FORT WORTH, Texas — TCU's Sonny Dykes is in rarefied air when he and his team take the field against Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs for the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Since 1992, when college football started having teams compete for national championships in an actual game rather than polls crowning a champion, only three coaches have led their university's football team to the national title game in their first season at the school.
The first coach to accomplish this feat was Larry Coker with the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. The second was Gus Malzahn with the 2013 Auburn Tigers. Dykes and the 2022 TCU Horned Frogs are the third.
Prior to 1992, national championships were awarded by national polls. This is why you'll see many shared national championships or co-champions before this era, and how national championships are "claimed" by universities before this era where actual games were played settle. TCU, for example, have claimed national championships in 1935 and 1938.
In 1992, the "Bowl Coalition" was established after there were co-champions in 1990 and 1991. It was formed through an agreement of the bowl games and NCAA conferences to force a national championship game between the top two teams and provide quality bowl game matchups for the champions of its member conferences. This agreement lasted for three seasons (1992-1994) and faltered after criticism that it did not include the Big Ten and Pac-12, who were contractually-obligated to play in the Rose Bowl. In the 1994 season, a undefeated Penn State team who had just joined the Big Ten was ranked No. 2 in both AP and coaches polls. Since Penn State was unavailable, the coalition invited the next highest ranked team, No. 3 Miami, to face Nebraska in its national championship game.
In 1995, the "Bowl Coalition" reconfigured into the "Bowl Alliance," breaking up the conference tie-ins and tweaked the system, but still did not include the Big Ten and the Pac-10. Due to the exclusion of the Big Ten and Pac-12 from the Bowl Alliance, there remained two opportunities for a "split national championship." In 1996, No. 1 Florida State played No. 3 Florida for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl while No. 2 Pac-10 champion Arizona State played against the Rose Bowl against No. 4 Big Ten champion Ohio State. Arizona State lost to Ohio State, eliminating that possibility.
Then, in 1997, Michigan (Big Ten) was ranked No. 1 in both AP and coaches polls going into the bowl season, but were contracted to play in the Rose Bowl against Washington State. Nebraska (No. 2) and Tennessee (No. 3) were selected by the Bowl Alliance to play in the Orange Bowl, serving as the de facto national championship game. Michigan defeated Washington State, and Nebraska beat Tennessee. Nebraska were named the national champion by the Bowl Alliance and the Coaches' Poll, but No.1 undefeated Michigan were named the Associated Press national champions. This national championship debate, along with the exclusion of mid-major conference and No. 5 ranked BYU from an Alliance bowl, forced the reconfiguration to the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, also known as the BCS.
Throughout this six-year stretch of the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance, there had not been a coach make the national championship game in the first year with their program. That all changed in the first season of BCS in 1998 with Larry Coker.
Coker took over the Miami Hurricanes program from Butch Davis in 2001. The 2001 Miami Hurricanes are regarded by some as one of – if not arguably – the most talented college football team(s) ever assembled. Coker and the Hurricanes beat Nebraska, 37-14, in the championship that year.
The BCS era was completed with its second first-year head coach to qualify for the national title game when Malzahn's Auburn Tigers lost to Florida State in the 2013 BCS National Championship.
Urban Meyer nearly made this list in 2012, as well, but his undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes team were not selected by the BCS for the national title game because of a postseason ban imposed earlier in the year. The BCS selected Notre Dame as an at-large team, who lost to Alabama 42-14.
Another near-miss was Lincoln Riley in 2017, whose Oklahoma Sooners qualified for the four-team college football playoff, but lost to No. 3 Georgia 54-48 in double overtime of the semifinal.
Now, Dykes has the opportunity to become the second coach in college football history to win a national championship game in his first season at a program, following Coker in 2001.
TCU will kick off against Georgia at 6:30 p.m. CST on Monday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. For more TCU coverage, visit wfaa.com/tcu.
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