In our “Big Ten Breakdown” series, we will examine the five best players at each position or coaches in the conference. The series continues with a glance at the top five coaches in the Big Ten.
There’s an obvious big three in the Big Ten coaching ranks and they all compete against each other inside the cutthroat Big Ten East. The last three Big Ten championships have been won by either Ohio State or Michigan State, and it might not be long until Michigan takes home a conference crown.
That trio obviously made the cut, but it wasn’t difficult rounding out the top five either. Tenure in the conference mattered, as well as success given situation. Of course, championship rings came into play too.
Here’s a look at the five best coaches in the Big Ten :
5. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Record at Iowa: 127-87, 17 seasons
After a dismal 4-8 season in 2012 and a lackluster 7-6 campaign in 2014, it appeared that Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was on the hot seat. Then, magic ensued. The Hawkeyes shocked the nation en route to a 12-0 regular season, winning the Big Ten West.
Iowa lost its final two games, losing a heartbreaker to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, then getting obliterated by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But Ferentz’s seat is ice cold after a stellar season.
Ferentz is entering his 18th season in the Big Ten, which is certainly an accomplishment in itself. He’s won at least seven games in 12 of his first 17 seasons at the helm and won two conference titles in 2002 and 2004.
But Iowa needs to use last season as a spark for sustained national prominence. Ferentz also needs to achieve more success on the recruiting trail. His best recruiting class since 2013 was his most recent one, which ranked just 49th nationally.
4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Record at Northwestern: 70-56, 10 seasons
The second-longest tenured coach in the Big Ten is Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, who edges out Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio by one year. At Northwestern, that’s one heck of a feat.
But Fitzgerald hasn’t stuck around in Evanston, Ill., because he’s a former player who is beloved around campus. No, Fitzgerald has brought a new definition of success to one of the most historically dormant programs in the nation.
Northwestern has four 10-win seasons in school history. Two of those seasons were with Fitzgerald at the helm and another one was in 1903.
The Wildcats are now a factor in the Big Ten West and Fitzgerald’s best trait is his ability to maximize talent. Northwestern has had one top 50 recruiting class since 2013, but Northwestern’s recruiting results have been similar to Iowa over that same span.
It’s doubtful that Fitzgerald will ever attract truly elite talent to Evanston, but the point is he makes the most of what he’s got.
Obviously, Fitzgerald’s 1-5 bowl record isn’t great and that might be his greatest indictment. Beggars can’t be choosers, but Northwestern isn’t exactly a beggar any more thanks to Fitzgerald.
3. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Record at Michigan: 10-3, one season
If we’re factoring in Jim Harbaugh’s work in the NFL, then he could be placed at No. 1. But, this is an examination of what these coaches have done only at their respective Big Ten schools. That means Harbaugh ranks third among the big three. For now.
Harbaugh is tremendous with quarterbacks and was a QB whisperer during his first season in Ann Arbor. He transformed Jake Rudock and his play improved markedly from the season opener at Utah to the season finale against Florida.
Harbaugh has also brought a flashy, brash and perhaps pompous attitude to the program, making Michigan as loathed as ever.
The problem is Harbaugh only has one season under his belt and must meet the expectations he has cultivated at Michigan. Wolverines fans are expecting Big Ten championships, but that’s easier said than done when you share a division with Michigan State and Ohio State.
Of course, that won’t be viewed as an excuse, especially after Harbaugh reeled in the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class.
2. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Record at Michigan State: 87-33, nine seasons
Mark Dantonio might be the most underappreciated coach in the nation, but that doesn’t bother him. To quote DJ Khaled, “All he does is win.”
Dantonio has won at least 11 games in five of his last six seasons. He’s 4-1 in his last five bowl games after losing his first four bowl appearances with the Spartans. He made the College Football Playoff last season against all odds and knocked off Ohio State and Michigan on the road in the process.
The Spartans never seem to be out of contention, even despite roster attrition. That’s mainly in part due to Dantonio’s uncanny ability to reload on the fly. That trait will be put to the test this season, as Michigan State loses the winningest quarterback in school history and loses a few playmakers on both sides of the ball.
But if Dantonio has taught us anything during his tenure at Michigan State, it’s to never rule out the Spartans.
1. Urban Meyer
Record at Ohio State: 50-4, four seasons
Now, I know Dantonio has been in the Big Ten much longer and has done a ton with less talent. But Ohio State’s Urban Meyer already has something Dantonio does not in just four seasons with the Buckeyes: A championship ring.
Dantonio lost six games in his first season with the Spartans in 2007. Meyer has lost four games in his first four seasons combined at Ohio State.
Meyer hasn’t missed a beat since taking over the program. He went undefeated in his debut season despite a postseason ban, went to the Orange Bowl in his second season and won the whole enchilada in his third season.
Last year, Ohio State took a “step back,” despite winning 12 games once again. It’s incredible that a 12-1 season and a Fiesta Bowl victory would be deemed a disappointing season. But it’s a championship or bust culture in Columbus and that’s mainly due to Meyer raising the bar to an exalted level.
Meyer might have his toughest job ahead of him this season, as the Buckeyes will replace 16 starters, including a ton of first-round NFL draft picks.
Don’t worry, Meyer has three top 10 recruiting classes that will surely fill in the gaps and the Buckeyes might not miss a beat.