integration trailblazer
Long before other major powers did, Daugherty recruited dozens of Black prospects from southern states and assembled a mid-1960s national powerhouse. Future No. 1 NFL draft pick Bubba Smith, a 6-foot-7 defensive end, and eventual Pro Bowl wide receiver Gene Washington signed with Michigan State out of Texas and became part of the Spartans’ mini-dynasty.
After Daugherty’s 1965 squad won a national title, his 1966 team became the first predominantly Black starting lineup to win a championship in college football’s top division. Featuring a Black quarterback out of North Carolina, future NFL assistant coach Jimmy Raye, the 1966 Spartans had 12 Black starters and 20 overall. After a season-ending 10-all tie with Notre Dame, Michigan State shared that year’s championship.
Michigan State’s success preceded an integrated Southern California team’s rout of an all-white Alabama team in 1970, awakening the remaining southern holdouts and launching full integration of the sport during the 1970s.
READ MORE: 10 African American Pioneers in Sports
6. LaVell Edwards, Brigham Young (1972-2000)
INNOVATION: Air Raid
During a run-heavy football period, BYU provided a reprieve. The Cougars’ pivot to a high-octane passing attack ignited a dormant program and gradually led to the college game’s metamorphosis.
Building on Don Coryell’s concepts from his San Diego State stay, Edwards and his offensive coordinators built a brand that churned out passing titles. Edwards’ teams included five first-team All-American quarterbacks–including Jim McMahon and Steve Young. His teams combined to lead the nation in passing yards nine times from 1976-1994. BYU became the most recent non-major-conference team to win a national title; the Western Athletic Conference-based outfit went 13-0 in 1984.
“BYU won in the late ’70s and early ’80s because nobody could figure out what was going on,” Young said in 2012.
7. Jimmy Johnson, Miami (1984-88)
NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT: Recruiting speed
Taking over a burgeoning Miami dynasty after Howard Schnellenberger’s 1984 exit, Johnson prioritized speed even at the expense of the size teams coveted at that point.
Among Johnson’s speed-based accomplishments: three straight seasons with a top-five defense nationally (1986-88) and converted linebackers Danny Stubbs and Greg Mark remaining 1-2 in sacks in Hurricanes history.
Johnson’s speed merchants were especially adept at stopping teams that used the Wishbone offense, a run-based attack. Miami beat Oklahoma, a Wishbone team, in three straight seasons; the third conquest secured the 1987 national title.
A speed boom ensued, with Florida State following Miami’s lead and cranking up the state’s premier rivalry. Johnson helped transport this blueprint to the NFL, where fast pass rushers are mandatory and speedy linebackers, adept at pass defense, have displaced bulkier run-stoppers.
8. Nick Saban, Alabama (2007-present)
NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT: Sustained supremacy
Six national championships in 12 years place Saban-led Alabama on its own tier among modern programs. LSU is the only other team to have won three national titles in the 21st century; Saban is responsible for the first of those (2003).
Saban, an assistant coach under Bill Belichick when he was with the Cleveland Browns, helped the Southeastern Conference maintain its perch as college football’s premier football league.
Initially anchored by menacing defenses, four of which led the nation, the Saban-era Crimson Tide have produced dozens of players for the NFL, including many drafted in the first round.