Alex Hickey: After Paul Chryst firing, which Big Ten coach sits on the hottest seat?
Kevin Warren bragged about the Big Ten’s stability during this summer’s football media days. In a chaotic landscape, here was the B1G bringing back every football coach to the event for the third straight year.
“I am grateful for so many things today, one of which is that we’re the only [Power 5] conference that has all of our coaches back this year,” Warren said in July. “We have all 14 of our football coaches back this year, which shows the strength, the continuity of our coaches and of our conference.”
Didn’t take long for that to change.
ESPN BET is now live in 17 states
Use promo code SATURDAY to get your $250 bonus
Not even halfway into the season, 2 of the Big Ten’s most prominent programs — Nebraska and Wisconsin — have made the league’s first coaching changes since 2019.
Ironically, Warren has himself to blame for this reality. In part, anyway. Adding USC and UCLA, and the monster media rights deal that comes with their addition, has allowed schools to behave as if it’s all Monopoly money.
Buyouts? Who cares? Fire his ass! We can pay the buyout via direct deposit, wheelbarrow, or briefcases full of $10,000 bills. Just let us know where to send it, Coach.
Welcome to the new reality in the Big Ten.
That reality means that the executioner isn’t done just yet. Now that Paul Chryst is gone at Wisconsin, the axe is sharpening for whichever Big Ten coach is next.
At the moment, it feels quite unlikely that the league will see any other coaching changes before 2023. I wouldn’t expect any movement until we enter 2024 and the post-expansion, post-divisional Big Ten world.
But I also figured the coming offseason would be the soonest Chryst would be gone, so who am I to say?
At the moment, there are only 3 Big Ten coaches for whom the seat should feel anything but ice-cold.
1. Tom Allen, Indiana
Why it’s hot: After a breakthrough 2020, Indiana looks on its way to following it up with a second straight losing season. IU may be 3-2 right now, but the schedule doesn’t have any gimmes.
Especially with this roster.
The Hoosiers have the worst offensive line in the Big Ten by leaps and bounds. Indiana has surrendered 34 tackles for loss, which ranks 110th nationally. The offense is 13th in the B1G in yards per play, while the defense is 11th. And in a conference with Spencer Petras and Graham Mertz, Indiana’s Connor Bazelak is the lowest-rated passer. (Though to be fair, even CJ Stroud would look pedestrian behind that line.)
There’s no question the program’s arrow is pointing the wrong way.
Why it’s not: The last time IU fired its coach for 2 straight seasons of backsliding following back-to-back winning seasons, it was Bill Mallory. It took 2 decades for the program to recover.
At a place like Indiana, you need to accept what you are and what you aren’t. At best, you’ll be able to make a run like 2020 every 4-5 years. Accept taking some lumps for a couple years while you assemble a veteran-laden team that can be special.
Allen certainly deserves a shot to coach the Hoosiers in a season free from the shackles of being in the same division as Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. And without his leadership, it’s unlikely Indiana has 3 second-half comeback wins this year. IU’s refusal to fold despite its talent deficit is a reflection of that.
What could change: If Indiana loses out, there’s a chance Allen will be in trouble. It’s pretty unbecoming to end 2 straight seasons on 9-game losing streaks. Especially if the Old Oaken Bucket game gets ugly. And both of those things are possible.
With another win or 2, Allen should be pretty secure, but in need of marked improvement next season.
2. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Why it’s hot: Northwestern’s 2020 Big Ten West championship feels like an anomaly. The Wildcats look on their way to their third season of 3 or fewer wins in the past 4 years.
Anywhere but Northwestern, the fires would already be burning after consecutive home losses to Duke, Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio).
Had Northwestern opened the season with any team but Nebraska, we might be looking at an 0-5 team right now.
Why it’s not: It’s Northwestern. Nobody cares if you lose. Or if you win. They’re just happy to have a coach who is good enough for the program not to get embarrassed like it was in the 1970s and ’80s.
This is the toughest job in the Big Ten by a wide margin. Highest academic standards; lowest fan interest. Firing the most successful coach in school history would be folly.
What could change: Fitzgerald is never getting fired from this job. In the unlikely event he ever does get “fired,” they’re going to call it a resignation or retirement. There’s too much respect.
In a transfer portal and NIL world, the Wildcats are far more likely to be the poached than the poachers. Fitz may feel the college game isn’t for him anymore and hang it up. Or finally jump to the NFL. The Bears job never goes more than 3 years without a vacancy.
So while Fitzgerald will never be pushed out, maybe he would jump. The possibility of a Northwestern vacancy warrants inclusion on the list.
3. Mel Tucker, Michigan State
Why it’s hot: The Spartans are a hot mess this season, and it’s about to get even hotter and messier with Ohio State next up on the schedule. The Buckeyes led 49-0 at halftime last year, and that’s when Michigan State was actually good.
The Spartans are staring down their fourth straight loss. The pass defense, which ranked last in the country a year ago, is currently 128th with 65 completions of 10 yards or more allowed.
Tucker has gotten an incredible amount of mileage — and guaranteed money — for a guy with one winning season in 3 prior years as a coach.
Why it’s not: Neil Cornrich may sound like the name of the wealthiest man in Iowa, but it’s not. Cornrich is actually Tucker’s agent. And he’s finessed Michigan State for $95 fully-guaranteed million.
Even in a world where buyouts don’t matter, the size and remaining years on Tucker’s contract make dumping him cost-prohibitive.
Furthermore, Tucker is still crushing it as a recruiter. If anything, Michigan State’s program arrived a year or 2 ahead of schedule last season. And the Spartans had a lot of good luck along the way, going 4-0 in 1-score games. This year, the scale is balancing in the form of terrible injury luck.
Next season — whether good, bad or in-between — figures to be the real litmus test of what to expect from Tucker’s program in the future.
What could change: Maybe Tucker refuses to part ways with either of his coordinators this offseason and it creates internal drama in the Michigan State athletic department. But that seems as likely as temperatures hitting 80 degrees every day of spring break in East Lansing.
Tucker’s not going anywhere. But either offensive coordinator Jay Johnson or defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton could get launched. Perhaps before the end of the season.