Today, we delve into the archives of past Washington football coaches, ranking the best among them. Washington boasts enduring head coach legacies, with notable figures like Don James and Jim Owens, each leading for 18 years.

Who is the Washington Head Coach in the College Football 2023 season?

Kalen DeBoer is the Washington Huskies head coach in 2023, boasting a 24-2 record and having just completed an undefeated season in 2023.

His two years with the program so far make him one of the best Washington football coaches already, with a chance to continue building his legacy in the coming years. More on him later…

History of Washington Head Coaches

Don James is the longest serving head coach in Huskies history, coaching 212 football games over an 18 year period. He led the team to six conference titles and won awards such as the Sporting News College Football Coach of the Year in 1991, and the Pac 10 Coach of the Year three times.

He succeeded Jim Owens, who also coached for 18 years, winning 99 games out of the 187 he coached.

Today’s article will cover both of those men as well as several others who left their mark on the program.

Ranking the 10 Greatest Head Coaches of Washington Football History

  1. Ralph Welch (1942-1947)

Record: 27-20-3

Ralph Welch must have been one of the most popular hires in the history of Washington football coaches, earning the job via promotion after the departure of James Phelan.

Welch had been a halfback in his playing days but had served as an assistant on the coaching staff with the Huskies between 1930 and 1941. According to reports, the players loved him, and he’d developed a reputation as a great scout who could find talent and nurture it better than many others.

The Huskies never quite hit the heights of some of the other coaches on this list, but Welch deserves his place on the list for his efforts in reestablishing the program during and after the second World War.

  1. Steve Sarkisian (2009-2013)

Record: 34-29

Does Steve Sarkisian deserve a place on this list? The opinions will undoubtedly be split, with a tenure that features many highs and lows between 2009 and 2013.

Early in his time in charge Sarkisian led the Huskies to an upset win over rivals USC, who were ranked #3 in the country at the time. Washington football fans stormed the field when Eric Folks' game winning kick split the uprights, marking Washington's biggest win as a program since 2001.

Sarkisian and his Washington football coaching staff were also responsible for building the program with an impressive recruiting class, managing to secure the signatures of highly touted recruits such as Marcus Peters, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Bishop Sankey and Danny Shelton in 2011, and Shaq Thompson in 2012. That said, many of their other recruits were head scratchers, and the 2012 class in particular didn’t pan out even close to how it was supposed to.

There were certainly some key highs during his time in charge, but his departure left a stain on the overall picture. Sarkisian was clearly interested in the USC job, labeled his ‘dream job,’ but didn’t address it with his players or the program. The news broke that he’d taken the job and players found out via social media, putting a bitter end to his time as the head coach of the Huskies.

  1. Enoch Bagshaw (1921-1929)

Record: 63-22-6

Enoch Bagshaw had spent his college playing career at Washington, playing end, halfback and quarterback for the program between 1903 and 1907.

After serving as a first lieutenant in the United States Arms during World War 1, he returned to Washington, taking over as the Huskies coach in 1921. The first season was a little disappointing, but in 1922 the program started to win consistently, going 6-1-1, 10-1-1 and 8-1-1 in the following three years.

Then in 1925, another 10-1-1 season resulted in the Huskies claiming the conference title and earning a spot in the Rose Bowl against the Alabama Crimson Tide. Had it not been for a third quarter meltdown in which Alabama scored all 20 of their points, they likely would have won that game, but sadly fell just short in the 20-19 loss.

  1. James Phelan (1930-1941)

Record: 65-37-8

James Phelan had quarterbacked Notre Dame before the first World War, and after serving in the military at Camp Taylor, went on to coaching.

Phelan coached at Missouri in his first head coaching role, before spending a long stint at Purdue between 1922 and 1929. It was from Purdue that he took the coaching job at Washington after an 8-0 season in 1929, leading to Purdue claiming the conference title. The Washington job meant returning to the mountain states where he’d grown up, having been raised in Portland, Oregon.

His tenure got off to a slow start, but peaked with the 1936 season, where he led the Huskies to a 7-2-1 record and a conference title. They played Pitt in the Rose Bowl as a result but were shut out in a 21-0 loss against Jock Sutherlands team.

That turned out to be the very best of his time with the Huskies, and he would eventually go on to coach in the professional leagues, leading the Los Angeles Dons, New York Yanks and finally, Dallas Texans.

Phelan was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1973.

  1. Rick Neuheisel (1999-2002)

Record: 33-16

Rick Neuheisel was hired by the Huskies after a superb tenure with the Colorado Buffs, taking over in 1999. The hire was quite the statement at the time, with an annual salary of $1 million per year making him one of the top five highest paid college coaches in the country.

In the 2000 season he led the Huskies to an 11-1 record, winning the Pac 10 title in the process. They then defeated a Drew Brees led Purdue team in the Rose Bowl, finishing third in the final rankings for the season.

While Neuheisel coached a great football team, his tenure was marred by the ever-present allegations against his practices. He had apparently overlooked multiple criminal acts from members of his team in 2000, and then privately interviewed for the San Francisco 49ers job while telling the media he wasn’t interested in it.

Eventually, allegations and infractions to do with gambling and the men's NCAA basketball tournament led to yet another circus surrounding him, and eventually he was fired.

Neuheisel eventually sued both the NCAA and the university, and won, settling at $4.5 million in his favor. His tenure with the Huskies was quite the ride, but that 2000 season was certainly one of the best we’ve seen.

  1. Kalen DeBoer (2022-Present)

Record: 24-2

Ranking Kalen DeBoer so highly on this list despite him only being in his second season in charge seems a little premature, but the statistics don’t lie, and Washington are playing some of the best football they’ve ever played in their history.

DeBoer’s highlight prior to taking the job had been his tenure at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota, during which time he’d boasted a 67-3 record and won the NAIA National Coach of the Year award three times. He was building a program at Fresno State when Washington came calling, going 9-3 in the 2021 season.

Since taking over the Huskies, DeBoer took the team straight to an 11-2 record in 2022, and a remarkable undefeated season and the Pac-12 title in 2023. He was named the 2023 AP Coach of the Year for his efforts during the season, and now has his sights set on claiming a National Championship.

It feels as though DeBoer is just getting started in Seattle, Washington, and could continue to climb this list if his first two seasons are anything to go by. Fans are extremely excited about his potential, and he could become one of the most celebrated Washington football coaches in history.

  1. Chris Petersen (2014-2019)

Record: 55-26

Chris Petersen had worked his way through the ranks as a coach, starting at his alma mater UC Davis, where he had played quarterback. He went from a wide receivers coach there to roles at Pitt, Portland State and Oregon, and eventually landed the offensive coordinator role at Boise State in 2001.

When head coach Dan Hawkins left Boise in 2005, Petersen was promoted to head coach, and proceeded to go 92-12 with the program between 2006 and 2013. He was then a hot ticket for some of the nation's biggest programs and landed the job with the Huskies in 2014.

It took time to develop the program, with Petersen inheriting a young team in need of a lot of work. Despite setbacks, he led the Huskies to a surprise win over USC, where the former Washington football coach he had taken over from, Steve Sarkisian, was now in charge.

In 2016 Petersen led the Huskies to their first ever appearance in the newly formatted College Football Playoff, having gone 12-2 in the regular season and 8-1 in the conference. They won the Pac-12 both in 2016 and again in 2018, but were unfortunately unable to capitalize in the ensuing bowl games.

The 2019 team was a shell of itself from the previous year, losing a lot of experience to the NFL draft. Petersen announced he was stepping down at the end of the year and has not coached again since.

  1. Jim Owens (1957-1974)

Record: 99-82-6

Jim Owens is the second longest serving head coach in Washington football history, coaching for 18 years, the same length of service as his successor Don James.

Owens took over the team in 1957, following the lone season in charge from Darrell Royal. He quickly got to work in turning the program around, going from his first two seasons with losing records and just three wins per season, to back-to-back 10 win seasons in 1959 and 1960.

The Huskies won the conference title and the Rose Bowl in 1959, and then claimed their very first National Championship in 1960 with their second straight Rose Bowl win, this time over the #1 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Jim Owens would take the Huskies back to the Rose Bowl in 1963, only this time they fell short. Unfortunately, those early years would be the peak of Jim Owens tenure with the Huskies, but it did prove to be some of the best years the program has ever had.

The legendary coach was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1982, recognizing his one National Championship and three conference titles at Washington.

  1. Gil Dobie (1908-1916)

Record: 58-0-3

Gil Dobie holds the program record for the Washington football head coach with the best winning percentage among head coaches who coached more than one game. He was in charge of the Huskies between 1908 and 1916, and never lost a game despite leading the team for 61 games.

The Huskies went on a 39-game winning streak during that time, and the only reason he doesn’t have a collection of conference titles is because the Huskies were independent until they joined the Pacific Coast Conference in 1916.

Naturally, Dobie then won the conference in his very first year in charge, before moving on to the job as the head coach of the Navy football team. He had further success there, and eventually took the job at Cornell, winning three straight National Championships between 1921 and 1923.

Dobie was one of the most successful coaches of a generation, helping to put the Huskies on the map and earning them an immediate conference title in their first year in the PCC. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame posthumously in 1951, three years after he passed away at the age of 70.

  1. Don James (1975-1992)

Record: 153-57-2

Don James took the Washington Huskies head coaching job as a relatively unknown coach out of Kent State. He would leave as a legend.

Kent State had just managed their best season in program history in 1974, going 9-2 off the back of their first bowl game appearance at the close of the 1972 season. James was then hired by the University of Washington, taking over from Jim Owens on a four-year deal.

He would eventually coach for 18 seasons, leading the Huskies to six conference championships and their first national title since 1960, in 1991. His teams went 10-4 in bowl game appearances, won the Rose Bowl four times, including the sensational 34-14 win over #4 ranked Michigan in January 1992.

In the early 90s James had built a perennial powerhouse, with the Huskies going on a run of 22 straight wins between November of 1990 and November of 1992. He was named the College coach of the year three times and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997.

Had the allegations and sanctions not been enforced against the team in 1992, Don James might have continued to win titles with the Huskies. Allegations of improper benefits handed to players brought a dark cloud over the team, and while Don James wasn’t thought to have broken any rules, he stepped away from his role in August 1993.

Despite the blemish, Don James is still thought of as the best coach in Washington football history, and deservedly so.

Parameters for Ranking

These Washington football head coaches have been ranked based on their success as the head coach of the Huskies specifically. While their other achievements with other programs or leagues may be listed, they do not affect the rankings on this list.


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