“So long as you feel you made the right decision based on the information you had at that time, there’s no need to fret about it.”
The late Bo Schembechler wrote those words, and it’s as if he were speaking directly to my colleague Seth Gruen and me. It was all the inspiration and justification we needed to produce what we choose to believe is, and might in fact be, the very first Sun-Times Big Ten Football Coaches Rankings.
OK, fine, I happened upon that Schembechler quote long after our rankings were complete. Still, it seemed fitting. This one’s for you, Bo. You, too, Woody.
1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Nick Saban only wishes he could match Meyer’s career winning percentage of .837, an amazing figure when you consider Meyer’s first two stops were at Bowling Green and Utah. The Urbmeister soared onto the national radar with the Utes, became an icon (and later a fallen icon) at Florida and can join Saban on the Mount Rushmore of college coaches if he delivers the Bucknut faithful — and the Big Ten — their first national title since 2002.
2. Mark Dantonio, Michigan St.
His 2013 season — when Sparty whipped every Big Ten opponent, including OSU in the league title game, by double digits — sets him far above the remainder of the field. Everybody is gaga over MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi these days, with good reason, but he’s merely following in the footsteps of Dantonio, who once was a championship difference-maker as DC on Jim Tressel’s staff at Ohio State. Entering Year 8 in East Lansing, Dantonio is in the discussion of the top 10 coaches in the nation.
3. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Deep breaths, Illinois fans — this isn’t our alleged Chicago bias talking. Over eight seasons in charge, Fitz (oh, how we love to call him that!) has averaged a hair under seven victories. Incredible? Nah. Impressive? At NU, it’s hugely so. Only 39 years old, Fitz already is the school’s winningest football coach. A second consecutive losing campaign, though, would have to knock him down at least a couple of pegs among his Big Ten peers.
4. James Franklin, Penn State
What Franklin accomplished at Vanderbilt — a 24-15 record, sudden competitiveness in the SEC and three straight bowl appearances — is right up there with the best work Fitzgerald has done at Northwestern. The 42-year-old Pennsylvania native and ace recruiter seems like a natural fit at Penn State, where he will enjoy many of the inherent program advantages he didn’t have at tradition-poor Vandy. Someday, Franklin could top this list.
5. Jerry Kill, Minnesota
In his first seasons at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota, Kill was a combined 9-26, a record that surely reflects the harsh realities of those squads’ rosters. In Season 3 — including last year’s eight-win campaign with the Gophers — the record jumps to 28-9, a testament to Kill’s doggedness and effectiveness as a program builder. The man deserves to be known across the land for much more than his ongoing struggle with a seizure disorder.
6. Gary Andersen, Wisconsin
Andersen put it all together in 2012, when his final Utah State team won 11 games and lost only two — by a combined five points at Wisconsin and at BYU. If you suspect that narrow defeat in Madison got Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez’s attention, you’re right on the money. The well-rounded Andersen paid dues as a coordinator on both sides of the ball, which is rare and impressive.
7. Bo Pelini, Nebraska
He is 58-24 at Nebraska, with matching 17-7 records in the Big 12 and Big Ten conferences. That’s good, right? Well, it’s pretty good. But all six of Pelini’s Huskers teams have finished with four losses, and you don’t need Twitter sensation @FauxPelini to tell you that doesn’t quite cut it in Big Red Nation. Indeed, 2014 is a biggie for Bo.
8. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
A decade ago, Ferentz was in the midst of a brilliant three-year stretch in which Iowa won 31 games and he became one of the top names in the business. The last nine seasons have nearly drowned Hawkeyes fans in blahs. Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten coaches, has five seasons to go to match predecessor Hayden Fry’s 20. Will he get there?
9. Brady Hoke, Michigan
Hoke’s sixth and final Ball State team went 12-1, but his overall record at that school was below .500. Somehow, that and two pretty good years at San Diego State landed Hoke in Ann Arbor, where he killed it in Year 1, winning the Sugar Bowl. So all good, right? Heck, no. The Wolverines have gone strangely soft since, losing a combined 11 times in 2012 and 2013. Meanwhile, rivals Ohio State and Michigan State are thriving. Awkward!
10. Randy Edsall, Maryland
This is awfully low for a guy with a BCS game on his head-coaching resume. About that, though: Edsall’s 2010 UConn team lost by four touchdowns to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl and finished with a record of 8-5. Edsall was 74-70 in his years at UConn — not bad, but almost irrelevant in light of his awful 13-24 record at UMd.
11. Tim Beckman, Illinois
The record thus far at Illinois — 6-18 overall, 1-15 in Big Ten play — is abominable. It brings the 49-year-old Beckman’s moderate success at Toledo into question. For a defensive-oriented coach, he sure hasn’t had many good, or even decent, defenses. Look, we could go on with the negatives, but you know what? The Illinois program is improving. With a soul-crushing slowness, sure, but let’s not nitpick. Seriously, Beckman is doing good work in Champaign. Give the dude a chance.
12. Kevin Wilson, Indiana
His spectacular offenses as coordinator at Oklahoma gave Wilson instant credibility as a head coach. All he has now, though, is his record at IU — 10-26 overall and 5-19 in league play. It’s mighty hard to win in Bloomington, but that doesn’t get Wilson off the hook. Basically, he’s Beckman without the decent MAC background.
13. Darrell Hazell, Purdue
Do you realize how bad a team has to be to go 0-8 in the Big Ten nowadays? The 2013 Boilermakers were that bad and then some. In Hazell’s first season in West Lafayette, his reputation was nearly shattered. But don’t forget the stellar work he did at Kent State, where the Golden Flashes won 11 games in 2012 and came tantalizingly close to a BCS appearance.
14. Kyle Flood, Rutgers
In two years as a head coach, the 43-year-old Flood has had fairly impressive success and near-total failure. Unfortunately for Flood, they happened in that order. Rutgers was almost unwatchable in 2013. [Insert crack here about this being the perfect time to join the Big Ten.]