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Ranking the Top Ten Greatest Coaches in Northwestern Football History

Many coaches have donned the purple and white for Northwestern, but who reigns supreme?

Since Northwestern football opened its doors in 1881, there have been many coaches to lead the Wildcats onto Ryan Field. The football team has amassed 544 wins as of this writing, and a total win percentage of 44%, with eight conference titles in its’ history. In bowl games, the Wildcats are 6-10, with the most recent victory coming in the 2021 Citrus Bowl.

We previously ranked the top ten Northwestern QBs of all time, so now it’s time to rank the coaches. However, before we get to the top ten, we have to give an honorable mention to Fred Murphy and Charles Hollister. 

Murphy coached the Wildcats from 1914 to 1918, and only had a 16-16 record. However, Murphy did coach a player who would end up in the College Football Hall of Fame: halfback Paddy Driscoll. Murphy also coached the Wildcats to a monumental upset of the University of Chicago, its first win over UC since 1901. 

Hollister is the first coach to man the helm for the Northwestern Wildcats. From 1899 to 1902, Hollister amassed a 27-16-4 record (according to Sports Reference) and would often recruit players who were attending the school for other reasons (such as dentistry) to come and play football.

10. Walter McCornack (1903-1905):

McCornack is credited with being the first coach to lead the Wildcats to a Big Ten title in 1903, and lost just once in that season, pitching shutouts against then-football powerhouses Chicago and Michigan. In his coaching tenure from 1903-1905, McCornack won 26 games, only losing five times. His .800 winning percentage is the highest in Northwestern football history.

9. Alex Agase (1964-1972)

If his .357 winning percentage were a few points higher, we could be discussing Agase breaking into the top five. Agase was the first coach to be named Coach of the Year by the Football Writers of America despite not winning their own division (Ohio State went undefeated). The Evanston native led the Wildcats to two consecutive winning seasons before being fired in 1972.

8. Dick Hanley (1927-1934)

Hanley was from the Pop Warner football lineage, having played for Warner. When he took over as head coach at Northwestern, he was tasked with following up another successful coach(who will be on this list later). Hanley didn’t disappoint, going 36-26 and amassing the seventh-highest winning percentage in program history, as well as the fourth-most wins in program history. He is also credited with the first victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes in program history, winning 19-13. Hanley also won the Big Ten title in 1930, and made it to the national title game that same year, losing to Notre Dame 14-0. Hanley’s teams finished in the top five of the Dickinson ratings(which were used to rank college football teams) twice, placing fourth in 1930 and in 1931.

7. Glenn Thistlethwaite (1922-1926)

Thistlethwaite is credited with being one of the first full time head coaches of Northwestern football. He took over a program that was in the doldrums(had a losing season each of the previous five years) and turned them into powerhouses of the time. In 1926, Thistlethwaite led Northwestern to a stellar conference record, never allowing more than seven points against them and losing only one game (Notre Dame, 0-6). He has the 11th-most wins in program history, and led the Wildcats to one co-Big Ten title. Thistlethwaite also produced three All-Americans during his time coaching, and that 1926 team is credited with bringing the first conference title to Evanston.

6. Bob Voights (1947-1954)

Bob Voights boasts a career .459 winning percentage, but one of those wins has come where only one Northwestern coach has won before: The Rose Bowl. Voights led the 1948 Wildcats to a thrilling victory over Cal in the Granddaddy of Them All. The victory not only meant a lot to Voights and crew, but to Evanston as well. From the Chicago Herald-American (via Northwestern’s football archives): “Jumping the gun on the 11 a.m. appointment of the Wildcats as the Big Nine's Rose Bowl football representatives, the undergrads gave no thought to classes. They came downtown in a mighty, boisterous parade, afoot and by car, many carrying odds and ends from the recent homecoming celebration. They sang, cheered, and cavorted. It was all spontaneous, which increased the fun. Charles Wright, head of the student governing board, had ordered pickets to ensure that nobody went to classes.” Voight resigned in 1955, but that season is one of the best in Wildcat history.

5. Gary Barnett (1992-1998)

The only other coach to take Northwestern to the Rose Bowl, Barnett amassed a .438 win percentage, miles ahead of any coach since 1963. Barnett put together two of the better seasons in program history, and developed NFL talent such as Matt O’Dwyer, Darnell Aughtry, and some guy named Pat Fitzgerald(we’ll get to him later). Barnett promised that he would “Bring the purple to Pasadena”--and he did.

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4. Randy Walker (1999-2005)

Randy Walker took over during a time where most college football pundits believed that the Wildcats would crumble back to mediocrity. Walker then turned around and took the Wildcats to three bowl games, more than any other coach did during his time. He only amassed a .446 winning percentage, but the Northwestern victory over Ohio State in 2004 is one that would live in Wildcat fans’ minds forever.

3. Ara Parseghian (1956-1963)

Parseghian took the reins at Northwestern off the heels of an atrocious 0-8-1 season in 1955. Newspapers clamored for Northwestern’s exit from the Big 10. What he did was simply turn the program around and finish with a winning record in five of eight seasons. Parseghian coached five All-Americans during his time with the program, and turned a moribund program into a respectable one.

2. Pappy Waldorf (1935-1946)

He has the second longest coaching tenure in Wildcats history, and Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf is ranked as the second greatest coach in Northwestern history. Under Waldorf the Wildcats had a winning record in six out of 12 seasons, and was the coach of arguably the greatest QB in Northwestern history, Otto Graham. Waldorf is the second winningest coach in program history, but far behind…

1. Pat Fitzgerald (2006-Present)

The longest tenured coach in program history. The winningest coach in program history. Nine out of 16 seasons above .500. The proverbial lifting up of a program into the upper ranks of the Big 10. Pat Fitzgerald’s record speaks for itself, and the 2020 NCAA Coach of the Year has given Northwestern football the consistent success fans have been looking for. He holds the record for most consecutive bowl games (five), most consecutive bowl wins (four), and his 106 wins is sixth-most among active head coaches. His .567 win percentage is eighth-highest in school history, and with his history of recruiting and developing talent, Fitzgerald is the easy pick for the greatest coach in Northwestern history.

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