A look at the 10 greatest seasons from Year 2 head coaches in the Big Ten
Expectations for the Michigan program are sky-high this season, a working combination of the Wolverines’ stellar returning talent, strong recruiting classes from 2015 and 2016, a championship-friendly schedule and the bold leadership acumen of coach Jim Harbaugh.
In advance of Harbaugh’s second campaign in Ann Arbor, Land of 10 takes a detailed look at most successful Year 2 head coaches in Big 10 history, a modern-era countdown which acknowledges only a coach’s second full season with and within the conference … meaning that neither Tom Osborne (1974 with Nebraska), Bo Pelini (2009 with Nebraska), Greg Schiano (2002 with Rutgers) nor Ralph Friedgen (2002 with Maryland) were eligible for consideration.
1. JIM TRESSEL, OHIO STATE
RECORD: 14-0 (BCS national champions)
KEY VICTORIES: Texas Tech, Washington State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue, Michigan, Miami (BCS national championship)
- Ohio State brought a new coolness to Winning Ugly during that 2002 campaign, needing good fortune to escape mediocre schools such as Cincinnati, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Purdue. In fact, the Buckeyes’ season literally came down to a fourth-down call against the Boilermakers, where quarterback Craig Krenzel completed a 37-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins — a pocket-collapsing pass play which initially looked doomed.
- Jenkins (61 catches, 1,076 yards, 6 TDs) and freshman tailback Maurice Clarett (1,341 total yards, 18 TDs) were the undisputed go-to options for Ohio State that season. In his first six collegiate games, Clarett averaged an absurd 140 rushing yards and 2.1 touchdowns. For the BCS title game against defending national champion Miami, Clarett found the end zone twice and also delivered the greatest forced fumble/recovery in Ohio State history at a crucial point of this double-overtime classic.
- The 2002 squad represents the Big Ten’s only Year 2 national champion of the modern era. In other words, Tressel (94-22 record and three BCS title games at Ohio State) has zero competition for the top spot.
2. URBAN MEYER, OHIO STATE
KEY VICTORIES: Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Michigan
- Meyer breezed through the first 24 games of his Ohio State tenure, going 12-0 in Year 1 (probation, no bowl) and then starting off the 2013 season at 12-0. But then trouble struck … with the Buckeyes losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship and then falling to Clemson in a high-scoring Orange Bowl.
- Ten of Ohio State’s 12 victories involved a double-digit point spread in 2013; the Buckeyes offense (No. 3 in the nation) eclipsed 30 points 13 times.
- Ohio State has only lost to Michigan three times this century; but the 2013 clash was particularly harried for the Buckeyes, who denied the Wolverines on a go-ahead, two-point conversion attempt in the final minute.
- Quarterback Braxton Miller was an easy choice for Big Ten Player of the Year, rolling for 3,162 total yards and 36 touchdowns. The defensive triumvirate of Ryan Shazier (7 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss), Noah Spence (7.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss) and freshman Joey Bosa (7.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss) were also dominant for the Buckeyes (nation’s No. 28 defense).
3. GARY BARNETT, NORTHWESTERN
KEY VICTORIES: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa
- The 1996 Wildcats remain one of the most celebrated afterthoughts in Big Ten history, consigned to follow the once-in-a-lifetime act of the 1995 Rose Bowl squad. From 1974 to 1994, Northwestern posted 21 consecutive seasons of four wins or fewer; but in ’95, Barnett’s first year with the program, the Wildcats improved to win 10 games and the outright conference championship. What’s more, Barnett immediately made good on the once-crazy promise of Taking The Purple To Pasadena.
- For the ’96 season, Northwestern notched impressive victories over Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa; however, losses to Wake Forest (a bad non-conference team) and Penn State (a 25-point drubbing) greatly hindered the Wildcats’ chances of capturing a national title. Throw in a blowout Outback Bowl loss to Tennessee and it’s fair to wonder if the cumulative toll of two incredibly fulfilling but taxing seasons had worn down the team.
- Tailback Darnell Autry scored 18 touchdowns in 1995 and ’96, before bolting early for the pros. During this span, Autry registered an amazing 720 touches.
- It’s worth noting: Northwestern earned back-to-back victories over Michigan during this prolific span. However, the Wildcats didn’t face Ohio State (1996 conference champs) during the two-year period.
4. GARY MOELLER, MICHIGAN
KEY VICTORIES: Notre Dame, Iowa, Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State
- Desmond Howard claimed the Heisman Trophy in 1991, catching 62 passes for 985 yards yards and 19 touchdowns. He also rushed 13 times for 180 yards, scoring twice, and returned both a kickoff and punt for touchdowns. Howard had two signature moments from the dream season: Against Notre Dame, Howard made a miraculous, diving TD reception on fourth down, clinching the home win over the vaunted Irish. Two months later against Ohio State, Howard returned a punt for a TD and celebrated the feat by posing like the Heisman statue in the end zone (video below). He would win the award in New York City a few weeks later.
- The Florida State loss was a short-term hit to Michigan’s pride, but it ended up being a seminal occurrence for the program. The Wolverines coaches were awed by the speed of the Seminoles players (like Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks) and consciously decided to recruit speed over pure brawn at playmaking spots on defense. That philosophy has remained intact for the better part of 20 years.
- Moeller, the handpicked successor to Bo Schembechler, incurred numerous highs and lows with the Wolverines (50-37-6 overall), and that includes the 1991 season. Of Michigan’s 10 victories, eight entailed a double-digit point spread … and the two losses (against Florida State and Washington) were statistical anomalies for a Michigan defense, which had allowed only 16.9 points per game (24th nationally).
5. BO SCHEMBECHLER, MICHIGAN
KEY VICTORIES: Iowa, Michigan State, Washington
- Around this juncture, Michigan was in the early stages of the famed 10-Year War with Ohio State. In fact, from 1970-74, the Wolverines racked up a stunning 50-4-1 combined record but only played in one postseason game (1972 Rose Bowl vs. Stanford).
- Of Michigan’s nine victories in 1970, only one school (Washington) finished the season with a winning record. As a counter to that, the Wolverines surrendered a grand total of 105 points.
- The loss to Ohio State would have been easy to predict. The Buckeyes sought revenge for the staggering 1969 loss to Michigan (while ranked No. 1 in the country), which remains perhaps the Big Ten’s most famous upset of the last 50 years.
6. JIM YOUNG, PURDUE
KEY VICTORIES: Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa, Georgia Tech (Peach Bowl)
- The hearty fans at Purdue couldn’t have asked for a better coach-quarterback marriage than Jim Young and Mark Herrmann, who broke NCAA freshman records for passing yards (2,453) and passing TDs (18) in 1978. In what seemed like an overnight occurrence, Young and Herrmann helped transform the Boilermakers — a perennial loser in the early 1970s — into a high-profile winner (28 victories from 1978 to 1980).
- How good was Purdue in 1978? All nine victories had a minimum spread of seven points, and both losses (Michigan, Notre Dame) came against teams that would finish the season ranked fifth and seventh, respectively. The Michigan State win was particularly impressive, given how the Spartans tied for the Big Ten championship (7-1) … and enjoyed an otherworldly average victory margin of 30 points for their final seven outings.
7. JOHN MACKOVIC, ILLINOIS
KEY VICTORIES: Southern California, Ohio State, Michigan State, Virginia (Citrus Bowl)
- Jeff George’s final season with the Illini was a rousing success. The future No. 1 overall pick wound up passing for 2,738 yards and 22 touchdowns, while leading his team to five road triumphs and a decisive victory over Virginia in the Citrus Bowl. The sublime supporting cast included receiver Mike Bellamy (59 catches, 927 yards, 8 TDs) and tailback Howard Griffith (1,087 total yards, 11 TDs).
- In the opener, Illinois overcame a 13-point deficit in the second half, before rallying for the unlikely win over No. 5 Southern California. Twelve days later, the Illini ran into a buzzsaw in No. 8 Colorado, the eventual co-national champs. However, everything changed for the better after that, with Illinois posting eight more victories by double-digit points. The lone down note: The November loss to Michigan ultimately decided the Big Ten crown.
8. GARY ANDERSEN, WISCONSIN
RECORD: 10-3 (didn’t coach in Badgers’ bowl victory)
KEY VICTORIES: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Bowling Green, Maryland, Rutgers
- Melvin Gordon was the ultimate showman for the 2014 Badgers, rushing for an incredible 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns. For one brief week, Gordon also held the NCAA record for single-game rushing yards, rolling for 408 yards and four touchdowns against Nebraska — an accomplishment that was trumped by Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine the following Saturday.
- Lost in the Gordon hullabaloo: backup tailback Corey Clement nearly rushed for 1,000 yards that season … on less than 150 carries. Clement’s a candidate for 1,500 rushing yards in 2016.
- Wisconsin was a balanced team in this regard, ranking 29th nationally for scoring offense and 18th for scoring defense.
- Andersen probably deserves a higher countdown ranking, but two factors ultimately brought down his status: 1) Wisconsin withered in a 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game; 2) Andersen bolted Madison for Oregon State shortly after the title-game debacle. As interim coach, Wisconsin legend Barry Alvarez guided the fired-up Badgers to an upset of Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
9. DENNY STOLZ, MICHIGAN STATE
KEY VICTORIES: Syracuse, Wisconsin, Purdue, No. 1 Ohio State
- For Michigan State’s 2008 season, Mark Dantonio collected quality victories over Notre Dame, Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin, while leading the Spartans to their first season of nine-plus wins since 1999 (Nick Saban). So, in that vein, this resume should have warranted the countdown’s No. 9 slot. However, three of MSU’s losses were double-digit drubbings, opening the door for Stolz to represent the Green and White.
- There was never a dull moment with the 1974 Spartans, who opened with two convincing wins over Northwestern and Syracuse before losing to UCLA, Notre Dame and Michigan over three consecutive weekends. However, Michigan State rebounded by winning five straight to close the regular season, highlighted by an upset of No. 1 Ohio State.
- Michigan State’s shakedown of top-ranked Ohio State involved extraordinary circumstances: Down by three and stationed at the MSU 1-yard line, Ohio State seemingly ran the ball into the end zone on time (above video), but NCAA officials would ultimately rule the Buckeyes didn’t snap the ball before the clock hit zero. The jubilant, baffled crowd at Spartan Stadium actually waited a full hour to hear the final decision.
10. JOE TILLER, PURDUE
KEY VICTORIES: Kansas State, Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan State, Illinois
Tiller gets countdown credit here on two fronts: 1) The ’98 season, which closed with six consecutive victories, served as the official coming-out party for Drew Brees. The super sophomore passed for 3,983 yards and 39 touchdowns. 2) The Boilermakers pulled off an Alamo Bowl shocker over No. 4 Kansas State, which opened December with a perfect record (prior to the Big 12 title-game loss to Texas A&M) and a great chance to become the first-ever BCS national champion. But alas, San Antonio would prove to be K-State’s Waterloo for that season.
SPECIAL MENTION — LOU HOLTZ, MINNESOTA
RECORD: 6-5 (didn’t coach in the Golden Gopher’s bowl triumph)
KEY VICTORIES: Purdue, Wisconsin, Clemson (Independence Bowl)
- Anyone can take over a ready-made program like Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin or Iowa in the modern era and succeed. (Rich Rodriguez’s still-lingering Michigan detractors might strongly disagree.) For this countdown, we’re also giving out bonus points to the coaches who instantly turned water into wine at middle-tier programs … even if they didn’t stick around to see the finished product.
- Never mind that none of Minnesota’s victories came against teams with winning records by season’s end. In 1985, the Golden Gophers commendably hung tough with Ohio State and Michigan State over consecutive Saturdays. They also rebounded from two humbling blowouts against Michigan and Iowa to knock off Clemson in the Independence Bowl. And for their coup de grace, the Gophers nearly pulled off the upset of the decade, falling to eventual national champion Oklahoma at the Metrodome (13-7).
- Of course, John Gutenkunst gets official credit for leading Minnesota to the aforementioned bowl win over Clemson — due to Holtz accepting the Notre Dame job — but it still felt worthwhile to recognize Holtz’s reversal-of-fortune work on some level.
BEST OF THE REST
**in chronological order
1973: Minnesota’s Cal Stoll — 7-4 (notable wins: Purdue, Iowa, Wisconsin … no bowl)
1977: MSU’s Darryl Rogers — 7-3-1 (notable wins: Wisconsin, Minnesota … no bowl)
1980: Ohio State’s Earle Bruce — 9-3 (notable wins: Arizona State, Indiana, Iowa)
1981: Illinois’ Mike White — 7-4 (notable wins: Michigan State, Iowa … no bowl)
1989: Ohio State’s John Cooper — 8-4 (notable wins: Oklahoma State, Minnesota, Indiana)
1996: Michigan’s Lloyd Carr — 8-4 (notable wins: Colorado, UCLA, Ohio State, MSU)
2000: Northwestern’s Randy Walker — 8-4 (notable wins: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan)
2007: Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema — 9-4 (notable wins: Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa)
2008: MSU’s Mark Dantonio — 9-4 (notable wins: Notre Dame, Michigan, Northwestern)
2012: Michigan’s Brady Hoke — 8-5 (notable wins: Michigan State, Northwestern)
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.