The 14 Big Ten head football coaches gather in Indianapolis this week to preview their teams to the media. As usual, they will talk with excitement and optimism about the coming season. They may boast how well winter conditioning went, what a success spring practice was and how solid the culture is inside their programs. Somebody might make a bad joke like this: “The alumni are with me, win or tie.”
Of more interest to this writer is who the best coaches in the conference are. And who belongs in the middle and at the bottom of the rankings. I am rating the coaches 1-14 in what is both an objective and subjective exercise.
Wins and losses are part of the criteria, but to be fair any evaluator has to consider how difficult the assignment is at every program. Each program is at least somewhat different, with pluses and minuses, with certain places certainly easier to win at than others. Much has to be considered including a coach’s access to nearby high school talent and his financial budget for the program. How does a coach compare with predecessors at his school? What is the quality of the coach’s assistants? Does the program impress in its development of players? On gamedays does the head coach have strategic meltdowns, or rise to the occasion?
Head coaches who rank high have their programs trending upward. A bad run of luck for a couple of years could result in more criticism than deserved. Maybe the best of all criteria is answering this question: Who is the coach you would want leading your favorite Big Ten team?
In ranking the 14 head coaches it’s easier assigning places at both the top and bottom positions. Probably a coin flip ranking several coaches assigned to the middle spots of the list. So rather than keep you breathlessly waiting, here goes the first annual(?) Sports Headliners rankings of Big Ten head football coaches (first to last).
1. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern. Oh, how everyone wishes the Evanston miracle worker coached their team. During much of Big Ten history Northwestern football has been the pits. High academic standards, recruiting problems, atrocious fan support and private school status have been road blocks to success. But Fitz, who could leave in a heartbeat for other college or NFL jobs, overcomes with teams who play smart and hard. The Wildcats won the Big Ten West Division last season and are one of four conference programs to make multiple appearances in the Big Ten Championship game. The Cats are 22-13 in league games in the last four years.
2. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa. No current major college head football coach has been at his school longer than Ferentz who took over at Iowa for the 1999 season. The state of Iowa is not a football hotbed for prep players and the Hawkeyes have to fight off rival Iowa State for talent but they keep winning because Ferentz and his staff excel at developing personnel. The Hawks haven’t had a losing season since 2012 and that streak helps define the consistency of Ferentz and his program. The Hawkeyes were 10-3 two years ago and despite the pandemic 6-2 last season. His 168 wins rank fourth all-time in Big Ten history.
3. Greg Schiano, Rutgers. When Minnesota AD Mark Coyle fired Tracy Claeys in late 2016 there were two replacements I thought would both excel in coaching the Gophers and be willing to take the job—Schiano and P.J. Fleck. Schiano was working as an assistant at Ohio State but it was his success years prior at Rutgers that had caught the attention of the college football world. Before Schiano got to Rutgers for the 2001 season, the place was a graveyard for coaching careers. But Schiano coached the Scarlet Knights to three nine-win seasons before he mistakenly left for an NFL head job after the 2011 season. He was the 2006 National Coach of the Year. This fall he starts his second season of rebuilding the Rutgers program again.
4. Tom Allen, Indiana. This is another story of a coach who has done a lot where others have failed. Historically, Indiana, Northwestern and Rutgers are three of college football’s bottom feeders. Allen gets his teams to overachieve and they don’t play scared even in big games. The last two seasons the Hoosiers have been 8-5 and 6-2 (6-1 in the Big Ten). In January the team had a No. 12 final ranking from the Associated Press, the school’s best since No. 4 in 1967. Indiana has played in consecutive January bowl games for the first time in school history. Allen, a state of Indiana native, is seen as genuine to the core by his players.
5. Ryan Day, Ohio State. The Buckeyes have been a Big Ten powerhouse forever, and the program has so many resources your grandmother could win a league title or two over a 10-year stretch. However, in two seasons in Columbus, Day has shown he is more than a caretaker. He is undefeated in Big Ten games and 23-2 overall while recruiting five-star high school players at a pace helping the Buckeyes maintain their lofty position with the Alabamas, Clemsons and Georgias of the college football world. Day is bright and so is his staff. The result? Ohio State scares the hell out of opponents.
6. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota. Pro Football Focus ranks him the 20th best coach in the country. Fitzgerald at No. 6 is the only Big Ten West Division coach ahead of him. At Western Michigan Fleck led one of the more memorable turnarounds in college football history. In 2013, his first season, the Broncos were 1-11, but ended the 2016 season with a No. 12 national ranking, a 13-1 record, a conference championship and a close loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. Fleck’s 2019 Gophers won 11 games for the first time at Minnesota since 1904 and he impressed with his coaching including a January 1 Outback Bowl win over the SEC’s Auburn Tigers. Minnesota had a school record seven league wins in 2019, but in three of Fleck’s other four seasons in Minneapolis he has had losing Big Ten records. Cut Fleck and his staff slack for trying to rebuild the defense during the restrictions of the pandemic last year (3-4 season record). Clearly 2021 will be a pivotal season for Fleck’s reputation as a program savior.
7. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan. I thought Harbaugh would be lights out at Michigan but failure to find a top quarterback during six seasons is at the top of his frustrations along with no wins against the Buckeyes. Yet Wolverine fans should put away their crying towels over Harbaugh who is 49-22 in Ann Arbor. He is one of four Big Ten coaches ever to win 10-plus games in their first two years. Harbaugh has won big at San Diego and Stanford in college football, and with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. At Michigan the talent is present to compete with the better programs in the country but the Wolverines, 21-12 in conference games the last four years, have to attain consistency on both sides of the ball.
8. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin. In the early 1990s coaching wizard Barry Alvarez came up with a blueprint for success at Wisconsin. His successors have followed the formula including development of behemoth offensive linemen and hard to handle running backs. There is a culture in Madison that is similar to the superb work ethic at Iowa and Northwestern. Chyrst, once an assistant to the legendary Alvarez, is smart enough to follow the master and in six years is 56-19. Contrast that with his performance at Pitt before coming to Madison: 19-20 record in three seasons. A gifted offensive mind, Chryst is a two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year but there is some apprehension in Madison after last season’s sluggish 4-3 record.
9. James Franklin, Penn State. At .667, Franklin has the third best winning percentage in the Big Ten during the last four seasons. Despite the usual high-end talent, last year was a disaster, beginning the season with five straight defeats before finishing 4-5. This was a poorly coached team in 2020. An anonymous college scout, quoted in Lindy’s Big Ten football magazine said “there are questions about Franklin as a gameday coach.” Franklin’s Nittany Lions did win the 2016 Big Ten title and his overall record in Happy Valley is 60-28. In early 2020 he hired highly thought of Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarroca and despite statistical success fired him after last season.
10. Bret Bielema, Illinois. He was the first of Alvarez’s successors at Wisconsin and went 68-24 from 2006-2012. In that stretch he won three Big Ten titles, went to six consecutive bowl games and proclaimed the Minneapolis area a major Wisconsin recruiting zone. The confident Bielema left Madison for a much richer contract at Arkansas where the Razorbacks mostly struggled and ultimately he was fired. With his Big Ten coaching background (including an assistant stop at Iowa), Bielema could be a great hire for underachieving Illinois which fired Lovie Smith after last season. This has become a difficult job but Bielema will have the Illini trending upward after the awful era under Smith.
11. Scott Frost, Nebraska. Before the 2018 season Cornhusker fans thought their native son would quickly restore glory to Nebraska football. Think again. He is 12-20 after three seasons and sitting on the hot seat in Lincoln where he now works for a new athletic director. Something is clearly amiss at Nebraska, although expectations shouldn’t be as lofty as the days of national titles in the last century. Frost was the consensus National Coach of the Year in 2017 when he led UCF to an unexpected 13-0 season. That team was explosive but Frost, a former quarterback known for his offensive acumen, hasn’t been able to create an identity and consistency on that side of the ball in Lincoln. It doesn’t help either that top offensive talent has transferred since last season.
12. Jeff Brohm, Purdue. In 2017 Brohm inherited a program that had a combined nine wins in the four previous seasons. He proceeded to win seven games including victories over state rival Indiana and a bowl win. The next season the Boilers had three wins over top 25 teams including a shocking victory at home over No. 2 Ohio State. The high-fiving among Boiler fans, though, is in decline because Brohm’s four-year record is 19-25. Questions have been raised about the Boilers being more about a flashy offense than a tough overall team. The initial buzz is gone in West Lafayette and this is a pivotal season for a program that was 2-4 last year.
13. Mel Tucker, Michigan State. He is no Mark Dantonio, and that’s not all damning since Tucker’s predecessor was among the national coaching elites and perhaps the Spartans’ best ever. Tucker was 2-5 in his first season in East Lansing and 5-7 during a 2019 season at Colorado. That is the extent of Tucker’s head coaching career that followed a decorated path as an assistant. He’s known as a top recruiter and defensive specialist. He worked as an assistant for Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Jim Tressel and Dantonio. Tucker wasn’t hired until February of 2020, giving him a late start on the season ahead. Then his staff had to deal with the pandemic so it will be interesting to see what the Spartans can do in 2021.
14. Mike Locksley, Maryland. The good news for Terps fans is Locksley is an elite recruiter. The cautionary news is that in two-plus years with the Terps he is 6-17, and combined with his time at New Mexico as head coach he has a career record of 8-43. As Alabama’s co-offensive coordinator in 2018 he won the Broyles Award recognizing the nation’s top assistant coach. Multiple times in his coaching career he has been selected a top 25 national recruiter. The recruiting charm is evident in Locksley’s brief time at Maryland and he’s created expectations of top 20 recruiting classes. The Terps are more talented than they have been in awhile. Let’s see how the coaching goes.
The Minnesota Twins, prior to the season considered a World Series favorite, were 11 games under .500 during last week’s MLB All-Star game break in the schedule. “I don’t think there’s a lot of merit in standing still when your team is in the position we’re in,” club president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners Friday.
The MLB trade deadline is 3 p.m. Minneapolis time on July 30. St. Peter said as the deadline nears front office leaders are obligated to assess their personnel and listen to what rival clubs are offering. “There’s no mandate from ownership around moving players for the sake of moving players, or saving money. That said, we also want to look for ways to improve our club.”
St. Peter isn’t predicting a fire sale by Minnesota but it sounds like there will be at least minimal change to the roster. “I guess I would be surprised if we didn’t see some movement considering where we’re at and considering the number of good players that we believe we have that other teams certainly have interest in. But it ultimately comes down to what you’re getting in return—so hard to predict how that market will evolve over time.”
Trading high potential young players always prompts anguish for organizations but St. Peter believes it’s wise to consider trades involving all personnel. “I think every player is on the table for discussion,” he said about the Twins.
Speculation is 41-year-old DH Nelson Cruz should keep his suitcase nearby, with a possible landing spot in Tampa Bay with the Rays. Wherever Cruz might go, he is unlikely because of his age to command much in trade return other than lower level prospects with promising potential.
Several other Twins players are part of trade chatter across the country, including pitcher Joe Berrios and center fielder Byron Buxton. Both are cornerstones for having a winning team during the next several seasons but they will be free agents in 2023 and it’s uncertain how long they will be in Minneapolis. Rumors are the Twins are trying to secure them long term but St. Peter declined to talk about contracts. It might take deals of more than $100 million each to retain Berrios and Buxton.
While Berrios has emerged as the staff ace, Buxton has only played in 27 games because of injuries. He was one of baseball’s best hitters and complete players before his latest injury (left-hand fracture) sidelined him again. In only 103 at bats he is hitting .369 with 10 home runs and 19 RBI, along with a .767 slugging percentage and 1.176 OPS.
At the time of his late June injury Buxton was playing in his third game back after being sidelined with a right hip strain. St. Peter said Buxton’s hand injury initially left him feeling down and frustrated, but the 27-year-old is resilient and a terrific teammate even when not playing.
“He’s a special person,” St. Peter said. “There’s no question he’s dealt with his share of adversity and it has made him stronger.”
From wisdom teeth to serious injuries, a lot of problems have kept Buxton sidelined over the years. St. Peter thinks Buxton’s goal for the remainder of 2021 will be to stay healthy and play as many games as he can.
What does St. Peter want to see from his club before the season ends? Play better and more consistent baseball, and move toward a .500 record. He added that the attitude of players is the season isn’t over. “I think that’s step No. 1 (getting to .500),” St. Peter said. “We get there and start to think about what’s the next step.”
The Twins are third among MLB teams in home runs with 130. Their runs scored total of 425 ranks 12th. “Offense really has not been the problem,” St. Peter said. “We’ve struggled at times in clutch situations, runners in scoring position, but for the most part offensively we think we’re scoring enough runs. Where the regression has taken place is on the mound. So I am optimistic that we’re going to see improvement there.”
Berrios leads the starting rotation at 7-3 with a 3.48 ERA. No other starter has won more than five games for Minnesota and 2020 club ace Kenta Maeda has a 4-3 record with a 4.71 ERA. In 2019, when the Twins earned what would be the first of two consecutive AL Central championships, the team had five starters who won 10 games or more.
The Twins are among the MLB leaders in giving up the most earned runs. The bullpen has faltered too, including offseason acquisition Alex Colome. He was supposed to be a late inning lights out guy, maybe even the team’s ninth inning stopper. The 32-year-old had a resume of relief pitching success including as recently as 2020 with the Chicago White Sox when his ERA was 0.81 in 21 games during the pandemic shortened season.
“The Horse” has been more like a colt for the Twins, with shaky pitching and just two saves to go with his 4.83 ERA. St. Peter believes Colome’s “stuff” is as good as ever but the reliever’s confidence is off in locating his pitches.
“When you miss, particularly in the zone in this league, you’re going to get hit,” St. Peter said. “He also, I think, had some bad luck early on as well. But it hasn’t worked out. He’s pitched better of late. …”
The Twins started the season 5-2 but by late April weren’t even close to playing .500 baseball. The team had a difficult spring, losing a lot of close games and sometimes both strategy and execution was questioned. Rocco Baldelli, the 2019 AL Manager of the Year, became the target of unhappy fans.
St. Peter said Baldelli, 39, will be the team’s on-field leader for years to come. “We love Rocco Baldelli and everything he represents, and we believe he will be our manager for a long, long time.”
Baldelli, St. Peter said, is admired inside and outside the Minnesota organization. “Rocco Baldilli is one of the more respected managers in the game. Just talk to other managers, talk to other executives. This guy has done a tremendous job here in 2019, 2020.
“2021 hasn’t worked out as well. I think some of the adversity we’ve dealt with collectively…over time will certainly help Rocco. Make him an even better manager going forward.”
This has been a challenging year for the Twins at the box office, too. The club hasn’t fulfilled expectations and the social unrest that hit downtown in 2020, along with the alarming ongoing Minneapolis crime reports, has created an image of the city that keeps some fans away from the ballpark.
“We believe very strongly that Target Field is a safe place to come to,” said St. Peter, who has been with the organization since 1990. “We don’t buy into the premise that it is not. The statistics, the reality would show that our fans have been very safe attending games. There have been…no incidents of note that have taken place in our home schedule, this year or…in previous years.
“There’s a perception issue. We have a lot of work to do as a community to deal with that. We’ve taken strides locally to try to ensure that there is a heavier infusion of security measures but at the end of the day we believe in an urban ballpark. We believe in playing downtown Minneapolis and frankly that’s going to include a number of night games which…most of our fans prefer because of their ability to get to those games.”
Preseason college football authorities are on the Mohamed Ibrahim bandwagon. The fifth-year University of Minnesota running back is receiving All-American and All-Big Ten hype this summer.
Walter Camp Football Foundation has the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Ibrahim on its first-team All-American unit. Athlon Sports made him a second-team All-American and so did Phil Steele Publications. Athlon, College Football News, Lindy’s, Phil Steele and Pro Football Focus are part of the crowd who make Ibrahim an apparent unanimous pick for first-team All-Big Ten. Bleacher Report rated him the No. 3 senior (regardless of playing position) in the nation.
If Ibrahim is named a first-team All-American after the season, he will be the first U running back to achieve the honor since Laurence Maroney in 2005. Ibrahim was an Associated Press third-team All-American last season. He was also named Big Ten Running Back of the Year and, of course, made first team All-Big Ten.
The Baltimore native rushed 201 times for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns during an abbreviated seven-game schedule last season. He led the Big Ten in the following categories: rushing attempts (201), total rushing yards (1,076), rushing yards per game (153.7), rushing touchdowns (15), scoring (90), points per game (12.9) and all-purpose yards per game (168.4). His rushing average of 153.7 yards per game set a school record.
Ibrahim has rushed for 2,840 yards in just 28 games during his U career. With a big season in 2021 he could move past Rodney Smith (4,122 yards) on the all-time career rushing list at Minnesota. Smith is second on the list to Darrell Thompson’s 4,654 career yards.
Ibrahim is a powerful runner, consistently breaking tackles and able to lean forward with defenders on his body. While not having breakaway speed, he is among the best power runners in U history. He doesn’t have Maroney’s speed and explosiveness but his vision and stubborn running style is reminiscent of another former Gopher, Marion Barber III (played with Maroney and is second in career touchdowns with five less than Thompson’s 40).
Gophers Football Notes
Other Gophers are receiving preseason attention for being among the better players in the Big Ten. Guard-tackle Blaise Andries and center John Michael Schmitz are on Athlon’s All-Big Ten second team offense. Quarterback Tanner Morgan and defensive end Boye Mafe are third team selections by Athlon.
Lindy’s has Mafe on its Big Ten second team defense and offensive tackle Daniel Faalele is also a second-teamer. Lindy’s ranks Ibrahim the No. 3 running back in the nation, Mafe the No. 14 defensive end and Morgan the No. 24 quarterback.
Phil Steele is among the most respected of authorities and he went heavy on props for the Gophers. He placed guard-center Connor Olson on his All-Big Ten first team with Ibrahim. Second teamers are Andries and Morgan. Third teamers are wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, cornerback Coney Durr, defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney, and Faalele and Schmitz.
It was announced yesterday Andries made first team on the 2020-2021 Academic All-America Division I team selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America. The honor recognizes the nation’s top student-athletes for their performances on the field and in the classroom. Andries is majoring in mathematics and is an aspiring actuary.
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck received recognition in Seth Galina’s Pro Football Focus story last week ranking the top 20 coaches in college football. Citing Fleck’s successes at Western Michigan and Minnesota, the Gopher leader was ranked No. 20. Among Big Ten West Division coaches, only Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald at No. 6 was ahead of Fleck.
The Gophers sagged in 2020 (3-4 record) after their impressive 2019 performance, 11-2 overall, 7-2 in the Big Ten and ranked No. 10 in the nation in the final Associated Press poll. With Fleck going into his fifth season at the U with an experienced roster, expectations are pretty high.
“This is a big year for P.J. (Fleck); a lot of problems they had last year you could attribute to personnel and coordinator changes; plus some key guys opting out and getting injured,” anonymous opposing coaches said in Athlon. “His brand and style never makes friends in the division; they want to be flashier and louder than the programs that have been successful in their area. …”
Minnesota gave up 30.14 points per game last season and concerns about improvement lessen enthusiasm among media for 2021. The offense generates confidence but doubts about stopping the opposition has predictors thinking Minnesota will finish third or fourth in the seven-team West Division.
Most likely Wisconsin but maybe Iowa to win the West, is a trend seen this summer by crystal ball specialists. The Gophers and Northwestern draw support as the next best teams in the division.
Typical prediction on wins and losses has Minnesota at 7-5. Included in that camp is Cbssports.com’s Tom Fornelli who predicts one of the wins will be over border rival Wisconsin in the last game of the season. Athlon projects Minnesota playing Toledo in Detroit’s Quick Lane Bowl.
Among anticipated dates on the Minnesota schedule is the September 18 nonconference game against Colorado in Boulder. The Buffs aren’t a Pac-12 power but the Denver-Boulder area offers a lot to see and do. Steve Erban’s Creative Charters has filled two planes for the trip and is working on a third.
Steve and wife Dorothy are part of the 2021 Canterbury Park Hall of Fame class. The Stillwater couple will be recognized at Canterbury Saturday for their role in the state’s horse racing industry. Steve was an important advocate for Canterbury Park before it opened in 1985. He and Dorothy have owned and bred stakes winning horses, developed a national horseracing event and formed partnerships introducing new owners to the sport.
Other inductees in the class of 2021 are Mary Green of Eden Prairie, who is another pioneer in the development of Canterbury Park and long involved with the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association, and also two thoroughbreds, A P Is Loose and Honey’s Sox Appeal, that are among the all-time leaders in purse earnings at the Shakopee racetrack.
Former Gophers football and basketball public address announcer Dick Jonckowski will do standup comedy Friday at the Alpine Inn in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The appearance was facilitated by Jonckowski’s friendship with Jay Buckley, the La Crosse-based operator of Jay Buckley’s Baseball Tours.