Underrated college football coaches are those who exceed expectations based on the history of the program they’re leading and the expectations of that program. These coaches are also likely to get calls from more established programs looking for a coach to take them to the next level.
Regardless of what these coaches say about their current situation, none are leading top-tier programs and all will be tempted either now or at some point by more money, better facilities, easier recruiting situations, and NIL opportunities for their players which will also impact recruiting in a positive way.
READ MORE: The most OVERRATED College Football coaches
The Most Underrated College Football Coaches
Toto, We’re Still In Kansas For Now
Kansas head football coach Lance Leopoldo came to Lawrence after winning six Division-lll national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater and a successful tenure at the University at Buffalo where his teams were 37-33, no small feat at a school not known for football.
Since taking over the Jayhawks program, his record is only 13-19, however, that includes a 2-10 record in his first season taking over a program in perpetual disarray. Leipold is not the first coach to take over a Kansas football program in disarray and he probably won’t be the last. He followed up his first season with a 6-7 record that included a close bowl loss against Arkansas.
This season, he has his squad off to an impressive 7-2 start. All of that with a track record of winning wherever he goes and limited resources to get the top-level talent to come to Lawrence. Leipold’s name will be on the shortlists of many higher-level programs as long as he is there or until he leaves.
Kansas State football fans will argue that they have a top-tier program, however, it is undeniable that they can not compete with the best of the best in the Power Five conferences for elite talent. The fact that they beat national finalist TCU in last year’s Big 12 championship game is a testament to how good of a coach they have in Chris Klieman.
Like Leipold, Klieman had success at lower levels of college football, leading North Dakota State to four national titles in five seasons. Wildcat fans should be very worried that their coach says he’s very happy in Manhattan. How many times have coaches left after proclaiming their love for their current school? Even more concerning for the fans is his record which screams for bigger and better things. He was 69-6 at North Dakota State and he’s 107-36 at Kansas State.
Stay West Young Man
Playing in the shadows of the well-funded Oregon Ducks is not easy for the Oregon State Beavers. However, 44-year-old head coach Jonathan Smith has led a remarkable turnaround in Corvallis. Granted, in his first head coaching stint his overall record is just 32-32.
Smith did cut his teeth as an assistant for several years under former Washington Huskies head coach Chris Petersen. However, if you throw out the COVID year, Smith has the program trending upward every year. Just last season, he led the Beavers to a 10-3 record and a thrashing of undermanned Florida in the bowl game. Smith walked away with PAC-12 coach of the year honors.
He’s also been able to keep his team focused in the wake of the implosion of the PAC 12 conference which is no small feat. Currently sitting at 7-2 on the season, a second consecutive 10-win campaign, and Smith’s phone and his agent’s phone will be ringing during the holidays.
Duke Isn’t Just A Basketball School
Only in his second season as the head man of the Blue Devils, Coach Mike Elko has lead Duke to a 15-7 record in his short tenure. This includes nine wins in his inaugural season at a place where winning has been notoriously difficult. He has followed that up with six wins this season, guaranteeing bowl eligibility.
The Dukies have lost a couple of games in a row after losing star quarterback Riley Leonard. Even more impressive for Coach Elko is that he’s put together a strong defense. Most college coaches who are able to engineer turnarounds do so with a prolific offense because it’s simply easier to do. They came very close to beating Notre Dame this year and have been competitive in every game except the Louisville contest.
Given the enormous challenges of getting top-flight talent into a school like Duke with its extremely high academic requirements, Elko has done a remarkable job. It must be said that it is much easier to put together a top-tier basketball team at a school with tough admissions requirements because you need far fewer players to put together a basketball team.
Given Elko’s young age at only 46, he will absolutely be on the radar of top programs this offseason. Whether Duke can keep him remains to be seen.
Of all of the head coaches listed, James Madison head coach Craig Cignetti has to be the odds-on favorite as the most likely to leave for a higher-profile job. His overall record as a head coach is 117-34, which includes a record of 50-8 at James Madison. The obvious translation is that he wins everywhere he goes and he wins big. He even has his team ranked in the top 25. That never happens at a school like James Madison.
Only a ridiculous NCAA rule prevents them from competing for a conference championship this year or playing in a bowl game. Currently, Coach Cignetti’s salary puts him at 110th out of 130 FBS schools. It’s a fair question to ask what James Madison will have to do to keep him and for how long.
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