Ranking Big Ten Football Coaches
By Brandon Castel
The college football landscape has shifted dramatically over the past year. Surprisingly, it has often been the Big Ten Conference at the forefront.
The conference added one of the winningest programs in the country in Nebraska, along with a conference championship game, this past off-season. Michigan returned to prominence under first-year head coach Brady Hoke—we think—while both Wisconsin and Michigan State continued their resurgence.
It wasn’t all good news for the B1G.
Two of the most well respected head coaches in America lost their jobs—and so did Ron Zook. The forced resignation of Jim Tressel at Ohio State and the firing of Joe Paterno at Penn State shook the conference, order has been restored—at least in Columbus—with the hiring of Urban Meyer.
We take a look at the B1G as it stands today, with a rundown of the new coaching landscape.
(Editor’s Note: Ranking Meyer and Bielema 1 and 2 was pretty clear, but after that, things got a bit tougher. We looked at overall performance, especially at their current institution and in Big Ten play. That includes postseason performance, but also things like what it takes to win at Northwestern vs. what it takes to win at Nebraska. The middle of the pack was close. When in doubt, we asked ourselves which coach would be a more desired commodity for a job opening).
1. Urban Meyer (Ohio State)
Meyer has yet to coach his first game in the Big Ten, but the 47-year old already ranks at the top of our list of coaches in the 12-team conference, and rightly so. With the unceremonious exits of Tressel and Paterno, Meyer is now the only coach in the B1G with a national championship on his resume. He happens to have a pair of them. He also has seven bowl wins, four top-10 finishes and an .819 career winning percentage at three different schools. Did we mention he is now at Ohio State, the program with more BCS bowl appearances and Big Ten titles than any other over the past decade?
10 seasons (entering 1st at Ohio State)
104–23 (.819) overall
65-15 (.813) at Florida
7-1 bowl games
4 BCS bowl victories
2 BCS National Titles (2006, 08)
2 SEC titles (2006, 08)
7 top 25 finishes (2003-09)
4 top 10 finishes (2004, 06, 08-09)
2. Bret Bielema (Wisconsin)
After Meyer, it was a little tough to pick the No. 2 coach in the conference, but five top-25 finishes in six seasons was enough to give Bielema the edge over Mark Dantonio or Kirk Ferentz. Certainly Barry Alvarez laid the groundwork for Bielema’s success in Madison, but few expected he would continue—or even possibly exceed—the level Wisconsin reached under Alvarez. The only real black mark on his resume is back-to-back losses in the Rose Bowl. That, and Bielema’s overall persona.
6 seasons (all at Wisconsin)
60-19 (.759) overall
33-15 (.688) in Big Ten
2-4 bowl games
0-2 BCS bowl games
2 Big Ten titles (2010-11)
2 top 10 finishes (2006, 10)
5 top 25 finishes (2006-07, 2009-11)
3. Mark Dantonio (Michigan State)
The Spartans have experienced a rebirth under Dantonio over the past six seasons and they were one victory away from playing in this year’s Rose Bowl. MSU still finished No. 10 in the country thanks to their triple-overtime win against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. The former OSU defensive coordinator has won more than twice as many conference games as he’s lost since taking over in East Lansing.
9 seasons (6 at Michigan State)
62-39 (.614) overall
44-22 (.667) at MSU
27-13 in Big Ten
2-4 bowl games
1 Big Ten title (2010)
1 Top 10 Finishes (2011)
3 Top 25 Finishes (2008, 2010-11)
4. Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)
Ferentz is a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year award winner with two Big Ten titles and one BCS bowl win—a 24-14 win over Georgia Tech in the 2009 Orange Bowl. He has won more Big Ten games than any other coach in the conference, and is now the conference’s longest tenured head coach, more than doubling Bielema and Dantonio. He has a 6-4 bowl record and the Hawkeyes had won three in a row before their 31-14 loss to Oklahoma in this year’s Insight Bowl. His overall B1G record is somewhat skewed by a 4-19 start to his tenure at Iowa. Since then, he has won at a 65 percent clip.
16 seasons (13 at Iowa)
108-87 (.554) overall
96-66 (.593) at Iowa
57-47 in Big Ten
6-4 bowl games
1-1 BCS bowl games
2 Big Ten titles (2002, 04)
4 top 10 finishes (2002-04, 09)
5 top 25 finishes (2002-4, 2008-09)
5. Brady Hoke (Michigan)
It might sound crazy that a coach with 57 career wins and 52 career losses is among the top five in the Big Ten, but it’s impossible to ignore what Hoke did in his first year at Michigan. Maybe the Wolverines won some games on luck, but there is a clear difference between a Rich Rodriguez coached team and the one that won 11 games for Hoke this season. He also did a nice job at Ball State and San Diego State before coming to Ann Arbor and right now he is a hot commodity coming off the Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
9 seasons (1 at Michigan)
57-52 (.523) overall
11-2 (.845) at Michigan
6-2 Big Ten
2-1 bowl games
BCS bowl games
1 top 10 finish (2011)
2 top 25 finishes (2008, 11)
6. Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern)
While Fitzgerald has all the makings of an excellent football coach, his numbers aren’t exactly mind-boggling at Northwestern. He has led the Wildcats to four bowl games and a 40-36 record overall, but they have yet to get over the hump with a bowl win. That is as much a testament to how difficult it can be to win at Northwestern as it is to anything else. While he is 0-4 in bowl games, it is abundantly clear that coach Fitz knows what he’s doing and that Northwestern is lucky to have their former star linebacker at the helm. Eventually, he probably has to leave Evanston for bigger and better things, which says a lot about Fitzgerald as a football coach.
6 seasons (all at Northwestern)
40-36 (.526) overall
21-27 in Big Ten
0-4 bowl games
0 top 25 finishes
7. Bo Pelini (Nebraska)
Pelini’s .710 winning percentage at Nebraska is higher than all of the coaches ahead of him except for Meyer, but the Cornhuskers have not won a conference title or been to a BCS bowl game under his watch. They also haven’t finished in the top 10, but Nebraska does have four top-25 finishes in five seasons under Pelini (counting his one game as interim head coach in 2003). He was 5-3 in his first year in the Big Ten and got hammered 30-13 by South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. He is going to have to win some big games before he cracks the top five.
5 seasons (all at Nebraska)
39-16 (.710) overall
22-10 in Big 10/12
3-2 bowl games
0 BCS bowl appearances
0 conference titles
0 top 10 finishes
4 top 25 finishes (2003, 09-11)
8. Tim Beckman (Illinois)
Much like Meyer, Beckman has yet to coach his first game in the Big Ten, but this just smells like a great hire for Illinois. Had Zook been retained for another season, he would have almost certainly been at the bottom of this list, but Beckman is an excellent football coach. He was the defensive coordinator for Meyer at Bowling Green and the secondary coach for Tressel at Ohio State. His overall record is only 21-16, but Beckman put together back-to-back 7-1 seasons in the MAC before leaving Toledo this off-season.
3 seasons (entering first at Illinois)
21-16 (.568) overall
17-7 in MAC
9. Danny Hope (Purdue)
Don’t look now, but Danny Hope’s Boilermakers won seven games this past season, including their 37-32 win over Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. His 10-14 record is actually pretty respectable for Purdue, especially considering he beat Ohio State twice and Michigan once in just three seasons in West Lafayette. Let’s not get too carried away, however. Hope still possesses a .432 winning percentage at Purdue and has lost games to Rice, Toledo and Northern Illinois.
8 seasons (3 at Purdue)
51-43 (.543) overall
16-21 (.432) at Purdue
10-14 in Big Ten
NCAA 1-AA playoffs
Ohio Valley Conference title (2007)
10. Bill O’Brien (Penn State)
Entering first season at Penn State (Also first season as a head coach)
It is almost impossible to gauge where O’Brien fits on this list, considering he has never been a head football coach at any level. There is no way he could rank much higher right now, but we’re giving Penn State the benefit of the doubt here by not ranking him dead last in the conference. Yes, O’Brien is the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, one of the top two or three franchises in the National Football League. So were Charlie Weis (35-27) and Josh McDaniels (11-17), and both failed miserably in their head coaching experiments. The same goes for defensive coordinators Romeo Crennel (26-41) and Eric Mangini (33-47). In fact, if O’Brien doesn’t succeed at Penn State, teams may never hire a Patriots coordinator again.
11. Jerry Kill (Minnesota)
We still don’t know what to make of Kill after his first season at Minnesota—especially because of the health issues—but he was wildly successful at both Southern and Northern Illinois. That doesn’t mean a whole lot for the Gophers, and it isn’t about to get any easier for Kill to win in Minneapolis. The new football stadium is nice, but the Gophers were not very good in 2011. They lost to New Mexico State and North Dakota State, but somehow managed to beat Iowa and Illinois down the stretch.
18 seasons (1 at Minnesota)
130-82 (.613) overall
3-9 at Minnesota
2-6 in Big Ten
0-2 bowl games
4-5 NCAA I-AA playoffs
Gateway Conference titles (2003-05)
12. Kevin Wilson (Indiana)
There is no question that Wilson looked like a good hire when Indiana snagged him away from Oklahoma, where he was the offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops. It still does, even after a 1-11 season in Bloomington, but there are some serious doubts starting to crop up. He was a tremendous coordinator, but we know nothing positive about Wilson’s abilities as a head coach. His only other stint running a football team came back in 1989 at Fred T. Foard High School, his alma mater. The Tigers went 0-10 that season. It’s too early to rush to judgment, but he belongs at the bottom of this list until we see something else.
1 season at Indiana
1-11 (.083) overall
0-8 Big Ten
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