If you missed part one of our series, read it here.
How exactly did the Big Ten get to such a state? This is not a conference built upon losses to MAC teams and Notre Dame, but a conference built upon a tradition of winning and excellence. So when did it all happen? At what point did the Big Ten go from a New Years Day staple to the lone conference on the outside looking in at the playoff. Was it the media always putting down the conference? Was it the constant "neutral site" games played deep in opposing territory? Those long time excuses probably didn't help, but the reality is the biggest detriment to the Big Ten was a loss of top tier coaches.
The tale of Four Coaches
The last time the Big Ten could rival the SEC in terms of national relevance was in 2006. Coming off an epic edition of "The Game" Ohio State was a lock for the title game at 12-0, with rival Michigan and Wisconsin in the discussion at 11-1. This was the year it all seemed to come together for the Big Ten, until it didn't. Once again the Bowl Games proved deadly for the Big Ten, beginning when Michigan was denied the rematch with OSU. The BCS selected Florida to play OSU (despite a loss to Auburn) in a decision that would only get worse for Big Ten fans when Alabama was given a second chance against rival LSU. You all know the story from there. Florida beat Ohio. USC beat Michigan. Tebow was Tebow. And the SEC began a title run that would last 7 years. Woo. The Big Ten was never the same.
That season in the Big Ten the top four teams were coached by Jim Tressel, Lloyd Carr, Bret Bielema and Joe Paterno. Yet all four would be out of the Big Ten within 5 years.
The first to leave was Lloyd Carr. Having coached Michigan for 10 years, Lloyd Carr had won 5 Big Ten titles and one National Title but had just missed his last chance for another one. Rumors had been spreading for a while about the Student of Bo's eventual retirement and the team on the field was no doubt affected. The 2006 squad was easily the best in recent memory and the losses were felt on both side of the ball. So when Michigan opened their 2007 season with a home loss to App. State the fate of Carr was sealed. The Michigan team would rebound to beat Florida in the Gator bowl (forever proving they deserved to play in the title game in '06) but it would be Carr's last year with the team. Michigan hired Rich Rod, Stanford hired Harbaugh, Les won a title, Michigan fired Rich Rod, the 49ers hired Harbaugh, Michigan hired Hoke, Les lost a title and it all adds up to one less contender for the Big Ten.
The second to leave wasn't on quite as good terms. On March 8th, 2011 Jim Tressel was informed that he would be suspended for the first two games of 2011 in the first of two scandals that would forever change the Big Ten landscape. To make a well known story short, Ohio State players had been trading memorabilia for free tattoos dating back to 2002. The result? No Terrelle Pryor, No Jim Tressel. No official wins in 2010. While Michigan fans rejoiced, the Big Ten suffered. With Carr and Tressel gone, the last two Big Ten National Title winners had lost their coaches.
The next year the Big Ten suffered its biggest blow when Jerry Sandusky went down and took Joe Paterno with him. This scandal went far and beyond the limited scope of Big Ten football but the effect it had on the conference is undeniable. Joe Paterno had been a Big Ten icon since the expansion and the definition of Penn State football long before then. Through 45 years as Penn State's head coach he led Penn State to 5 undefeated seasons and was just two years removed from back to back 11-win seasons when the college football world stop. Paterno passed in January of 2012 leaving behind a long but tainted legacy and a gaping hole for one of the Big Ten's more prominent teams.
The final big blow to the Big Ten came on December 12th, 2012 when Bret Bielema left his post at Wisconsin to join the Arkansas Razorbacks in the SEC. Built as the successor to the legendary Barry Alvarez (who easily could have been the start to this article) Bielema had led Wisconsin to 3 straight Big Ten Titles while never winning less 7 games in his 7 years as a head coach. Bielema had looked like a Big Ten staple for the next decade before packing up for warmer pastures. His departure sent a message to the Big Ten the world already knew: the Big Ten was old and busted and the SEC was the new hotness.
Each of these coaches left their program in bad shapes when they left. Michigan would suffer their first losing season since the Cretaceous period and continues to look for a long term answer at Coach. Ohio State would suffer a 7-6 season but rebound to hire Urban Meyer, only to have Meyer win a bunch of games in a row without actually winning anything. Penn State would rebound as well as could be expected under Bill O'Brien, only to have HIM leave for the NFL. Wisconsin would lose yet another Rose Game under Barry Alvarez before handing the ropes to Gary Anderson with the hopes of regaining elite status.
The result? A conference that is grossly under-matched compared to its biggest rival. Don't believe me? SEC rolls out a top five set of coaches consisting of Nick Saban, Les Miles, Steve Spurrier, Kevin Sumlin, Guz Malzahn which doesn't even mention Bielema, Richt or Muschamp. The Big Ten? Mark Dantonio, Urban Meyer, Gary Anderson, Pat Fitzgerald and Brady Hoke. The Big Ten can't even begin to compete on the field until it can compete on the sideline.