Photo courtesy of Patrick Semansky – AP Photo
There are few things which better tide over the common college football fan during the offseason than a media ranking to discuss on twitter, but so often they ignore one of the more important parts of a college football program. While the players are a fair bit more interesting to debate, coaching is the difference between talent and greatness. Today we’ve got my rankings of the 14 coaches who reside in the Big 10 Conference.
Now before you determine either that I’m a genius or a moron, it’s important to understand which criteria I will be using to formulate my rankings. Tenure will not be a factor, as you can see very quickly whether a coach has what it takes to bring a program to their full potential. With that stated, there is something to be said for the talent that is inherited through changing of the guards, so recruiting will play as much of a role as record over the first year or two at the helm. Essentially I will determine the level of coaching along with the direction of a program juxtaposed to the national discussion surrounding the team.
Without further adieu, lets get into the fun part.
14. Mel Tucker, Michigan State
Mel Tucker was one of the more surprising hires coming prior to the 2020 season due in large part to the circumstances that brought him to East Lansing. After Mark Dantonio’s unexpected departure late into the offseason many questioned the school’s ability to bring in a viable replacement.
They were able to do that, and then some with the addition of Tucker. Though I have him ranked at the very bottom of the Big 10, there is a shred of “wrong place, wrong time” which prevents me from being all negative. The lack of a full season was a detrimental to everyone but maybe none more so than Tucker. An already limited offseason due to the timing of his hire meant a nearly impossible task for the first-year coach.
That lack of time with the team may have led to some of the talent evaluation issues I noticed during the season, but without a full look at what Tucker can provide in terms of developing his guys and impacting games from the sideline it’s impossible for me to bump him up the list.
13. Scott Frost, Nebraska
Oh where to begin with Scott Frost? This hometown hero was a no-brainer of a hire after his “*National Championship*” season with UCF, a Superman of sorts looking to return the Huskers to their glory days. Well, rather than Clark Kent himself showing up at Nebraska’s doorstep, Frost has born more resemblance to a trick-or-treater in an oversized costume.
I’m not necessarily saying that Frost won’t work as the head coach of the Huskers, but so far he has underachieved in grand fashion. Whether it be the loss to Troy in his debut season or the mismanagement of a Heisman Watch quarterback, there hasn’t been much for Frost to hang his hat on. We will have to see what Nebraska can do in the West next season, but a continuation of his first 3 seasons will only accelerate his clock in Lincoln.
12. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
Jeff Brohm has been one of the more disappointing coaches over the past few years in my eyes. After Purdue’s infamous 49-20 rout of the Buckeyes in 2018, stock in Brohm had never been higher. Starting 11-9 in his first 20 games, it’s been all downhill since that big win, and it’s hard to think anything other than a rise in expectations may be the culptit.
Two of the more talented receivers in the conference didn’t quite translate to wins in 2020, so this will be a huge year for Brohm’s future win West Lafayette. Retaining David Bell is key to Brohm rekindling his fast flying offenses of the past going forward.
11. Mike Locksley, Maryland
The Maryland coach finds himself at #11 in my rankings after an interesting 2020 season. After one of the worst played game I’ve ever seen against Northwestern, the Terps shot back to skate by Minnesota and then trounce Penn State. Cancelations marred Maryland’s season and left a lot of what-ifs on the table, but all signs led to a change of fortune in College Park.
Mike Locksley came in among severe scandal after D.J. Durkin was fired for issues related to the death of a player. The struggles of this change were very evident in Locksley’s first season, and ended the year on a 7 game losing streak, including 9 of their last 10. The hot start this season, as well as their fantastic recruiting classes coming through, give me a fair bit of hope that Locksley may be able to right this ship.
10. Bret Bielema, Illinois
The newest head coaching hire in the conference finds himself at the 10 spot in my rankings. Bielema was an integral part in guiding some of the better Wisconsin teams of the decade, winning two Big 10 Championships in his time. Even with his success in the Big 10, Bielema’s time in Arkansas drags his legacy down in a huge way.
Just 29-34 in his SEC stint, Illinois certainly had to rely on past success for their new head football coach. I still believe that Bielema has the potential to restore his coaching legacy, and while the ceiling is lower at Illinois than Wisconsin, contention would be a welcomed change for what has been a down Illinois football program.
9. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Nobody on this list has done less with more than Jim Harbaugh. Coming in Harbaugh was supposed to be the Urban Meyer stopper for the Wolverines, but he was never able to complete the task. Not only has he not won the game, but the only effort that came remotely close was the infamous 2016 “J.T was (not) short” game.
Even without beating your rival there should be some saving grace which justifies retaining your position. With Harbaugh, you have to do a little bit of digging to find that reasoning. The “he needs to get his guys” argument is valid for a year or two, but there have been multiple opportunities to test out his guys. The QB whisperer having miss after miss after miss at the position is unacceptable, and Harbaugh better hope that J.J. McCarthy is as good as advertised for Michigan in 2021.
I’m not saying that Harbaugh needs to come out and beat the Buckeyes this season to keep his job, but 2nd place in the East is absolutely necessary if the program wants to retain any hope of closing the gap with their bitter rival.
8. James Franklin, Penn State
If Harbaugh has done the least with the most, James Franklin isn’t too far behind. Just one Big 10 East title since taking over in 2014 and a severe problem with winning big games. Just 1-7 on the road against ranked teams and 3-11 against their competition in the East (OSU/MSU/UM) doesn’t really cut it if you want to be considered elite.
Yes Franklin’s Nittany Lions are better than Rutgers but the talent gap between the two schools isn’t anywhere near being properly represented on the field, and last season was a huge step back. Franklin was one of the more sought after candidates following the 2017 season, but his stock is plummeting, and plummeting fast.
7. Greg Schiano, Rutgers
There’s something almost magical about Greg Schiano in Piscataway, New Jersey. Not quite sure what it is, but it just feels right. I was a huge fan of this hire for Rutgers and went as far as saying the Scarlet Knights would find themselves in the AP Top 25 within 5 years. While there’s no way to prove me right just yet, Schiano’s first season back in town has me feeling pretty good about my prediction.
This is a team that perennially finds themselves at the bottom of not only the Big 10, but the Power 5 as a whole. There is absolutely nothing to lose, and Schiano has his guys playing like it every week. They may not have the talent of top teams, but they sure throw everything they’ve got and that’s in huge part due to coaching style and the culture built from top down. If anyone has hope in Rutgers into an average program, I’d take Schiano every single time.
6. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
P.J. Fleck really should be higher on this list, but taking such a large step back in 2020 after a fantastic 2019 season can’t be overlooked. Fleck came into to 2019 riding high off of his first bowl victory at Minnesota, and made a huge leap into national prominence with an 11-2 season. The culture within Minnesota seems to have shifted into that of a winning program, but last season was disappointing to say the least.
A 3-4 year looks to have forced the “Boat” into an unwanted detour, Fleck’s showing next season will be immensely important for how he’s looked at on the national stage. Even with a relatively weak out of conference schedule, the Gophers cross divisional draw gives them the top two finishers from 2020. Minnesota will have to win some big games next season, but they have all the resources to find themselves in a dogfight for the West.
5. Tom Allen, Indiana
P.J. Fleck was the Cinderella story of the 2019 season, and Tom Allen’s Indiana filled that role for 2020. Even after finding their way into the AP Top 25 near the end of the 2019 season, many expected Indiana to finish anywhere from 4th to 6th in the East. While I was high on Indiana after seeing their late season run, even I wasn’t expecting the Hoosiers to make the jump to division runner-up in 2020.
Allen took the internet by storm with his locker room speeches and heartfelt moment with his son, but his coaching ability is finally getting the recognition it deserves. That being said, this is a huge year for Allen to either send him into free-fall or cement his spot in the top five of my rankings.
4. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
There’s really not much to say about Paul Chryst other than acknowledging his consistency since taking over at Wisconsin. Just under a 75% winning percentage and a 5-1 bowl record, there is really only 1 prize realistically missing from the trophy case. Despite making 3 Big 10 Championship games in his 6 seasons as a Badger, the East has swept since the conference moved to the East/West model.
Chryst embodies a lot of what Wisconsin is known for by keeping a hard-nosed style of play and a generally reserved culture. Jonathan Taylor was clearly missed through the Badgers’ QB transition last season, but the running game was still able to hold its own in the games the team was able to play. Wisconsin was one of the more impacted programs in terms of games lost, and that could be a big reason why we noticed the team never really clicking into gear.
Despite a rough 2020, Chryst has given more than enough reason to believe that his team will be back in the hunt come 2021. Another year of experience for Freshman phenom Graham Mertz and the young backfield and I’d venture to guess that we see this team highly touted by the end of the season.
3. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Kirk Ferentz is the not only the longest tenured coach in the conference by a full 7 seasons, but the longest of any FBS school in the country. You don’t get to that point without proving yourself as an elite head coach. Since his hiring prior to the 1999 season, Ferentz has just 4 losing seasons (2 of which came in years one and two), and 2 Big 10 Championships.
Iowa has become known for its ability to produce elite talent at the Tight End and Offensive Line positions, very representative of the slow play style of Ferentz. It takes a special kind of staying power to find yourself tenured for 20 years at the same school, and Ferentz still finds his teams in contention year after year.
2. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Pat Fitzgerald is one of the best coaches in the country, and similarly to Chryst and Ferentz that is due in large part to his consistent success. What really differentiates him though, in my eyes, is the obstacles that come with Northwestern’s academic standards. The school’s focus on excellence within the classroom can act as a barrier in the recruiting game. This barrier, however, is what helps the Wildcats thrive under Fitzgerald.
Another blessing and curse hybrid that follows the team is their tendency to retain starters beyond their draft eligibility. Experience is one of the most valuable traits for success in today’s college football landscape, sometimes even more so than elite talent. That is why you often see the Wildcats come out of the West on a more frequent basis than teams which could be seen as more talented, but it’s when those starters eventually graduate that there are signs of the wheels falling off.
The ebbs and flows of this team foundation were seen very clearly over the past three seasons. The 2018 team found their way into the Big 10 Championship game before the 2019 roster ended the year dead last. 2020, with another year under their belt many of those same players fought back to Lucas Oil Stadium, and a lot of that should be attributed to Fitzgerald’s coaching prowess.
1. Ryan Day, Ohio State
Coming in at the top spot in my rankings is none other than Ryan Day. Now, you can call me a homer or any other term in the book all you want, but the fact of the matter is that Day is unequivocally the best coach in the Big 10 conference.
The expected downfall of the program after Urban Meyer was at an all time high prior to the 2019 season, with many predicting a 4th place finish for the Buckeyes, and boy were they wrong. Day has not only continued Meyer’s success on the field, but off it as well. Recruiting has never been stronger at Ohio State, and by contending with Nick Saban in the living room he stakes his place as one of the top recruiters in the country.
Day is the only man on this list who is undefeated against Big 10 teams, and also happens to have as many Big 10 Championships in his 2 seasons as anyone else. Day’s Buckeyes have been unbeatable in the conference, and not many have come close under his reign. Until that changes, there’s no way to have him any lower.