It’s time for another installment of the Heel Tough Blog’s offseason series. The series will place the top players in Tar Heel football history at each position group into five different tiers to determine their standings in Tar Heel history. The series will continue today by looking at the five tiers of Tar Heel head coaches.
Tier 1: Mack Brown, Dick Crum
Most people believe the answer to who the greatest Tar Heel head coach is is an easy one. When you look more in-depth, though, it isn’t quite as set in stone as you may think. With the four coaches between Tiers 1 and 2, there is an argument that can be made for each as the greatest in school history based on their time on campus. Coaches are different than players, as you will have to also consider their performances elsewhere in certain scenarios.
Mack Brown is the heavy favorite among Tar Heel fans and most will have an issue with the fact that he will not be alone in Tier 1. Brown might be back a second stint in Chapel Hill, but he has little to prove in his return. Brown is already a College Football Hall of Famer, thanks to a career that has already featured 244 wins, thirteen bowl wins, two national title appearances and a national title. Brown is a two-time conference champion, both coming at Texas, but a three-time Coach of the Year recipient, one of which came with the Tar Heels in 1996. Brown has coached 22 consensus All-Americans thus far in his career, four of which came during his first stint in Chapel Hill. Brown has compiled a 69-46-1 to this point in his North Carolina coaching career and, in his first stint, put the school on the doorstep of being a consistent national threat before his departure for Texas. Brown will begin his next chapter at North Carolina this fall after a six-year hiatus from the coaching ranks. The question is, can Brown solidify himself as the greatest coach in program history over the next few seasons.
Prior to Mack Brown’s arrival on campus, Dick Crum put together a nice ten-year tenure on the Tar Heel sidelines. The 1980 ACC Coach of the Year won 72 games in his Tar Heel coaching career, the most wins by a single coach at North Carolina as of right now (Mack Brown could break the record later this season with four wins). Crum made a bowl game in six of his ten Tar Heel seasons and won eight or more games in five of his ten seasons. Crum is the only coach in school history to have ranked in the top ten for at least one week in four consecutive seasons and is also the only Tar Heel coach to ever win four consecutive bowl games. Crum definitely has a case to be considered the greatest coach in Tar Heel history, but the fact that he was trending downward at the end of his Tar Heel tenure and struggled in his next stop, Kent State, is the reason we went with Brown over him.
Tier 2: Carl Snavely, Bill Dooley
Each of the members of this second tier had an argument to be in the first tier, but there is clear separation between Brown and Crum and the two coaches here in Tier 2. Carl Snavely put together a strong ten-year coaching career at North Carolina, finishing his two stints in Chapel Hill with a 59-35-5 record. Although Snavely was 0-3 in bowl games in his coaching career, all of those appearances came with the Tar Heels and were prestigious, as his teams appeared in two Sugar Bowls (1946, 1948) and one Cotton Bowl (1949). Snavely is the only Tar Heel coach to ever have his team ranked No. 1 in an AP poll, a feat that took place in 1948 behind the direction of Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, Irv Holdash and Art Weiner. Justice is the only Tar Heel of Snavely’s three consensus All-Americans, but Snavely’s four-year run with Justice on campus is one of the most successful spans in Tar Heel football history. Snavely’s struggles to close his second Tar Heel stint is the main reason that there might be some hesitance to place him ahead of the second tier.
Bill Dooley was the other coach who had an interesting case to be a part of that first tier. Dooley won three of the Tar Heels nine conference championships in his eleven years on the Tar Heel sidelines, however, the 1971 ACC Coach of the Year finished his time at North Carolina with a 69-53-2 record and is the only of the four coaches in the first two tiers to not have a single team of his ever get inside the top ten in the AP polls. Dooley made six bowl games while in Chapel Hill, but was only able to bring home one bowl win in those six opportunities. It seems like we’ve been piling on Dooley here, so it is important to stress that Dooley’s accomplishments are impressive, they’re just not enough to earn him Tier 1 status. We already mentioned the fact that Dooley is the only Tar Heel coach to win three conference championships and is tied with Mack Brown for the most consensus All-Americans in his time in Chapel Hill with four. There just wasn’t enough there to include him in the top tier.
Tier 3: Butch Davis, Jim Tatum
The drop off from Dooley to the first member of our third tier is a pretty steep one. There is, of course, the NCAA blemish that looms large over Butch Davis’ tenure in Chapel Hill, but for the case of this list, we won’t count that too heavily against him. Davis did some good things on the Tar Heel sidelines before his firing in 2011, including building what many thought was a sleeping giant heading into the 2010 season. The issue for Davis was that despite all of the expectations, Davis never won more than eight games in his four seasons. While he did make three bowl games, he was only able to win the 2010 Music City Bowl, which was possibly the most entertaining bowl game in program history, but lost two heartbreakers in back-to-back seasons in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. His 28-23 record is solid, but is not enough to place him anywhere near the top two tiers. Davis has had success at both of his other stops, which helps to make him a Tier 3 member.
When Jim Tatum left Maryland to return to Chapel Hill, many thought this might be the move that would turn the Tar Heels into a national powerhouse. At Maryland, Tatum never finished a season with less than six wins, finished the 1951 season undefeated and won the national championship and AFCA coach of the year in 1953. With all of that success, Tatum returned the place that his coaching career began back in 1942 with a 5-2-2 season prior to the 1956 season. His return to North Carolina wasn’t quite as successful as many would have hoped, though, as he was just 14-15-1 in his first three seasons back. Unfortunately, Tatum would tragically pass away in the summer of 1959 from a tick leaving a gigantic what-if for a Tar Heel football program that had a future Hall of Fame coach at the helm. With a final record at North Carolina of just 19-17-3 and no bowl appearances it hard to place him higher on this list, however.
Tier 4: Raymond Wolf, Bob/William Fetzer
The drop off from the third tier to the fourth tier is not a far fall at all. Raymond Wolf was the Tar Heel head coach for six seasons from 1936 to 1941. Wolf went 38-17-3 while at North Carolina, including four seasons with two or fewer losses. Andy Bershak was the crowning achievement for Wolf, as he was the first Tar Heel ever to be named a consensus All-American. Wolf was not trending in the right direction to finish his tenure in Chapel Hill and after returning from a five-year hiatus, Wolf never finished a season over .500 in his two stops at Florida and Tulane.
For this argument, the Fetzer brothers will be lumped together because of their five-year co-heading coach stint from 1921 to 1925. The brothers combined for a 30-12-4 record in their time on the sidelines and had just one losing season. That was either of the brothers only losing season of their coaching careers. It’s hard to judge where they stand in terms of the other Tar Heel head coaches due to the era they coached in. The record itself is impressive, but would that record be duplicated in a later era.
Tier 5: T.C. Trenchard, Larry Fedora, Chuck Collins
The final tier begins with the Tar Heels first three-year coach in T.C. Trenchard. Similar to the Fetzer brothers, it’s hard to judge just how successful his tenure was with his three-year Tar Heel stint taking place from 1913 to 1915. Still, Trenchard gave the Heels their first ten-win season in program history and compiled a 19-8-1 record that is worthy of landing him on this list.
Larry Fedora is probably a bit controversial to put anywhere on this list considering he is just eight months removed from being fired from his Tar Heel tenure, but there is a reason he sits in this fifth tier. Fedora is one of just two coaches in Tar Heel history to win six or more games in each of his first five seasons (Raymond Wolf is the other). Fedora was just the third coach in school history to win 11 games in a season when he did so in 2015 and coached the Tar Heels to their first ACC Championship Game appearance ever. Of course, everyone knows the reasons that he is not higher than he is on this list. Fedora’s 5-18 close to his time in Chapel Hill is the worst final two year stretch of any coach multi-year head coach to finish his Tar Heel coaching career, and although he appeared in four bowl games, came away with just one bowl victory. Fedora’s 45-43 record in his seven years on the Tar Heel sidelines describes Fedora’s coaching career well, as there were flashes of brilliance, but overall it will be seen as an average tenure for him.
The final member of this list is the man who replaced the Fetzers and proceeded Raymond Wolf. Chuck Collins was far from a dominant coach on the Tar Heel sidelines, but he did enough to sneak on to this list. Collins does hold one record for Tar Heel head coaches, as his nine ties are tops in program history. Collins 38-31-9 record is boosted by his 9-1-0 1929 season, but he had enough consistency to close out this list.