B1G debate: Who is the best coach in the Big Ten?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Who is the best coach in the Big Ten?
RYAN: I considered 4 coaches for my top spot, and ultimately, I settled on James Franklin. I think he is a cut above the next 3 on my list. That is partially due to what he did in his 3 seasons at Vanderbilt, where he made a bowl game every year. Fun fact: Vandy finished the season ranked in the AP poll twice under Franklin; the last time that had happened was 1948! Franklin won 9 games twice, and the last time that had been done there was 1915. And of course, Vandy has struggled mightily without him.
But enough about Vandy. The real reason he’s the top guy on this list is the way he has elevated Penn State, a once-proud program that was set back by scandals involving Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. Bill O’Brien had Penn State going in the right direction (though never cracking the Top 25), and Franklin has turned Penn State into a fringe national title contender. In the past 4 years, Penn State is 42-11 and finished ranked in the top 10 in 3 of those years.
While Penn State ultimately hasn’t made the College Football Playoff (yet) or won the Rose Bowl (yet) under Franklin, I think that’s coming — as long as Franklin stays in town. His name has been mentioned for high-profile jobs like USC, as it should be, but I think Franklin realizes he has a good thing going in Happy Valley. The lone problem — and the only reason I could see him leaving — is the Big Ten East Division is 1 of the most difficult in all of college football, with Ohio State and Michigan always pumping massive amounts of money into their programs. And somewhere like USC would be a much clearer path to national relevance. But being in a division with 2 bluebloods also underscores why Franklin is the best coach. He has supplanted himself ahead of Jim Harbaugh and Michigan.
There are some great coaches in the Big Ten, but none is quite at the level of Franklin or done it as long as Franklin.
Who is your pick, Connor?
CONNOR: Ah, Franklin. I’ll admit that I was dead wrong for selling my Franklin stock before the start of last year, but there’s a reason I just can’t quite pick him for this category that I’ll get to later.
After considering Ryan Day, Pat Fitzgerald and Paul Chryst, I ended up settling on the Wisconsin coach. What Chryst did in his first 5 years in Madison is somehow still an underrated accomplishment. Perhaps it’s underrated because his 2 predecessors had similar success, but no coach in America won more with less recruiting talent than Chryst.
Both Chryst and Franklin went to New Year’s 6 Bowls in 3 of the past 4 years and won 2 of them. There’s no question that Franklin had more talent to work with, though. Chryst accomplished what Franklin did — and actually has a better overall win percentage and B1G win percentage — without the aid of a single top-25 recruiting class.
All Chryst has done since joining the B1G is crank out 10-win seasons, rock gray dad sweatshirts for bowl games and consistently put Wisconsin in the Playoff hunt. He’s not as vocal as Franklin or Jim Harbaugh, and he wasn’t nearly as splashy of a hire as Scott Frost, but who wouldn’t want Chryst running their team?
Tell me why every Power 5 athletic director wouldn’t want someone like Chryst running their program.
RYAN: There’s no doubt Chryst has done a terrific job at Wisconsin, and it will certainly be interesting to see what the Badgers can do if he can keep up this momentum on the recruiting trail. Of Wisconsin’s 15 commits in the 2021 class, 5 are 4-star recruits. By that same logic, though, you’d have to elevate Franklin’s success at Vanderbilt even more. The 3 years before he arrived in Nashville, Vandy was dead last in the SEC in recruiting. And they were last every year after that until 2018. And yet, he won 9 games in 2 of his 3 seasons there.
You touched on the reason I had to ding Chryst slightly. His predecessors essentially did the same thing. All Wisconsin did before Chryst arrived was crank out 10-win seasons. In fact, the Badgers averaged 10 wins in the 6 seasons before Chryst took over, going 60-21 in that span. Just because a head coach can win at Wisconsin doesn’t mean they can win anywhere else. Look at Bret Bielema, who has a similar winning percentage at Wisconsin (.739) to that of Chryst (.765), yet he was a disaster at Arkansas.
Franklin, meanwhile, had to rebuild Penn State into what it is. Sure, he has a ton of talent to work with now. But doesn’t he get some credit for that? It couldn’t have been easy recruiting with reduced scholarships and a 4-year postseason ban in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal.
CONNOR: Franklin is a darn good coach. Don’t get me wrong. If I’m picking someone to recruit a team and establish a culture, he’s my guy. His ability to do that at 2 places with several hurdles showed that.
But there’s 1 big, big, big issue I have with him and I know that Penn State fans will side with me on this — I don’t want him on my sideline with the game on the line.
Too many times, we’ve seen him make awful decisions in key moments. You could go back to that horribly mismanaged 4th quarter against Michigan State in that rain-soaked 2017 loss when Saquon Barkley got 3 carries on Penn State’s final 14 plays (in a tie game). The blown leads against Ohio State in 2017 and 2018 were tough to stomach, especially the 2018 game when he called for a handoff to Miles Sanders on 4th-and-5 with the season on the line. He took the ball out of Trace McSorley’s hands again in the Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky when Penn State had all the momentum on a potential go-ahead drive in the 4th quarter. You can set your watch to Franklin making a costly late-game decision in a game that Penn State needs to have.
His decision-making is at the root of some troubling stats. He just finished his 9th season as a Power 5 head coach and he’s 1-12 on the road against teams in the Associated Press Top 25. Or there’s the fact that Franklin is just 5-13 against the likes of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State (Chryst is 4-6 against those teams).
The last thing I want to feel as a fan of a team in a close game is that my coach is a liability. I think so many things with Chryst and Franklin are equal, but 1 has shown to be a late-game liability while the other has not. That matters.
RYAN: The critique of in-game decision making is fair. It’s the same one I’d make of Kirby Smart at Georgia. Both have built terrific programs, but both have made puzzling decisions in the heat of the moment that have cost them. Isn’t it interesting how judging college coaches is so much more subjective than NFL coaches? In the NFL, you win or you lose. In college, you can look at how they coach during games, how they recruit, how they do relative to their program’s budget, etc. For example, there’s no way we’d look at someone in the NFL with a .556 winning percentage and say he is 1 of the best coaches, but we both agree that Pat Fitzgerald is in the conversation in college because how he has elevated Northwestern relative to expectations and resources.
Moving on a bit from Franklin and Chryst, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on how some of the other Big Ten coaches fit into this conversation, like Ryan Day, Pat Fitzgerald, Kirk Ferentz and P.J. Fleck.
I’ll admit, Day was not among the 4 coaches I considered for the top spot. It’s just too soon. He took over a juggernaut and kept it a juggernaut. I want to see what he does in building and maintaining his own program. His 1st season was ridiculously good, but we’ve seen others win with Urban Meyer’s players before, like Will Muschamp going 11-2 at Florida just 2 years after Meyer left and then getting fired 2 years later. Gregg Brandon won 11 games at Bowling Green the year after Meyer left.
The other coaches I considered for my top spot were Chryst, Fitzgerald and Kirk Ferentz. More often than not, Iowa is in the bottom half of the recruiting rankings, and yet, more often than not, Iowa is popping up in the Top 25. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years, Day and P.J. Fleck top my hypothetical list.
CONNOR: It’s funny because if we were doing this last year, Fitzgerald would have been my pick. What he did at Northwestern cannot be overstated. Remember when we were kids and we’d go to Northwestern games and it wouldn’t even feel like a college football game? At a place that’s dealing with more academic hurdles than nearly every Power 5 school, it’s amazing to think he has 5 seasons of 9-plus wins. For a minute, Northwestern was looking like a team with an 8-win floor. Then 2019 happened.
I agree with you that it’s just too early with Day. Don’t get me wrong. Nothing about his time in Columbus suggests that he won’t have a ton of success, but that’s projecting. The question “who would you most want to hire?” is different from “who is the best coach?” Let’s see how he does with a team of guys that he recruited, and let’s see how he handles some adversity. We often rush to crown coaches before we know how they’ll handle things like a midseason injury to the starting quarterback or how they manage to stay afloat when their top 2 assistants leave for new jobs.
Ferentz is tricky in this discussion because if the past few months are any indication, he hasn’t always been willing to adjust at key points. And in terms of any of the cumulative numbers, he’s hard to compare, though I do think it’s foolish that Nebraska fans act like what Ferentz accomplished at Iowa in the 21st century is mediocre. I do think it’s telling that Fitzgerald actually had more 10-win seasons in the 21st century than Ferentz, and Chryst has a 3-1 lead on Ferentz in division titles in the 2010s despite the fact that Chryst was only there from 2015-19.
I’m fascinated to see how Fleck rises in this group. I think this year is pivotal for that. Nobody will make this comparison, but he’s sort of like Franklin for me. He has built up his 2nd program, he’s a fantastic recruiter, he has a culture that people believe in, yet he rubs people the wrong way. Go figure that Franklin stole Fleck’s offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca. If Fleck shakes that off and leads Minnesota to another Top 25 season, you’ll see more people putting him among the top 10 coaches nationally.
So if we’re doing this list for 2023, how would you rank it? I’d probably go Day at No. 1, Chryst at No. 2, Franklin at No. 3 and either Fitzgerald or Fleck at No. 4, depending on who stays and who goes.
RYAN: I like your point about losing assistant coaches as it relates to Day and Fleck. That really can separate good coaches from the great ones. It’s why Nick Saban’s run at Alabama is so impressive — other programs pluck his assistants every year — and it’s why I’m fascinated to see how Dabo Swinney does at Clemson the next few years with him finally dealing with the same thing. This year will be telling for Fleck after he lost Ciarrocca to a conference rival. Day lost defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley to Boston College, too, but I don’t think that will have quite as big of an impact (losing Chase Young and Jeff Okudah matters more).
If we’re doing this list in 2023 and assuming that all of these coaches are around (which they surely won’t be, because that’s college football), I’m putting Day at No. 1, Franklin at No. 2, Chryst at No. 3 and Fleck at No. 4. I’m tempted to put Fleck above Chryst because what he did at Minnesota last season was ridiculous. The Golden Gophers finished ranked 10th in the AP Poll — their best finish since 1962. One more year like that and it’s going to be tough to keep Fleck from the top few spots on this list.
As we’re winding down, I’m realizing that we barely mentioned Jim Harbaugh. Isn’t that strange? Now that is something I couldn’t have predicted 3 years ago. I’m going to bet that he makes a push for that top 4 in the next few years, but check back in 2023 to see if I’m right.