This offseason was relatively calm on the head coaching change front within the Big Ten. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been ripe with turnover thanks to the transfer portal and several schools overhauling their staffs on one side of the ball or the other. The only head coaching change was at Illinois, who brought Bret Bielema back into the Big Tenfold.
If we learned anything during the pandemic season last year, it’s that the role of coaches and how they handle and maneuver through perilous times drastically affects outcomes. As we get closer and closer to the 2021 season, let’s subjectively rank each of the head coaches in the Big Ten.
1. Ryan Day, Ohio State
2020: 7-1 | Overall at Current School: 23-2 | Overall as Head Coach: 23-2
Since taking over for Urban Meyer, Day has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations. He hasn’t lost a single regular-season game as his only two losses were against Clemson in the CFP semi-finals and to Alabama in the National Championship. Not to mention, he has also brought in loaded recruiting classes multiple times. This was an easy decision to rank Day at the top.
2. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
2020: 7-2 | Overall at Current School: 106-81 | Overall as Head Coach: 106-81
Fitzgerald took over a decrepit Northwestern program and has turned them around over his 15-year tenure. His resume includes taking the Wildcats to two Big Ten Championship games including five bowl wins. He has routinely turned down offers from bigger programs to remain loyal to his alma mater. Fitzgerald is certainly a legendary figure in Northwestern sports history.
3. Tom Allen, Indiana
2020: 6-2 | Overall at Current School: 24-22 | Overall as Head Coach: 24-22
It may be a bit ambitious to rank Allen as the third-best coach in the conference at this point, but it’s hard to understate how good of a job he’s done in the past few years. Allen took a cellar-dwelling Indiana program and has finished seventh, sixth, fourth, and second in the Big Ten East during his first four full years with the program. Turning Indiana into a conference contender is worthy of a high ranking in my book.
4. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
2020: 4-3 | Overall at Current School: 56-19 | Overall as Head Coach: 75-38
Nationally, Chryst is consistently underrated as a head coach. Excluding 2020 because of the pandemic, Chryst has won 10 games every single year at Wisconsin except for one. While it may not be sexy football, making Big Ten Championship appearances in three of the last five years is impressive, all while not recruiting at the levels of Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State.
5. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
2020: 2-4 | Overall at Current School: 49-22 | Overall as Head Coach: 151-68
While it’s easy to pile on Jim Harbaugh after the debacle of a 2020 season and his inability to beat Ohio State, it’s still worth noting that he’s easily one of the most successful coaches in the conference. In his five full seasons at Michigan (excluding 2020), Harbaugh has won 10 games three times. He has also been a top-tier recruiter, despite rarely beating Ohio State.
6. James Franklin, Penn State
2020: 4-5 | Overall at Current School: 60-28 | Overall as Head Coach: 84-43
Others may rank James Franklin much higher than sixth in the conference, but I’m comfortable with him here due to his poor clock management and inability to win big games. Franklin is one of the best recruiters in the Big Ten but only has one conference championship to his name. While Michigan fans would take a championship of any sort at this point, Franklin’s disappointing results with the immense talent he’s had is why I have him at sixth.
7. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
2020: 6-2 | Overall at Current School: 168-106 | Overall as Head Coach: 180-127
Ferentz certainly has the longest tenure in the Big Ten, but with middling results. 168 wins at Iowa is nothing to scoff at. However, over his 22-year career at Iowa, Ferentz has only won the Big Ten twice, both in ties (2002 and 2004). His longevity is impressive but at what cost?
8. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
2020: 3-4 | Overall at Current School: 26-19 | Overall as Head Coach: 56-41
P.J. Fleck was undoubtedly the hardest coach for me to rank. Nationally, there was quite a bit of clamor and attention on Fleck’s move to Minnesota and the Gophers great season in 2019. On the flip side, Fleck put up a clunker during the pandemic season last year and has not yet recruited with the top tier of the conference. For me, the luster of the P.J. Fleck hiring is beginning to diminish.
9. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
2020: 2-4 | Overall at Current School: 19-25 | Overall as Head Coach: 49-35
Brohm is the type of coach where the perception does not quite match the records. I think very fondly of Jeff Brohm and the direction that he has the Purdue program going in (thanks to their inexplicable ability to upset Ohio State). When you check the stats and records, they tell an entirely different story. Since taking over in 2017, the Boilermakers have won seven, six, four, and two games consecutively. That’s not exactly the greatest of trends.
10. Mike Locksley, Maryland
2020: 2-3 | Overall at Current School: 6-17 | Overall as Head Coach: 8-43
Similar to Brohm, it feels like Locksley has Maryland headed in the right direction but the numbers don’t back that up. The Terrapins went 3-9 in Locksley’s first year in 2019 and followed that up by going 2-3 in 2020. With that being said, Maryland is primed to bring in quite a recruiting haul in 2021. I expect to see Locksley move up these rankings as time goes on.
11. Greg Schiano, Rutgers
2020: 3-6 | Overall at Current School: 71-73 | Overall as Head Coach: 82-94
Schiano rose to national fame when he turned Rutgers into a respectable program during the late 2000s. His 2020 return brought enthusiasm back to a Rutgers program that desperately needed it. However, I’m much more skeptical than most. It took Schiano six years to bring Rutgers back to decency the first time around and that was against Big East competition. He then struggled immensely as an NFL coach. Simply put, returning to the Big Ten is considerably different than rejoining the Big East.
12. Mel Tucker, Michigan State
2020: 2-5 | Overall at Current School: 2-5 | Overall as Head Coach: 9-15
It’s easy to get swept up in the fact that Tucker and Michigan State beat their rivals in year one with the program. People forget that the rest of the season was pretty putrid by all accounts. Tucker is still working on finding players that fit his system as the Spartans have been very active in the transfer portal. Having never had a winning season as a head coach in his entire career, I’ll believe it when I see it with regards to Tucker.
13. Scott Frost, Nebraska
2020: 3-5 | Overall at Current School: 12-20 | Overall as Head Coach: 31-27
Frost came home to Lincoln with as much, if not more, fanfare than Harbaugh did to Ann Arbor. He was a native son who had seen nothing but success at every stop he’d been at coming home to a program that so desperately needed him. It’s safe to say that Frost has been an even bigger disappointment to Huskers fans than Harbaugh has to Michigan. Frost has yet to have a winning season in Lincoln, has not recruited well nationally, and doesn’t appear to have a roster capable of competing in the conference any time soon, let alone nationally.
14. Bret Bielema, Illinois
2020: N/A | Overall at Current School: N/A | Overall as Head Coach: 97-58
Bielema returns to the Big Ten in arguably the toughest position of any coach. Lovie Smith saw some success in 2019 by winning six games but fell back to the bottom of the Big Ten West in 2020. Having finished sixth or seventh in four of the last five years, the cupboards seem pretty bare for Bielema’s return. He’ll try to bring the same success he had at Wisconsin over to Illinois, though it is perenially difficult to recruit at Illinois.