Over the past two weeks or so, we’ve traveled from the Pacific time zone in Oregon, to the midwest, to some new programs in the south and ranked the top NAIA head coaching destinations. The rankings were done based on a number of different criteria including tradition, location, and potential (just to name a few).

So far we have ranked the following programs in this new series:

Now comes the time for the top spot. The top NAIA head coaching destination is…

When I said that the battle for the top spot between Morningside and Marian could have came down to a coin flip, I was as serious as can be.

Marian and Morningside met in last year’s NAIA title game, with Morningside escaping with a 40-38 win. How evenly matched that game was could be a barometer of what the top level of NAIA football is going to look like the next several years with the ceiling so high for each of those respective programs.

For Marian, what makes them the top choice? The program, which was started back in 2007 with the hire of Ted Karras (now the head coach at D-II Walsh), built the foundation of the program through a difficult 1-9 season that first year of competition before building to 7-4 in year two and 6-5 in year three. By 2010 the program Karras and his staff put together posted their first double-digit win season with the year ending in the NAIA quarterfinals. The next year they continued to build and made to the semis, and in 2012 they put the entire NAIA level on notice with their first national title. From 2010-2019, the program has hit double digit wins all but two seasons under two head coaches.

The program’s rise from start up, to a handful of wins, to playoff runs and national titles is really impressive – especially when you consider the league that they play in as one of the strongest in the country in the Mid-States Football Association. The league is known for having a fair share of the NAIA top 25 spots locked down and some new startup programs with incredible facilities that could contend for top spots in the very near future.

Head coach Mark Henninger will enter his eighth season leading the Knights program this fall and already has a national title (2015) and runner-up (2019) finish under his belt. A few programs clearly took note of their success and were able to come in and hire away some of his top assistant coaches, but Henninger has managed to hire some quality coaches – some with FBS head coaching experience – to come in and fill those positions.

Where Marian really got their edge in this race in my eyes and the view of coaches who weighed in came down to one major thing – Location. Location. Location. Located in downtown Indianapolis, the ability to offer internship opportunities in recruiting and everything a city like Indy has to offer is a unique bargaining chip. While their proximity to recruiting fertile midwest recruiting territory like Chicago and Detroit is certainly worth mentioning, the program has done a remarkable job cleaning up top tier talent in some of the top programs in Indianapolis, and the entire state of Indiana because of their strong brand. Only 18 kids on their entire roster came from outside the state of Indiana – and 10 of those were from Ohio, 6 were from Illinois, with one guy from both California and Florida.

The future seems exceptionally bright for Marian to be maintain their spot as an elite NAIA program. The leadership is there, they clean up on their focus of top in-state talent, they’ve got proven results as a program that started up less than two decades ago with two national title to show for it, and all of that has led to administrative and community support that is nearly unmatched at the NAIA level.

That wraps up the top NAIA head coaching destinations, and we’ll take on the Division III level next.