College Football Preview 2001
Message Board

Tuesday, August 14
Updated: August 20, 5:40 PM ET
Formula varies, but coaches agree on several keys

By Wayne Drehs

Sportswriters can write about it. Fans can speculate about it. Talk show hosts can blab about it.

But there's only a select group that can truly answer the one question in college football that really matters: How do you win the national championship?

In today's scholarship-shortened, parity-enhanced landscape, it's becoming harder and harder to do. Only a handful of coaches ever reach the top of the sport's mountain. Even fewer do it a second or third time.

Therefore, the knowledge of what it takes to get there -- from bringing a team together to keeping them out of trouble -- is thinly spread amongst this select group of coaches.

Is it part luck that made them national champions? Probably. But with that, came months of strategy, planning and split-second decision-making. All with the pressures that few could comprehend.

So wanted to know, first-hand, from those that have been there: What does it take to win a national championship?

To answer that question, we looked to four individuals who have been there. It's a group that knows plenty about winning, with seven national titles, 26 conference titles and 712 victories between them.

The answers may surprise you.

Tom Osborne
When Tom Osborne retired in 1997, it was only fitting that he left as the only coach to depart after a national championship season. After all, nobody dominated the '90s like Osborne's Huskers. By dismantling Tennessee 42-17 in the 1998 Orange Bowl, Nebraska clinched its third national title in four years. In 1994 and '95, Osborne coached the first back-to-back unbeaten national champions in 39 years. Those teams steamrolled opponents by an average score of 43-12. So what was his formula? A bruising defense, an elusive, experienced quarterback and genuine team chemistry. "You can't just say we're going to be close, hold hands and have a picnic everyday after practice. Leadership starts with the seniors." More ...

Bobby Bowden
No. 1 at the start. No. 1 at the finish. It was a feat that no team had accomplished prior to 1999, when Florida State became the first team to spend the entire season ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. The 46-29 victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl was sweet revenge for head coach Bobby Bowden, who had lost two title games in the previous three years. Six years earlier, Bowden, who ranks fourth all-time in coaching victories, won his first national title following an 18-16 win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. As for last year's Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma, Bowden admits he was out-coached. "I felt like we hardly ever get out-coached. Sometimes we do, but not often. Oklahoma definitely out-coached us. Their coaches played a big role in us losing." More ...

Phillip Fulmer
When scouting Tennessee prior to the 1998 season, few believed the Vols would compete for an SEC title, much less a national championship. Gone to the NFL were all-everything quarterback Peyton Manning, All-American defensive end Leonard Little and leading pass receiver Marcus Nash. But coach Phillip Fulmer wouldn't call '98 a rebuilding year. Even a season-ending knee injury to running back Jamal Lewis couldn't derail the Vols, who went on to a 13-0 season, including a 23-16 win over Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl. Without the leadership and play of Tee Martin and Peerless Price, Fulmer says the title never would have happened. "Our 1999 team was more talented than the '98 team, but the chemistry and cohesiveness didn't fall into play as well. In '97, Tee and Peerless filled that role." More ...

Lloyd Carr
In just his third season as head coach at Michigan, Lloyd Carr shocked many when he coached Michigan to the national title in 1997, the Big Ten's first national champion in 29 years. The turning point? A 28-24 midseason win over Iowa, in which the Wolverines trailed 21-7 at halftime. Three weeks later, after a stunning 34-8 drubbing of No. 3 Penn State, in Happy Valley, the stone-faced Carr allowed title dreams to creep into his head. "We still had to play Wisconsin on the road and Ohio State at home, but at that time, for the first time, I allowed myself to think about the national championship at least for a few minutes on the way back from the game. We had come so far." More ...

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at He can be reached at

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