Ranking the Big Ten Football Coaches
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.