One of the endearing things about college football is the great programs that have had decades of success and expect to challenge for championships annually. For many of these schools, a 6-6 season is unacceptable and deemed an unmitigated failure. (To some, a 9-3 record is grounds to fire a coach.)
But all of these schools have endured a season or two (or 14) where times were really bad — when just winning a game was tougher than winning another championship.
These are the worst of times; they are the times fans want to erase from their memories...if they were even alive then. Here is the last time 20 of the more successful programs of our time were just awful.
It's hard to remember a time when Alabama wasn't a dynasty that was constantly contending for championships, going to BCS bowls and the College Football Playoff. But before Nick Saban arrived in 2007, the Crimson Tide were a mess. After Gene Stallings retired in 1996, the Tide were a roller coaster of a program. Mike Dubose went 24-23 in four seasons in Tuscaloosa before he was fired. (There was also news of an affair he was having with his secretary.) Dennis Franchione turned it around in his two seasons but left for the Texas A&M job due to NCAA sanctions on 'Bama. Mike Price was then hired as the new head coach but never coached a game for the Tide after reports of him frequenting strip clubs came to light. On to Mike Shula. He started out rough in his first two years but surged to a 10-2 mark and a Cotton Bowl win in 2005. He crashed to a 6-7 mark the following year and due to more NCAA rules violations the program, the school had to vacate the 16 wins from 2005 and 2006.
Most of the schools on this list have a stretch of seasons where the program was in the gutter, but for Auburn we look back at a singular season not only because of how bad it was but also because it was in the shadow of one of the program's finest moments. The 2010 Tigers went 14-0 and beat Oregon for the national championship behind Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. After a decent 8-5 season the following year, it all crashed down. Auburn's offensive and defensive coordinators left after the 2011 season, running back Michael Dyer left the program along with several other players and a shooting at an off-campus party left two players (transferring Ladarious Phillips and Ed Christian) dead. The Tigers went 0-8 in SEC play with their only wins coming against Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State and Alabama A&M. Auburn lost to rival Alabama, 49-0, to end the season and lost its final three SEC games by a combined total of 150-21. Gene Chizik was fired the day after the Alabama loss.
Boise State has sort of become to college football what Gonzaga is in college basketball: the mid-major of sorts that perennially matters on the national scene. Boise State has won at least 10 games in 16 of the last 20 years and has been to a bowl every year since 2002. Back in the late '90s, though, the Broncos didn't look like a program that was on the verge of breaking through to hang with the big guys. From 1996 to 1998, Boise State went 12-22 as it made the jump to Division I-A, and it suffered tragedy off the field. Head coach Pokey Allen was diagnosed with muscle cancer and died at the end of the 1996 season. Houston Nutt took over the following year and led Boise to a 5-6 mark...then left for Arkansas. Dirk Koetter would take the reins in 1998 and turn the program around with a 6-5 mark to lay the foundation on which the program is still building.
Clemson had some relatively tough years back during the Tommy West years, but aside from a dismal 3-8 record in 1998 it wasn't hopeless. You need to go back to the late-1960s to the mid-1970s to find the last time the Tigers were considered lost. Ironically that all began at the end of Frank Howard's 30-year reign, when his coaching concepts were becoming outdated. After finishing with a pair of four-win seasons, in 1968 and 1969, Howard retired and Hootie Ingram fizzled to a 12-21 mark in three seasons as his replacement. Red Parker was the ACC Coach of the Year in 1974 before burning to seasons of 2-9 and 3-6-2. The Tigers went 17 years without reaching a bowl (which was a bit easier to do before there were 40 bowl games). Parker was replaced by Charley Pell, who turned the program around (18-4-1 record) but left for Florida and was later found to have committed recruiting violations.
The Gators have had the good fortune of having Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer on the sidelines for 18 of the last 30 seasons, so there haven't been too many low points in recent memory. You have to go back to the 1978 and 1979 seasons to see the Gators when they were truly terrible. Head coach Doug Dickey had a frustrating tenure in Gainsville that found the Gators competitive during his nine seasons but rarely a factor in the SEC race. In 1978, his Gators fell to 4-7 (though that season saw a former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Spurrier, get his first coaching gig). Charley Pell replaced Dickey and took over a team that was destroyed by injuries and had to start four different quarterbacks during the year. Florida finished 0-10-1, including only two games where the Gators scored at least 14 points. Fun fact: Cris Collinsworth was a junior on that winless Florida team. Now here's a guy...
Most of you know that Florida State's 36-year streak reaching a bowl game ended in 2018. Obviously it has been a long time since the Seminoles have been terrible, but it was a spectacular failure. Before Bobby Bowden resurrected the program, there was Larry Jones and Darrell Mudra. Jones started out well, with 8-4 and 7-4 records in 1971 and 1972, respectively, but an awful 0-11 season which saw Florida State getting pummeled weekly ended his tenure. Mudra was hired in 1974 but it barely got better, going 4-18 in his two seasons, before Bowden was hired away from West Virginia. Fun fact: While Bowden went on to have great success at Florida State, Mudra would have a Hall of Fame career as the head coach in Division II/I-AA.
Georgia is usually never brought up when naming the traditional college football powers, but it has been one of the more consistent programs. The last truly down stretch was during the Ray Goff regime of the mid-1990s. Those were .500 teams, though, which is light years ahead of where the program was for a decade-long stretch from 1953 to 1963. Hall of Fame head coach Wally Butts had some lean final years in Athens, winning no more than four games in five of his final eight seasons (though a 10-1 mark in his penultimate season was a high mark). Former player Johnny Griffith took over and didn't fare much better, going 10-16-4 in three seasons, and he never finished better than seventh in the SEC. In those 11 seasons, Georgia had just three winning seasons and finished higher than sixth in the SEC just twice.
Gerry DiNardo's time in Baton Rouge got off to a good start with three straight bowl appearances and a 26-9-1 record. In 1998, after winning the first three games and rising to No. 6 in the national rankings, the wheels fell off. The Tigers lost seven of their final eight games — though five of those games were against ranked teams. The 1999 season pretty much went the same way, as LSU won its first two games, against San Jose State and North Texas, before losing the next eight (again, five of those teams were ranked). DiNardo was fired before the season finale against No. 17 Arkansas, which the Tigers won under interim coach Hal Hunter. In that two-year stretch, the Tigers went 7-15 and had spectacular collapses in each season. Weeks later, they hired Nick Saban to be their new head coach.
To be fair, no one would have pegged the Miami Hurricanes to be an elite football program in the mid-1970s. Miami was rarely ranked and only sporadically went to bowl games. It was in 1983 when the program made the turn to a national contender, so the years prior to Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson winning national championships weren't looked at using the same glasses. In 1975, Carl Selmer took over the Hurricanes program, becoming their fifth head coach in six seasons. Attendance was a problem at the Orange Bowl, and Selmer's 2-8 and 3-8 seasons made it even worse. He was fired in favor of Lou Saban, who won just three games in his first season. Saban began to turn the program around in 1978 with a 6-5 mark and some great recruiting classes that would eventually turn into 11 NFL players. Saban's time ended under controversy, as three Hurricane players attacked a Jewish man on his way to a campus religious service and threw him into a lake. Saban made some unfortunate comments and resigned at the end of the season. The university had discussions whether to drop football altogether (or move down to Division II) when it hired Schellenberger. Well, it made a great decision there.
The three-year Rich Rodriguez era in Ann Arbor went completely awry. Rodriguez brought his spread offense from West Virginia to take the place of Lloyd Carr's pro-style attack, and it didn't get off to a good start. Players left early for the NFL or just left to play somewhere else. Rodriguez went 3-9, marking the Wolverines' first losing season since 1967 and the most losses in the program's history. Michigan would improve to 5-7 the following year but lost seven of its eight Big Ten games. In 2010, the team would begin the season 5-0 but flailed down the stretch, losing six of its final eight games, including blowout losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Mississippi State to end the season. Rich-Rod was fired after the team's Gator Bowl loss and holds the worst record of any coach in Michigan history.
Sure, Nebraska's last two seasons haven't been the best of times in Lincoln, as consecutive 4-8 seasons are unbecoming to a program with such a rich history. It could be worse, though, as it could be the Bill Jennings five-year term with the Cornhuskers that saw the team go 15-34-1 and not win more than four games in a season. The Huskers were dominant for the first four decades of the 20th century, but the program struggled after World War II. From the outbreak of World War II to Bob Devaney taking over in 1962, the Huskers had the second-worst winning percentage among major college teams behind only Kansas State.
Notre Dame is Notre Dame, and fans and alumni expect the best year in and year out. In the mid-2000s, however, the best wasn't what they got to watch on Saturdays. Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis had moments of success during their stints in South Bend, but it was often followed by thunderous lows. The Irish were getting blown out regularly...especially by rival USC...and Willingham was fired after three seasons. Weis came in and lit a spark under the program his first two years but, again, couldn't follow it up. The Irish went 3-9 in 2007, which set the record for most losses in a season that included being beat by Navy for the first time in 43 games. The Irish were back to losing big (dual 38-0 losses to USC and Michigan), and even when they had a good year they lost nine straight bowl games.
To be honest, it is rare to see the Buckeyes down for too long. Yes, the Luke Fickell season in 2011 was sort of a disaster, but that was due to scandal and the sudden resignation of Jim Tressel. We need to go back to 1987-1988 to see the last time Ohio State was truly in the dumps. Head coach Earle Bruce had bad luck hit him as Cris Carter was dismissed from the team for hiring an agent and his Buckeyes were blown out by Indiana; it was the first time in 35 years they lost to the Hoosiers. The university's president decided before the Michigan game to fire Bruce at the end of the season, but the cat got out of the bag immediately as the athletic director, Rick Bay, announced the firing as he resigned in protest. The team declined an offer to play in the Sun Bowl in solidarity with Bruce. John Cooper was hired to replace Bruce and put the pieces back together in Columbus. Cooper lost to both Michigan State and Michigan (something he'd been used to doing) that first year and, again, lost to Indiana en route to a 4-6-1 season and the program's first losing season since 1966.
It wasn't always raining Heisman quarterbacks in Norman, you know? Back in the mid-1990s, the Sooners hit a rough patch that lasted three coaches and a bunch of angry fans. Howard Schnellenberger took over after the much-maligned Gary Gibbs resigned and rubbed Sooner Nation the wrong way. After a 5-5-1 season he quit, and Oklahoma hired John Blake, who had limited experience as a coach — let alone head coaching experience at a top-tier program like Oklahoma. He went 12-22 in three seasons at the helm (the first time since the 1920s that the Sooners had three straight losing seasons) and was fired. While Blake didn't win at Oklahoma, his recruiting efforts helped his replacement, Bob Stoops, get off to a good start and soon win a national championship.
Obviously the Sandusky scandal and the end of the Joe Paterno era in Happy Valley was the rock bottom of the program, but the actual play of the team hadn't been terrible since the turn of the century. In the early 2000s the Nittany Lions went 26-33 under Paterno and 7-16 in 2003-2004. In one of the lowest points in program history, the Nittany Lions lost to Iowa 6-4 in 2004 with their scoring coming on two safeties. Some were calling for Paterno to step down as head coach, as the game had seemingly passed him by. In 2005, after admitting that he maybe should leave if the Nittany Lions continue to struggle, Penn State rallied for an 11-1 season and beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
Most Longhorns fans would say that the Charlie Strong era was the last time Texas was terrible. The Longhorns were indeed bad, but they weren't exactly terrible. Flash back to the mid-1950s when Ed Price roamed the sidelines in Austin. In 1954, Texas suffered its first losing season in 15 years and then went 5-5 in 1955. The 1956 team was the worst in Longhorns history, going 1-9, with the one win over Tulane by a score of 7-6. That Texas team lost to Oklahoma, 45-0, TCU, 46-0, and USC, 44-20, with Price resigning at season's end. No Texas team before or since has lost as many games in a single season.
OK, the 14-year stretch may be a large time frame, but that's how bad Texas A&M was during that time. This was directly after Bear Bryant ended his four-year term in College Station, and the program struggled to continue the success. In that time, the Aggies had exactly one winning season (7-4 in 1967) and has twice as many seasons with just one victory. All told, the Aggies went 44-92-6 during those 14 seasons with Jim Myers, Hank Foldberg and a very young Gene Stallings all being run out for their lack of performance. Emory Bellard would eventually build A&M back into respectability.
The Trojans haven't had a prolonged period of football failure since World War II, but the 1991 season was pretty bad unto itself. After three successful seasons that ended with a spot in the Rose Bowl, Larry Smith's team took a turn for the worst. After an eight-win season in 1990, Smith got into a heated argument with star quarterback Todd Marinovich, who would be arrested after the season for cocaine possession. There were numerous arrests that offseason, and Marinovich would bolt for the NFL. USC went 3-8 in 1991, and the faithful were irate at their head coach. After an uninspiring 1992 season that saw the Trojans limp to a 6-5-1 record, Smith was fired.
Ty Willingham makes this list with two programs. Two weeks after getting fired from Notre Dame, Willingham was hired to take over a reeling Huskies program. The year prior to his arrival, Washington went 1-10 under Keith Gilbertson, and Willingham was picked to inject discipline back into the program. It didn't work, as Washington went 11-37 in his four years as head coach...lowlighted by an 0-12 record in 2008. That team was outscored 463-159 during the season, and only three games were decided by 19 or fewer points.
Wisconsin has been a major player over the last 30 years even though it has not broken through to be a truly elite program that wins championships. What makes it even more impressive is where it came from. From 1985 to 1990, Wisconsin's combined record was 15-52 while losing 41 of 48 Big Ten games. The fall really began when head coach Dave McClain died of a heart attack before the 1986 season. Jim Hilles took over on an interim basis and went 3-9. Don Morton was hired from Tulsa, and things got even worse as his teams won only six games over his three seasons. Barry Alvarez took over a program in debt, and playing in a half-empty stadium in 1990, his team promptly went 1-10. Of course Alvarez would eventually turn the program around as both the Badgers head coach and the athletic director.