Rating the Big Ten Head Coaches
By Tony Gerdeman
Talent alone isn't going to get the job done in the Big Ten. It also takes blown holding calls, terrible spots, and coaching.
Coaching isn't just about coaching. It's also about gameplans, development, execution, tactics, decision making, talent, mindset, etc.
Coaches will tell you that they need great players if they themselves are going to be great, and it's true. No great coach ever succeeded without the talent to follow his lead.
Clearly, the coaches at the top of this list have no shortage of talent to work with, and they'd be the first ones to tell you that.
They also know how to get the most out of the players that they have, and ultimately that's what separates the winners and the losers.
1. Wisconsin – Bret Bielema
Bret Bielema has won 49 games in his first five seasons as the Badgers head coach. In Barry Alvarez's final five seasons, he won 39 games. Alvarez' best five-year stretch was 46 wins from 1996-2000, which used to be the best stretch in school history. Amazingly, Bielema did it with four different quarterbacks and three different leading rushers. Scott Tolzien, who started at quarterback in 2009 and 2010, was the only quarterback to start more than one season in that stretch. Bielema is still just 41 years old. What would happen if he went to a place where they could lure rampant five-star recruits instead of having to develop players over a period of years? Bielema isn't the most popular coach in the Big Ten, but it's impossible to argue with his success.
2. Ohio State – Jim Tressel and Luke Fickell
As it stands right now, Jim Tressel will be missing the first five games of the season and leaving assistant head coach Luke Fickell in charge of Saturday operations. Even without Tressel for the early portion of the schedule, this team will still bear his mark and his identity out on the field. He is, without question, the most complete coach in the conference. Unless you're Penn State however, you can't expect a team to play without their head coach and not miss a beat, especially when that coach is Jim Tressel. The Buckeyes will be fine against Akron, Toledo, and Colorado, but what happens when this team is on the road at Miami and things start to go wrong? Jim Tressel is the rock of this team—will Luke Fickell remain as sturdy?
3. Nebraska – Bo Pelini
In Bo Pelini's first season at Nebraska in 2008 he inherited a 5-7 team that had given up an astounding 455 points. His first team went 9-4 and gave up 371 points. The following year his defense gave up just 146 points in a 10-4 season. He managed to take his last two teams to the Big XII Championship Game where they lost both by less than a touchdown. His teams are never pretty, but they certainly have a way of maximizing their potential while masking their many flaws. Not only is Pelini a quality coach, but he's also shown quite a babysitting skill when it comes to Taylor Martinez. Despite the drama and turmoil that surrounded Martinez last season, Pelini and his team marched on. Even when the offense stalled, Pelini's defense never let up.
4. Michigan State – Mark Dantonio
The Spartans won a share of a Big Ten Championship last year for the first time in 21 seasons, and Mark Dantonio was the reason why. In only four seasons, he managed to do what Nick Saban couldn't do in five. Dantonio has brought talent to East Lansing, and he's actually gotten that talent to play up to their abilities. Dantonio is a very good coach, but he's still not good enough to keep Sparty from Spartying. Maybe nobody is. No matter which plays are called, there will always be a few plays in a Michigan State game that defy logic. It's Dantonio's charge to make sure those moments don't decide games, and he did that last year by going 4-0 in games decided by eight points or less.
5. Iowa – Kirk Ferentz
Generally, when much is expected of Iowa, many are eventually disappointed by the outcome. When very little is expected of the Hawkeyes, that is when they surprise people. So do we blame Kirk Ferentz for never getting the most out of his "best" teams, or do we beatify him for taking his "lesser" teams farther than most expected? Obviously, it's somewhere in between, despite what his three Big Ten Coach of the Year awards will tell you, but there's something to be said for his predictability. I expect Ferentz to be at his best this season because his team will rely on him more than a veteran team would. Sometimes, for whatever reason, when players think they know what they're doing, they think they don't need to be coached as much as they do.
6. Northwestern – Pat Fitzgerald
One of the key components for any coach is to be able to get his team to be as composed as he is, and despite a bit of a frenetic offense and bendable defense, Pat Fitzgerald accomplishes this. Well, until he loses Dan Persa that is. The Wildcats were 7-3 last year prior to Persa's injury, then finished 7-6. Still, it was the defense that let the team down more than the offense, and that has to go on coaching as much as talent. I tend to think as Fitzgerald's on-field talent increases, so will his coaching skills. As it stands now, when he has a veteran unit and favorable schedule, the Wildcats will always have nine or ten wins in their sights, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment for a school like Northwestern.
7. Purdue – Danny Hope
If coaches had the ability to transfer their own hubris to their team, the Boilermakers would never lose. Danny Hope knows how to coach and the only thing holding him back is the fact that he's doing it at Purdue. Had the entire team not torn its collective ACL last season, the Boilers could have very well gone 8-4 instead of 4-8. Every year Hope's team will beat somebody they shouldn't. Last year, that was Northwestern. The year before it was Ohio State. Granted, last year's win was a little less impressive, but he did it on the road against a 5-0 team, and he did it with a quarterback who was 6-18 passing for 47 yards and an interception. The team is adopting Hope's identity, and pretty soon nobody is going to want to face 85 scholarship mustaches.
8. Penn State – Joe Paterno
First off, let's be clear that having Joe Paterno listed as a head coach is something that I have to do because his name is still on the door, but his day-to-day input and control is about what you would expect from a coach who doesn't recruit anymore and who only works from nine to five. There is no doubt that he is one of the greatest football coaches of all-time, but he's more of a figurehead than a coach anymore. It would be completely unfair to base this ranking solely on Paterno, and if I did, Penn State would be at the bottom of the list. He has absolutely done a fabulous job of surrounding himself with good coaches, and defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is one of the best, but being a head coach in the Big Ten is about more than just delegating. When that's your most prevalent quality, what does that say about you?
9. Michigan – Brady Hoke
Addition by subtraction has never been so spot on. Just the fact that Rich Rodriguez is gone and the Wolverines can begin to field an actual defense is a plus. Brady Hoke may not be the fans' first choice, and the transition may not be all that smooth, but at least Michigan won't enter each game facing a virtual 21-0 deficit before the ball is even kicked off. Given what he has to work with, and how he's choosing to work with those pieces, the offense may not be overly DVR-able, but the defense will be instantly improved because it would be impossible not to be. Hoke understands Big Ten football, which Rodriguez never did. That understanding may not win him a game this year, but it will help him a great deal in building a football program. And right now, that's what Michigan needs the most. Consider it time-released coaching.
10. Minnesota – Jerry Kill
In Jerry Kill's first two seasons at Southern Illinois he was 5-18. Over his final five seasons his teams went 50-14. In his first two seasons at Northern Illinois he went 13-13 before going 10-3 last year. It's pretty apparent that Kill knows how to turn a program around, but this will be the largest reclamation project he's ever attempted. We know that Minnesota can be a bowl team year in and year out, because we saw Glen Mason do it. Heck, we even saw Tim Brewster do it the last two years. Kill will try to get this team back to the hard-nosed style they used to have with a focus on fundamentals and the line of scrimmage, but he's still going to need to bring in playmakers, and his immediate success in recruiting will depend on how his team looks this season. I think he'll get the Gophers back to where Mason had them, but he's going to have to prove it first.
11. Indiana – Kevin Wilson
Kevin Wilson was Oklahoma's offensive coordinator since 2002 before coming to Indiana, so clearly he knows how to implement an offense. Unfortunately for him, it's much easier to do so at Oklahoma than it is at Indiana. Still, it's not like offense has been the main problem for the Hoosiers over the years. The defense will always hold the Hoosiers back from constantly competing for upper division status, though with the new alignment, upper division status difficulty just got cut in half. Regardless, we can expect Wilson to be able to build an offense at Indiana, and that will be the key to getting the Hoosiers back to postseason play. What that offense will look like early on, however, will not resemble anything we've seen at Oklahoma recently.
12. Illinois – Ron Zook
It's no secret that while at Illinois Ron Zook becomes a better coach when he has a dominating running game. His Rose Bowl team in 2007 had Rashard Mendenhall's 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns. Last year's team was his only other bowl team, and they had Mikel LeShoure's 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns. Outside of that, however, there's been nothing. Good coaches can overcome their team's flaws, but not only can Zook not overcome flaws, he needs a particular unit to be outstanding for his team to even make it to a bowl game. What does it say about a coach that before we rank him, we have to see what his depth chart at running back looks like? To be honest, though, he could have Barry Sanders carrying the ball and there would still be a certain level of inexplicability attached to Zook. Though calling it "inexplicable" makes it seem like Zook isn't responsible for his team's failings--which he is.
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