A quick look at college football dynasty programs

by Zach Bigalke

In honor of North Dakota State’s win and Clemson’s chance to win three titles in four years, let’s look at the concept of the dynasty in college football.

College football is one of those sports that seem tailor-built to prevent dynasties from forming. With so many different programs at each level, the odds of breaking through year after year to win a national championship are ostensibly rare, especially below the FBS level where teams actually have to negotiate a real playoff system rather than one additional game in a four-team bracket. Yet the dynasty persists, at every level of the sport.

After their 28-20 win over James Madison in the NCAA Division I Football Championship at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, North Dakota State claimed the school’s eighth national championship in the past nine seasons. Over that span the Bison have employed three different head coaches, yet they continue to dominate their FCS competition. In terms of a dynasty, no school can top the Bison in terms of sustained dominance over their colleagues at a given level.

That isn’t to say that a team must effectively own a national crown for nearly an entire decade to earn dynasty status. Clemson is on the cusp of the designation this season in the FBS ranks. As Dabo Swinney’s team prepares to take on LSU in a clash of Tigers, they have the opportunity to join a select handful of programs that won three national championships in four years at the top division of the sport.

With that in mind, let’s look quickly at the best dynasties that have existed at each level of college football.

NAIA: Carroll College

The private Catholic liberal-arts college in Montana’s capital city was the hegemonic force at the NAIA level in the early 21st century. Under head coach Mike Van Diest, the Fighting Saints won six national championships and played for two more over a 10-year span from 2002 through 2011.

Their first crown came in 2002 against Georgetown College of Kentucky. Three more national championships followed in succession as Carroll went on a four-peat between 2002 and 2005. After losing in the NAIA playoff quarterfinals in 2006, the Fighting Saints were back in the title game in 2007 and won a fifth championship in six years.

Returning to the championship game for a sixth time in 2008, Carroll fell to Sioux Falls. 2009 was a down year as they missed the game following a loss in the semifinals, but Van Diest’s squad came right back in 2010 and won the school’s sixth national championship. A loss to St. Xavier in 2011 ended the streak of dominance by the Fighting Saints, but they remain the most impressive dynasty at the NAIA level in college football history.

Division III: Mount Union

When Larry Kehres landed in Alliance, Ohio in 1986 to take over as the head football coach at Mount Union, he immediately ran the table in the regular season. The Purple Raiders lost in the Division III quarterfinals, and it took seven more years before they finally broke through. Once they did, however, Mount Union emerged as the program against which all other Division III teams are measured.

The first title came in 1993 with a 34-24 win over Rowan in Salem, Virginia. The Purple Raiders also put together two separate three-peats, running the table three straight years from 1996 through 1998 and again from 2000 to 2002. Over a 20-year span between 1993 and 2012, Mount Union walked away with 11 national championships.

Even when Lance Leipold built his own dynasty at Wisconsin-Whitewater, winning six championships in eight years, it was sandwiched within the Mount Union dynasty and relied on the Purple Raiders’ gravitas for its own legitimacy. Every one of the Warhawks’ championships came against Mount Union in the finals, as the Purple Raiders also played for five more national titles over Kehres’ span as head coach. After stepping down in 2012, further, his son Vince has taken Mount Union to four more title games, winning two.

Division II: Grand Valley State

From 2001 through 2009, Grand Valley State played for the Division II national championship six times and won the game four times in five years under head coaches Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin. Both used the Lakers job as a springboard to land in the FBS, revealing just how dominant this program was in the first decade of the 21st century.

In 2001, Brian Kelly’s Lakers fell 17-14 against North Dakota in the championship game. The following year, Grand Valley State returned to Florence, Alabama and won their first crown in a 31-24 takedown of Valdosta State. The 2003 team finally gained revenge for their loss to the North Dakota two years earlier, taking down the Fighting Sioux to win back-to-back national championships. Kelly moved on to take over at Central Michigan the following year, leaving defensive coordinator Chuck Martin to take over the Lakers.

In Martin’s first season at the helm, Grand Valley State lost the Great Lakes conference crown but still made it to the quarterfinals of the Division II playoff. A year later, Martin’s squad ran the table for the school’s third national title and then extended the winning streak to 28 straight as they claimed a fourth in 2006. Martin remained in Allendale, Michigan for three more seasons but lost the 2009 national championship before taking a job at Notre Dame.

Division I FCS: North Dakota State

North Dakota State’s sustained run of success began when Craig Bohl took over the Bison in 2003 and helped lead the transition from Division II to the FCS. It took nearly a decade, but Bohl developed North Dakota State into a powerhouse year after year until the Bison went on a three-year national title run between 2011 and 2013. The building effort by Bohl earned the coach a promotion to the FBS ranks at Wyoming.

In stepped defensive coordinator Chris Klieman to keep the good times rolling in Fargo. Klieman’s crew went right on and won the 2014 and 2015 national championships before a surprise loss in the 2016 FCS semifinals to James Madison ended a streak of five straight national titles. The Bison regrouped and returned in 2017 to begin a new streak. Klieman won the 2017 and 2018 titles for the Bison before also jumping up to the FBS ranks to take over for Bill Snyder at Kansas State.

Following the same blueprint as when Bohl left Fargo, North Dakota State promoted defensive coordinator Matt Entz to the top of the leadership pyramid. Entz continued the winning tradition in his first season, leading the  Bison to a 16-0 record and their eighth national championship in nine seasons. No other program has sustained success for so long or under so many different head coaches, at least in the modern era of the sport.

Division I FBS: Oklahoma

The biggest issue with assessing who qualifies as a dynasty at the top division of college football is the fact that there is no singular mechanism for determining national champions at the FBS level. Even in the College Football Playoff era, the lack of exclusive NCAA sanction means that split national titles are always a possibility.

We have seen teams like Alabama maintain success from the BCS era into the College Football Playoff. Before that, the Sunshine State produced sustained runs first by Miami in the 1980s into the 1990s and then by rival Florida State in the 1990s onward to the beginning of the 21st century. Nebraska in Tom Osborne’s final years was a juggernaut as well.

One school, though, stands out above the rest. That is the iteration of the Oklahoma Sooners that played under Bud Wilkinson in the 1950s. Though they were not one of the teams in the exclusive club that won three titles in four years, Wilkinson’s Sooners remain paragons of sustained excellence.

Early in his career, Wilkinson’s teams went on a 31-game winning streak between 1948 and 1950 and won the national title in 1950. Later, they embarked on a 47-game winning streak between 1953 and 1957 that remains the NCAA record to the present. Wilkinson’s teams were named national champions in 1955 and 1956, and looked like a perennially unstoppable force until Notre Dame finally ended the winning streak in 1957.

Next: A brief history of national championship claims

Unlike the other divisions of college football, though, declaring one definitive dynasty is always going to be more difficult in the FBS ranks. Clemson is currently poised to enter their name in the discussion, however, as they line up on Monday in their fourth College Football Playoff championship game in five years and look to join the small club of teams with three titles in four years.

Zach is currently a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State focusing on the history and philosophy of sport. He has covered a variety of American and international sports online and in print since 2006 and was formerly the managing editor at Informative Sports and Sports Unbiased.