The fraternity of head coaches in the Big Ten features a cross-section of men, most of whom have Midwestern upbringings. Four of the 11 coaches were born in Ohio while four others were raised in states with Big Ten schools.
That’s where the similarities end, however. There are widely divergent philosophies among the Big Ten coaches, including everything from spread option offenses and pro-style attacks to read-and-react, pressure defenses.
There is also nearly a half-century age difference between the oldest coach in the conference (81-year-old Joe Paterno) and the youngest (Pat Fitzgerald at 33).
Additionally, each coach – with the exception of newcomer Rich Rodriguez, who is beginning his first season at Michigan – has had varying degrees of success in the Big Ten. That spawned the idea to try and rate the coaches from top to bottom, keeping the rankings based solely on conference performance.
When I first ranked the coaches, I wrote them down fairly quickly. After some research, though, I jumbled my initial list several times. The guys at No. 1 and No. 2 are fairly simple, but it gets really difficult after that. Here is the order I finally decided upon.
1. Jim Tressel, Ohio State – This is a no-brainer. Four conference titles and three trips to the national championship game over the past six years is a record none of his Big Ten counterparts can even come close to. It’s a record that puts him among the elite of his entire profession. The fact that Tressel is 6-1 with a four-game win streak against his archrival doesn’t hurt his résumé either. He has earned something few of his predecessors in Columbus ever did – barring some unforeseen catastrophes, he can coach the Buckeyes for as long as he wants.
2. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin – You may be surprised Bielema ranks this highly. Truth be told, so am I but the results don’t lie. In two seasons with the Badgers, Barry Alvarez’s hand-picked successor has won 21 of 26 games. That includes a spotless 14-0 record in Camp Randall. Of course, Bielema’s detractors look at last year’s 9-4 mark and point to wins against UNLV and Michigan State that could have gone the other way, not to mention to 37-21 victory against Michigan when Lloyd Carr rested Chad Henne and Mike Hart. Nevertheless, a win is a win. At least a measure of credit is due a coach whose team figures out ways to turn defeat into victory.
3. Joe Paterno, Penn State – I’m not sure I agree with the conventional thinking that the game has passed JoePa by. In fact, he would likely be a contender for the top of this list if we were considering an entire career’s body of work – 372 wins and two national titles. The rankings are based solely on Big Ten output, however, and with only two league championships in 15 seasons since joining the conference, you would have to consider the job Paterno has done less than ideal.
4. Ron Zook, Illinois – There is no doubt the Illini had a watershed season for Zook in 2007. After five straight losing seasons, they finished 9-4 that included a victory over then-No. 1 Ohio State, the program’s first win over a top-ranked team since 1956. Illinois also earned a Rose Bowl berth – but there’s the rub. After a marvelous regular season, the Illini were taken to the woodshed in Pasadena by USC to the tune of a 49-17 score. That only served to underline what has traditionally been Zook’s weak spot – in his career as a head coach at Florida and Illinois, he is winless in three bowl games and just 3-10 against top 25 competition.
5. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State – Most observers look at last year’s 7-6 record and see all six of those losses came by seven points or less. While that is obviously true, several of those games were potential victories the Spartans let get away. Still, a winning record was pretty good since Dantonio inherited a squad from John L. Smith that had lost eight of its last nine games the year before. Whether or not MSU improves in 2008 – turning those close losses into wins – remains to be seen. In four years as a head coach – three at Cincinnati and one in East Lansing – Dantonio has a career mark of 25-23.
6. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa – To say the Hawkeyes have been up and down during Ferentz’s tenure would be stating the obvious. After winning only twice in his first 20 games, Ferentz posted 40 victories in his next 53 games. Then things turned sour again and the Hawkeyes have gone 19-18 over the past three seasons. The downturn was punctuated last year when Iowa lost its season finale to Western Michigan and missed the postseason for the first time since 2000. It is little wonder why Ferentz’s name is no longer mentioned in connection with high-profile job openings.
7. Bill Lynch, Indiana – The job Lynch did last year after the death of Terry Hoeppner was remarkable. Many teams in that situation would have ridden an emotional roller-coaster all season, but the Hoosiers managed to go 7-5 during the regular season and get to a bowl game for the first time since 1993. A little closer scrutiny of IU’s season, however, shows a 49-33 loss to Oklahoma State in the Insight Bowl and a 3-5 record in the conference. The Hoosiers were outgained by an average of 70.5 yards by Big Ten opponents, the third-worst yardage differential in the conference.
8. Joe Tiller, Purdue – The last three seasons tell the tale on why Tiller is so low on this list. In 2005, the Boilermakers welcomed back all 11 starters on a defense that had allowed only 17.2 points per game the year before and played neither Ohio State nor Michigan. They finished 5-6. A year later, Tiller had 30 seniors and 11 more returning starters, but the best he could do after a 4-0 start was an 8-4 record. Last year, 18 more returning starters and a 5-0 start that fizzled into an 8-5 finish. Need more proof? Tiller’s record at Purdue is 12-34 against ranked teams.
9. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern – You could make the case that Fitzgerald is too low on this list. After all, the Wildcats improved a couple of games last year, moving up to a 6-6 record after finishing 4-8 during Fitzgerald’s first season. Despite the improvement in the end result, NU underachieved on defense last season – it gave up 28 or more points nine times last season, including each of the last four games. The Wildcats should be improved in 2008, which means Fitzgerald should be able to move up this list.
10. Tim Brewster, Minnesota – It’s difficult to imagine a worse start than Brewster had last season. The Gophers were 0-8 in the conference, got outgained by more than 100 yards in every game and were minus-15 in turnover margin. Moreover, Minnesota got beat by a Division I-AA team and the team’s only win came when Miami (Ohio) missed a 33-yard field goal at the end of the game. The good news for Brewster? Things can only get better.
11. Rich Rodriguez, Michigan – Since Rodriguez has yet to coach a game in the Big Ten, he can’t be any higher on this list. He takes over a team that finished 9-4 last season, including a 41-35 win over Florida in the Capital One Bowl, but last year’s version of the Wolverines should bare little resemblance to the 2008 model. Rodriguez is expected to completely revamp the offensive style in Ann Arbor, installing his version of the spread offense hopeful it will be as successful as it was for him at West Virginia. That, of course, remains to be seen. Rodriguez gets his Big Ten baptism by fire when the Wolverines open the conference schedule against Wisconsin and Illinois.
Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to former linebacker and special teams star Dwight “Ike” Kelley. Born July 14, 1944, in Ludington, Mich., Kelley moved with his family at a young age to Bremen, Ohio, near Lancaster. He played for the Buckeyes from 1963-65 and was a two-time All-American, the first Ohio State linebacker in history to win that honor twice. After graduation, Kelley played five seasons in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles as a linebacker and valuable member of their special teams units. Each year, Kelley returns to his alma mater to present the Dwight “Ike” Kelley Award to the Buckeye voted the team’s most outstanding special teams player.
Also celebrating today: film producer Joel Silver (“V for Vendetta,” the first two “Die Hard” movies, all four films in the Lethal Weapon series); movie and TV actor Dale Robertson; veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton; actress Polly Bergen; actress Jane Lynch (dog handler Christy Cummings in “Best of Show,” porn actress-turned-folk singer Laurie Bohner in “A Mighty Wind” and SmartTech manager Paula in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”); actor and former NFL star Roosevelt Grier; Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson; actor Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy in “The Sopranos”); evangelist Franklin Graham (Billy’s son); actor Matthew Fox (Jack Shephard on “Lost”); and Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden.
** Many college preseason publications are expecting Georgia or Florida to come out of the SEC this season and keep that conference’s streak of national championships going. If it’s going to be the Gators, however, Urban Meyer is going to have to solve a major problem on defense. Starting strong safety Dorian Munroe and his backup John Curtis are both out for the season with knee injuries. That leaves only free safety Major Wright and sophomore Bryan Thomas as scholarship players on Meyer’s roster with any college experience at safety.
** It won’t take long to find out if new Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has made progress shoring up the Cornhuskers defense. During a two-week stretch in early October, NU takes on Missouri and Texas Tech, teams that averaged around 40 points per game last season. And those games come on the heels of a Sept. 27 date with Virginia Tech, which averaged nearly 30 points last year.
** I have never had the problem with Billy Packer that some have. So what if he has an ego? Tell me that Dick Vitale doesn’t. Still, 28 consecutive years doing anything is a pretty good run. So, I’ll look forward to seeing how well Clark Kellogg meshes with Jim Nantz on NCAA Tournament coverage.
** Who said you had to have great pitching to contend in Major League Baseball? The Texas Rangers have managed to get to the All-Star break four games over .500 by knocking the cover off the ball. Outfielder Josh Hamilton leads the majors with 95 RBI at the break, and the Rangers have two players – second baseman Ian Kinsler and shortstop Michael Young – working on hitting streaks of at least 15 games. Kinsler’s streak reached 25 yesterday against the White Sox.
** Speaking of that game, the Rangers beat Chicago, 12-11, in a typical American League shootout that featured 39 hits. Afterward, White Sox manager and quote machine Ozzie Guillen said, “The pitchers should look themselves in the mirror and be embarrassed.”
** How would you like Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic to show up at your house and do their radio show? All you have to do is go to eBay where ESPN is auctioning off a chance to have the “Mike & Mike in the Morning” show broadcast from your home with proceeds going to the V Foundation for Cancer Research. You have until Wednesday to bid but you’d better have deep pockets. As of this writing, the current bid was $25,600.