Big Ten likely experiencing a ‘golden age’ with its head football coaches
This week, the Athlon’s preview magazine released its head-coaching rankings for college football’s FBS programs.
Lo and behold, a grand total of nine Big Ten coaches cracked the overall top 50, with Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio commandeering the countdown’s second, third and fourth slots, respectively.
Spoiler alert: Alabama’s Nick Saban – five national titles since 2003 – owns the No. 1 spot.
Feel free to debate Athlon’s rankings in any manner, perhaps starting with a fair question of why Harbaugh leads Dantonio (7-1 against Michigan since 2008) by a single slot?
Or, how can LSU’s Les Miles (112-32 record with the Tigers, two SEC titles, one national championship) be only the 25th-best active coach in America? (Note: LSU is my preseason pick to win this year’s College Football Playoff.)
For this column, however, we’re simply focusing on how the Big Ten might be experiencing a golden age of head coaches right now.
In fact, this may not even be something worth debating.
URBAN MEYER, OHIO STATE
Meyer has an absurd record of 50-4 with the Buckeyes. Putting that into perspective, here are the best four-year stretches of three Ohio State coaching legends:
- Jim Tressel (44-8 from 2007-10)
- John Cooper (43-7 from 1995-98)
- Woody Hayes (42-5-1 from 1973-76)
The hyper-intense Meyer captured two BCS national titles with Florida in 2006 and 2008. For what it’s worth, his greatest four-year stretch in Gainesville was 48-7 (2006-09).
Meyer has a lifetime coaching record of 154-27 and five conference championships on his resume. He also collected nine different seasons of double-digit victories — including a perfect 12-0 run with Utah in 2004.
The Meyer coaching tree includes Dan Mullen (Mississippi State), Charlie Strong (Texas), Steve Addazio (Boston College) and Kyle Whittingham (Utah).
JIM HARBAUGH, MICHIGAN
Harbaugh oversaw Stanford’s incredible four-year turnaround a decade ago, transforming from a 4-8 squad in 2007 into a 12-1 juggernaut in 2010 that included an Orange Bowl triumph over Virginia Tech.
In his first year with the Cardinal, Harbaugh engineered one of this century’s greatest upsets, with Stanford — a 41-point underdog — stunning No. 2 Southern California on the road.
With the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2014, Harbaugh enjoyed a cumulative record of 44-19-1 — a four-year stint that wrought one NFC title, two NFC West crowns and three straight trips to the NFC championship game. He lost in the Super Bowl to his brother John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
Harbaugh led Michigan to a 10-3 record last season, his inaugural year with the program. As a capper, the Wolverines waxed Florida in the Citrus Bowl.
By a long shot, Harbaugh happily serves as college football’s greatest lightning rod of media attention. His relentless approach to selling the U-M program has already reaped rewards, given Michigan’s coup of landing defensive tackle Rashan Gary, the nation’s top-ranked prep recruit in 2016 (source: 247Sports).
MARK DANTONIO, MICHIGAN STATE
Michigan State has produced five different seasons of 11-plus victories this decade. In FBS circles, only Alabama’s Nick Saban can match or surpass that feat.
Since 2010, the Spartans own a 65-16 record, easily the best mark for any Big Ten coach in that six-year period.
Dantonio has already claimed two outright Big Ten championships (2013 and 2015) and one shared title (2010 with Wisconsin).
For what it’s worth, Saban, who coached the Spartans from 1995 to 1999, only had one season of eight-plus wins at Michigan State. He was 9-2 in 1999, the year before he left for LSU before the bowl game, which MSU won.
It’s never too early to call this race: Dantonio already stands as the greatest coach in MSU football history.
KIRK FERENTZ, IOWA
From 1999-2015, Ferentz has compiled an overall record of 127-87 with the Hawkeyes (76-60 in Big Ten action). Under Ferentz’s watch, Iowa shared two Big Ten titles during the BCS era (2002, 2004).
At Iowa, Ferentz has notched four seasons of double-digit victories. He also has six bowl wins since 2001. Ferentz has experienced slightly more success than his predecessor, Hayden Fry. Although in fairness to the legend, when Fry (232 college victories) inherited the Iowa program in 1979, the Hawkeyes were a wretched 24-72-2 the previous nine seasons.
Here’s something else to consider: Iowa has had just two head coaches since 1979.
PAT FITZGERALD, NORTHWESTERN
No modern-day Northwestern coach can likely match the two-year brilliance of Gary Barnett, who took the purple to Pasadena in 1995, winning the Big Ten title outright and going to the Rose Bowl. He then followed it up with a shared conference title in 1996 along with Ohio State.
However, it’s safe to say that Fitzgerald (70-56 overall record) has been the Wildcats’ greatest long-term coach of the modern era. At Northwestern, where academics always supersede athletics, Fitzgerald boasts five winning seasons, including three years of nine-plus victories.
If Fitzgerald ever wanted to leave his alma mater, – which isn’t likely to happen for quite some time – he would be a highly coveted property throughout college football and the NFL. Fitzgerald’s reputation is sterling and virtually flawless.
LOVIE SMITH, ILLINOIS
Lovie Smith may be a relative newcomer to college football as a head coach, but his supreme NFL track record suggests the Fighting Illini made the proper hire.
With the Chicago Bears (2004-12), Smith collected four 10-win seasons, three NFC North titles and one NFC championship (2006).
Smith and Tony Dungy are also the first black head coaches in history to reach the Super Bowl (same game).
JAMES FRANKLIN, PENN STATE
The 44-year-old Franklin has a five-year coaching record of 38-27 (two seasons with Penn State, three with Vanderbilt). For 2012 and ’13, Vanderbilt racked up back-to-back seasons of nine wins — the first time in school history.
From Oct. 20, 2012 to Jan. 4, 2014, Vanderbilt went 16-4 during a 20-game stretch. Of the SEC teams during that time span, only Alabama had a better overall record (18-3).
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.