Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Coaches
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio is one of the top coaches in the Big Ten.
By: Steven Lassan | 3/21/12, 7:50 AM EDT
Ranking the coaches in any college football conference is a difficult task. Many factors play into just how successful a coach is at any school. How well are the assistants paid? Are the facilities up to par with the rest of the conference? Can the coach recruit or is he more of an x's and o's manager? Are there off-the-field or age issues to take into consideration? Has a coach built a program or continued the success from a previous coach? How is the resume outside of their current position? These questions and more were posed to the editors at Athlon Sports, as they were asked to rank the coaches of each of the six BCS conferences. One thing to keep in mind - the record is not always indicative of where a coach should rank in a conference.
Ranking the Coaches: ACC
Ranking the Coaches: Big East
Ranking the Coaches: Pac-12
Ranking the Coaches: Big 12
Ranking the Coaches: Big Ten
Ranking the Coaches: SEC
Ranking the Coaches: 2012 Top 25 Coaches (Fri.)
Here is how Athlon Sports ranks the coaches of the Big Ten:
1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State (First year)
Alma Mater: Cincinnati
Record: 65-15 (Florida, 2005-2010)
Record: 22-2 (Utah, 2003-04)
Record: 17-6 (Bowling Green, 2001-02)
The resume is as complete as it gets: Two BCS National Championships, four conference titles, three conference Coach of the Year awards, one Heisman Trophy, one national Coach of the Year honor and the Sports Illustrated Coach of the Decade (2000-2009). Meyer’s success is unquestioned; he wins and he wins big. He built Bowling Green into a conference contender in only two seasons before taking Utah to a BCS bowl in two short years in Salt Lake City. In his second year at Florida, he earned his first BCS Crystal Ball. After a second title with the Chosen One under center, Meyer took a brief respite from the sideline in 2011. He returns to the coaching ranks renewed and reinvigorated — and back in his home state at the Big Ten program with the most natural and financial resources in the league. His ability to recruit was on full display at the close of the 2012 cycle and his offensive game plan is as proven a system as there is in the collegiate playbook. The only crack in his armor is the health concerns — aka his dedication. He coached only six years at what could be considered the second-best job in the nation, won championships, and simply walked away. Other than his long-term commitment, there are not too many better options in America.
2. Brady Hoke, Michigan (1 year)
Alma Mater: Ball State (1977-80)
Record: 11-2 (2011-present)
Record: 13-12 (San Diego State, 2009-10)
Record: 34-38 (Ball State, 2003-08)
Overall: 58-52 (9 years)
Deciding between Hoke and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio as the top coach in the Big Ten Legends Division is no easy task. Hoke has done a good job of resurrecting two programs that did not have much success prior to his arrival. In six seasons with Ball State, Hoke recorded a 34-38 mark, including an appearance in the MAC title game in 2008. The Cardinals also made two bowl games under Hoke’s watch. After a solid stint at Ball State, Hoke left for the West Coast, choosing to coach at San Diego State. The Aztecs won just nine games in the three years prior to his arrival, but led San Diego State to a 9-4 record and an appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl in 2010. After Rich Rodriguez was fired at Michigan, Hoke was an easy choice to become the Wolverines’ next coach, especially considering he coached in Ann Arbor from 1995-2002. Considering he was born in Ohio, Hoke isn’t necessarily a “Michigan Man.” However, he is a great fit for the Wolverines, has done a good job of rebuilding two struggling programs (Ball State and San Diego State) and led the Wolverines to a BCS bowl in his first season.
3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (6 years)
Alma Mater: South Carolina (1976-78)
Record: 44-22 (2007-present)
Record: 18-17 (Cincinnati, 2005-06)
Overall: 62-39 (9 years)
If Brady Hoke is the top coach in the Legends Division, Dantonio is really 1B. In six seasons in East Lansing, Dantonio has turned the Spartans from underachiever to Big Ten title contender. The Spartans won 22 games through his first three years, but has posted back-to-back seasons of 11 victories. And there’s one more feather in the cap for Dantonio and Michigan State to brag about – the Spartans own a four-game winning streak over rival Michigan. Dantonio has yet to lead Michigan State to a Rose Bowl appearance, but with the program on the right track, it’s only a matter of time before the Spartans make the trek to Pasadena. Dantonio’s success isn’t just limited to Michigan State, as he posted an 18-17 record in three years with Cincinnati and led the Bearcats to two bowl trips. Dantonio seems to be a perfect fit at Michigan State and should keep this program among the best in the Big Ten as long as he sticks around in East Lansing.
4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern (6 years)
Alma Mater: Northwestern (1993-96)
Record: 40-36 (2006-present)
Fitzgerald is the perfect coach for Northwestern and barring something unexpected, will likely be here until he retires. As a Northwestern graduate, Fitzgerald is well-aware of the culture and what it takes to win in Evanston. The former Wildcat linebacker has led Northwestern to four consecutive bowl games and just one losing season. Fitzgerald’s overall record over the last six seasons is a solid 40-36, but is still searching for his first bowl victory. Northwestern is not an easy place to win, but Fitzgerald has found the right formula and will continue to make the Wildcats a yearly threat to reach a bowl and pull off an upset or two along the way.
5. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin (6 years)
Alma Mater: Iowa
Record: 60-19 (2006-present)
Hand picked by Wisconsin legend Barry Alvarez, few imagined Bielema had the talent to maintain the Badgers’ level of success. After six years of Meyer-esque winning percentages, those concerns have definitively been squashed. His back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances were the first for Wisconsin since 1998 and 1999, and despite not winning either game, the Badgers can hang their hats on back-to-back conference titles. In fact, Bielema’s bowl record might be his only weakness. He is 2-4 in postseason play and is likely the only thing keeping him from being ranked higher on this list. That, and the fact he was handed the keys to a program that functions in a vastly different manner than it did in late '80s. Alvarez took UW from an also-ran, bye week program and turned it into a $100-million Midwest football powerhouse. Bielema hasn’t recruited at an elite level — aka Top 25 nationally — but has done an incredible job evaluating and developing talent. Without a single top-25 recruiting class to his name, the Badgers’ head man has sent 11 players into the first three rounds of the NFL Draft since 2006. He has never experienced a losing season as a head coach and earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors back in 2006 when he led Wisconsin to a 12-1 record in his first season. Iowa Hawkeye leg tattoo aside, fans in Madison are very happy to have transitioned so seamlessly from Alvarez to Bielema.
6. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (13 years)
Alma Mater: Connecticut (1974-76)
Record: 96-66 (1999-present)
Record: 12-21 (Maine, 1990-92)
Overall: 108-87 (16 years)
Ferentz got off to a slow start as Iowa’s head coach, posting a 4-19 record through the first two years. However, the Hawkeyes went on to reel off five consecutive winning seasons, including an appearance in the Orange Bowl and victories in the Outback and Capital One bowls. Iowa has claimed at least a share of the Big Ten title two times and has missed out on a bowl game only once since 2001. Ferentz has had his share of ups and downs, and the Hawkeyes are just 15-11 over the last two years. Although Ferentz has accumulated 96 victories – second-most in Iowa history – there are concerns from the Iowa fanbase that the program has gone stale. Ferentz’s track record suggests the Hawkeyes will get back on track, but a couple more seven-win seasons won’t sit too well in Iowa City.
7. Bo Pelini, Nebraska (4 years)
Alma Mater: Ohio State (1987-90)
Record: 39-16 (2003, 2008-present)
Pelini had an interesting path to become Nebraska’s head coach. After Frank Solich was fired following the 2003 season, Pelini served as the Cornhuskers’ interim coach in the Alamo Bowl, recording a 17-3 victory over Michigan State. Although Pelini led Nebraska to a victory, he was passed over in favor of Bill Callahan and instead of sticking around in Lincoln, chose to work with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma in 2004. After one season in Norman, Pelini left for LSU from 2005-07, helping to lead the Tigers to a national title in the 2008 BCS Naitonal Championship. Despite being passed for the job just a few seasons before, Pelini returned in Lincoln in 2008 to become Nebraska’s head coach. There’s no question Pelini is one of the top defensive minds in college football, but he is still looking to take this program to the next level. Nebraska has at least nine victories in each of Pelini’s four seasons at the helm, but is still searching for its first BCS appearance. Pelini is a solid coach and has the Cornhuskers back on the right track to emerging as a national title contender once again. However, the Big Ten is crowded at the top and Pelini needs to push Nebraska higher to be ranked ahead of some of the other names on this list.
8. Jerry Kill, Minnesota (1 year)
Alma Mater: Southwestern (1979-82)
Record: 3-9 (2011-present)
Record: 23-16 (Northern Illinois, 2008-10)
Record: 55-32 (Southern Illinois, 2001-07)
Record: 11-11 (Emporia State, 1999-2000)
Record: 38-14 (Saginaw Valley State, 1994-98)
Overall: 130-82 (18 years)
Considering Kill’s successful track record, a 3-9 record in his first year with Minnesota was somewhat surprising. Although the Golden Gophers weren’t expected to challenge for 10 wins, the schedule was favorable enough to contend for a bowl appearance. Minnesota pulled off two upsets to finish last season, but also lost to New Mexico State and North Dakota State. Kill also dealt with health issues last year, which certainly had some impact on the team and coaching staff. Kill has an impressive resume at four different stops, which includes leading Southern Illinois to five playoff appearances and posting a 23-16 record in three seasons with Northern Illinois. Although Kill’s debut season didn’t go according to plan, his successful track record at four other schools suggests it won’t be long until the Golden Gophers emerge as a consistent bowl team.
9. Tim Beckman, Illinois (First year)
Alma Mater: Findlay
Record: 21-16 (Toledo, 2009-2011)
After learning under Jim Tressel at Ohio State and Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, Beckman got his first chance at the big chair in 2009. After five years of tremendous success under Tom Amstutz, Toledo had eroded into one of the MAC’s worst programs. Three straight losing seasons (5-7, 5-7, 3-9) got Beckman into town. He proceeded to improve the team’s win total in three consecutive seasons from three to five to eight to nine. He has been responsible for developing such prominent MAC stars as Eric Page and Adonis Thomas and is now charged with another rebuilding project at Illinois.
10. Danny Hope, Purdue (4 years)
Alma Mater: Eastern Kentucky
Record: 16-21 (2009-present)
Record: 35-22 (Eastern Kentucky, 2003-2007)
After 20 years as an assistant at both the college and high school levels, Hope got his first chance at running a program when his alma mater hired him in 2003. He never had a losing season at Eastern Kentucky and eventually got the Colonels into the NCAA playoffs after an Ohio Valley Conference championship in 2007. Purdue was familiar with Hope due to a solid five-year stint as the offensive line coach under Joe Tiller and Drew Brees during the Boilers most recent heyday (1997-2001). After one year as the assistant head coach in 2008, Hope was given the top job in 2009. It took him three seasons, but Purdue experienced its first winning season and subsequent bowl appearance since 2007 when PU beat Western Michigan in last year’s Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. His Boilermakers have been one of the most injury-riddled programs in the nation of late and appear to be snake-bitten. However, that hasn’t kept Hope from pulling off a few massive upsets over perennial Big Ten powers (we're looking at you Columbus).
11. Bill O’Brien, Penn State (First year)
Alma Mater: Brown
Record: First Year
Romeo Crennel is 26-41 as a head coach. Charlie Weis is 35-27 as a head coach. Josh McDaniels is 11-17 as a head coach. Bill Belichick assistants have gone on to win 45.8% of their games as head coaches on both the college and NFL level. This is one of the few concrete pieces of statistical evidence available to evaluate Penn State’s hiring of the Patriots offensive coordinator. Much like the relatively unsuccessful Nick Saban assistants (Derek Dooley, Wil Muschamp, Jimbo Fisher), it can be a double-edged sword hiring a Belichick protégé. First, Belichick, like Saban, doesn’t hire bad personnel. You have to be a hard worker who is willing to grind out wins in the toughest of circumstances. Check. Yet, shockingly, the assistants never seem to be as good without the sage leadership of the head honcho to guide them. The only other piece of concrete evidence is O’Brien’s undeniable experience and knowledge of college football on the East Coast. He has coached at Georgia Tech (1995-2002), Maryland (2003-2004) and Duke (2005-2006). He has recruited up and down the Atlantic seaboard and this aspect of his resume should help him ease into what could be the most difficult situation in the history of college football.
12. Kevin Wilson, Indiana (1 year)
Alma Mater: North Carolina
Record: 1-11 (2011-present)
Wilson deserves credit for creating one of the nation’s best offenses while at Oklahoma. Under his watchful eye from 2002 to 2010, the Sooners churned out 3,000-yard passers and conference championships. His offensive prowess in Norman culminated with the 2008 Broyles Award given to the nation’s top assistant coach and a trip to the BCS title game. While Indiana fans don’t expect Oklahoma-level success in Bloomington, Hoosiers fans deserve more than one win over an FCS opponent. In fact, the win over South Carolina State last fall was Wilson’s first and only career win as a head coach at any level. He went 0-10 in one season as the head coach of Fred T. Foard High School in 1989, giving him an all-time record of 1-21 as a head coach. Wilson showed marked improvement in one area last fall, however, as his rushing attack showed major promise in the second half of the season. Yet, losing out on the nation’s No. 2 quarterback recruit Gunner Kiel during the winter months didn’t lengthen the leash at all. There is still much to be proven for the former Sooner assistant.
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