The Greatest Coach in LSU Football History

The greatest ever! - Chris Graythen

Short answer: It's Miles. Long answer is below.

Billy got y'all to vote on LSU's Mount Rushmore last week, which got me to thinking... who is the greatest coach in LSU football history? It's actually a pretty tough question because unlike a lot of programs, LSU does not have that one name that dominates the conversation. It's actually a pretty wide open competition.

Heck, there's not even a lot of candidates. Only eight coaches in LSU's 119 year history have even coached five seasons. On top of that, only seven coaches have even won a SEC title.* So that gives us a pretty small group of guys to look at as viable contenders for the title of LSU's best coach ever.

* The unlucky two who stayed for five years without an SEC title, post-WWII, are Gus Tinsley and Gerry DiNardo. Tinsley coached from 1948-54 and only had two winning seasons and .500 record. DiNardo started off with three winning seasons and LSU's second 10-win season since 1961, but ended with two dismal seasons.

Let's look at their accomplishments in chart form, and then we'll break them down individually:

Coach

Dates

Seasons

W-L-T

Pct

SEC/MNC

10-win

2-loss

Bernie Moore

1935-47

13

83-39-6

.672

2/0

0

5

Paul Dietzel

1955-61

7

46-24-3

.651

2/1

1

3

Charles McClendon

1962-79

18

137-59-7

.692

1/0

0

4

Nick Saban

2000-04

5

48-16

.750

2/1

2

1

Les Miles

2005-12

8

85-21

.802

2/1

6

5

Arnsparger and Archer each won an SEC title in 1980s, but neither stayed for five years. Arnsparger only stayed three and posted a .750 record. Archer had the only other 10 win season for LSU post-Dietzel, and he's a lot like a DiNardo who won the SEC.

Bernie Moore

Moore is one of only two LSU coaches to stay for over a decade, which gives him a bit of a longevity bonus. If you notice on the chart, I counted both 10-win seasons and 2-loss seasons. The reason for this is that it used to be a lot harder to win 10 games because of a shorter schedule, so this gives a way to even the score for older era coaches. Moore is clearly LSU's first great coach, even though he never won a national title.

He only had two losing seasons and while the back half of his career wasn't as strong as the first half, he did have a 9-1-1 season in 1946. He did take over a very good team and actually had a lower winning percentage than Biff Jones, his predecessor. Though it's harder to have a high percentage over 13 years instead of 3.

Paul Dietzel

He's sort of the Nick Saban of the 1960's. Dietzel took over a decent program from Tinsley, suffered through two losing seasons and a .500 year, before unleashing the hounds. Or the Chinese Bandits. The next four year stretch was the unassailable best in program history until Saban arrived. He posted the only perfect season in LSU history, as well as two other excellent seasons in 59 and 61 (9-2 and 10-1). He won a national title, two SEC titles, and appeared to have built LSU into a power...

... and then he left. He took over the Army job back when that meant something. It was a disastrous choice for both parties. LSU wouldn't reach those same heights until the 1980's, and Dietzel would have a largely unremarkable career at both Army and South Carolina.

Charles McClendon

If any guy is the face of the LSU program, it's Cholly Mack. He was LSU's coach for 18 seasons, by far the longest tenure in program history. In those 18 years, he won one SEC title, mainly because he had the misfortune of not being as good as Bear Bryant. Still the lack of titles and 10-win seasons crushes his legacy. His teams were always solid, but rarely excellent.

Though let's give the guy credit. He had one losing season in 18 years. One. He never won 10 games, but he won 9 games six times, including five straight from 1969-73. He won at least 8 games eleven times in his eighteen seasons. He got fired, basically, or going 8-3 every year, and we found out that 8-3 wasn't so bad. Our obsession with titles or bust makes him a bit underrated, but a .692 winning percentage over two decades is a nifty accomplishment. But it's fair to say LSU settled in as second tier power in those two decades.

Nick Saban

LSU's relationship with Saban is complicated, and it's a little too fraught with emotion to make any definitive judgments. I do want to be clear: we are only talking about his record at LSU. His record at LSU is very good, but it is also been inflated by myth. Look at the chart: he only won 10 games twice. And as deep of a hole as LSU got in under Hallman, it wasn't as deep as often gets portrayed when Saban took over. DiNardo had a 10-win and a 9-win season, and posted .571 winning percentage. Saban made improvements, huge improvements, but he didn't take over the wasteland that DiNardo did.*

*Hallman is still the only LSU coach to post a losing record, with a winning percentage of .364.

Still, it's an impressive resume. He tied Arnsparger for best winning percentage in program history, and he won LSU's first national title in half a century. If McClendon made LSU a second tier power, Saban took LSU to the mountaintop. Though it was pretty precarious. LSU slipped to 9-3 after winning the title, and then Saban left for the NFL.

Les Miles

Well, you know about him. He's won two SEC titles, plus a third SEC West title. He's won a national title, and came up just short another time. But the winning is just so impressive. Sure, he's won 10 games six times, including the first 12-win season in LSU and history followed by the first 13-win season. But I know what you're thinking... seasons are longer now and it's easier to win 10 games now. But he's had a 2-loss season five times, tying the mark set by Bernie Moore.

Miles' .802 winning percentage is the best in program history, and he was also the coach for about five of LSU's best ten seasons ever. He also took a program on the mountaintop and actually kept it there. If anything, he made the team better. You hear now things like "LSU recruits itself" and "anyone could win at LSU". Look at the history. Both of those statements are plainly untrue. If anyone could win at LSU, more people would have done it. LSU doesn't recruit itself, Les Miles recruits LSU better than anyone ever has.

FINAL RANKINGS

Dietzel and Saban are a bit of a coin flip. I'll take Dietzel because he won first, and it was his success that told Saban that he could win here as well. Without Dietzel, I'm not sure that's as easy of a sell. Miles is far and away the #1 guy, followed by the two "flash in the pan" guys. Then I have to give it Cholly Mack just for being so good for so long, which is such an under-appreciated skill.

1. Miles

2. Dietzel

3. Saban

4. McClendon

5. Moore

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