There will be a program given out on Tuesday night at the brand new College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta listing the accomplishments of the latest class to be enshrined.
Next to one name should be the description “greatest college football head coach ever.” No, Pop Warner, Bear Bryant and Amos Alonzo Stagg are already enshrined, but if greatness in a head coach is getting the most out of the talent he had, Wayne Hardin is the greatest head coach ever, period, end of story. Tuesday’s event will be rebroadcast on ESPNU on Wednesday night.
Hardin was the last guy to coach two schools to Top 20 national rankings and both of those schools, Temple and Navy, do not travel to that stratosphere often. At Navy, he had the Midshipmen ranked No. 2 in the country and playing No. 1 Texas in the 1964 Cotton Bowl. Think about that for a moment. Navy did not give football scholarships in those days—technically, it does not now, either—and required its players to serve five years in the military after graduation. On top of that, the academic requirements just to get into the Naval Academy were Ivy League level. Interestingly enough, Hardin played for Stagg, coached at a school where Warner coached (Temple) and was succeeded at Temple by a guy, current Arizona Cardinals‘ head coach Bruce Arians, who was an assistant to Bear Bryant.
Yet Hardin had Navy competing and winning at a big-time level and that’s the very definition of a great coach. Hardin left Navy to coach in a fledgling professional league, the Continental Football League, and led that team, the Philadelphia Bulldogs, to a championship in 1966. That team played their games in Temple Stadium, which led to a 13-year-association at Temple, where Hardin was 80-52-3, the only winning coach in that program’s history. These days there are 39 bowls. In those days, there were only 15 and Hardin had the Owls in one of them.
In the 1979 Garden State Bowl, Hardin’s coaching directly led to Temple’s 28-17 win over California of the then PAC-10. Hardin found out by grading the Cal film if he pulled his guards up the middle (instead of right or left), there was no one to block. He pulled the guards straight ahead and the back followed through and, before Cal knew it, Temple had a 21-0 lead. The Owls out-rushed the Golden Bears, 300-23, in that game—a more than 200-yard advantage.
On the other side of the ball, Hardin discovered that Cal quarterback Rich Campbell was taught if he did not see his first read, to throw blindly in the flat to the fullback. Hardin developed a two-man pass rush and had one guy (all-time leading tackler Steve Conjar) meet the fullback and eight others into coverage. There was nothing to read, except a lot of Cherry-colored jerseys.
That kind of coaching was the norm, not the exception, for Hardin both at Temple and Navy. Before an Army-Navy game, Army had a group of defensive backs who led the nation in interceptions and who got the politically incorrect nickname “Chinese Bandits.” Hardin had the Navy helmets painted to read “Beat Army” … in Chinese. Navy routed Army that day.
Nothing describes great coaching better than stories like that and perhaps that’s why next to Wayne Hardin’s name in Tuesday’s night’s program should be the words “greatest college football coach ever.” Guys like Stagg, Warner and Bryant did it with a maximum of talent. Hardin got the most out of what talent he had and that should always remain the standard for evaluating coaches.