B1G debate: Who is the early favorite for Coach of the Year 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 early favorite for Coach of the Year in the Big Ten?
RYAN: We are already halfway through the regular season, which means we have a large enough sample size to start looking at some potential award winners in the Big Ten.
The Coach of the Year race has a nice blend of established coaches who have already won the award (Ryan Day, Pat Fitzgerald and Paul Chryst) and a few upstarts who are doing things you just don’t normally see at their programs (Tom Allen and Mike Locksley). I think you can make a strong case for any of those 5, but the best pick at this point in the season has to be Allen.
I don’t need to explain to an IU grad like yourself about where Allen has this program right now. It’s unbelievable that the Hoosiers are ranked in the top 10, especially in a season where there isn’t non-conference cupcakes to load up on. Indiana (4-0), currently at No. 9 in the AP poll, is at its highest ranking since 1967. It’s hard to believe that the Hoosiers went from 1994 until 2019 to be ranked at all.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how Allen seems to push all the right buttons, whether it’s during a game or in the locker room. He out-coached James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh, 2 of the guys that were thought of as premier coaches in the sport.Allen’s teams just don’t seem to make mistakes. I’m not sure if they have enough talent to contend with Ohio State this weekend, but really, who does?
Is there a choice other than Allen that makes sense at this current moment?
CONNOR: You definitely took the leader in the clubhouse here. I have no problem with anyone giving Allen that award, especially if IU finishes with something like a 6-2 record heading into bowl season. Even the most optimistic Indiana fan would’ve taken that every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
But I’ll go in a slightly different direction and say Pat Fitzgerald. Not only do the Wildcats have more overall wins than they had in all of 2019, but they’re also a Wisconsin win away from suddenly being in the driver’s seat to win the division and get to Indianapolis for the second time in 3 years. I’d be lying if I said I saw a 4-0 start coming. I mocked the lone AP Top 25 vote that Northwestern got in the preseason poll, and while I still think those should be based mostly on the previous season, they have done more than earn their spot in the AP Top 25.
Speaking of that, here’s an overlooked storyline. Compare the records of teams that Northwestern beat to those who Indiana beat. It’s 7-6 compared to 3-13. That’s not nothing, right? Obviously it turns heads when you beat a team like Michigan or Penn State. But it’s probably time for us to face reality that they’re a combined 1-7.
Fitzgerald’s personnel moves are why Northwestern is in this spot. He went out and fixed his quarterback situation by adding Peyton Ramsey — from Indiana of all places — and he also made the choice to fire offensive coordinator Mike McCall, who had been in Evanston for 12 years. That was his first time in 12 years firing anyone on his staff. It looks like that move is paying dividends with Mike Bajakian.
Allen wouldn’t be a bad choice at all. But anyone discounting Fitzgerald, who is leading one of the biggest year-to-year Power 5 turnarounds, would be one-sided.
Who else do you think should be in consideration? My mind went to Mike Locksley.
RYAN: The nature of awards is that the narrative rules the day. The media loves a new story and often gets bored. Was Michael Jordan ever not the best basketball player in the world and the most valuable? No, but sometimes Charles Barkley or Karl Malone was a more compelling story. I think we’ll see the same moving forward with Patrick Mahomes in the NFL.
Allen certainly has the best story right now, but that doesn’t mean Ryan Day isn’t still an incredible coach, or that Paul Chryst isn’t worthy, just because those 2 guys have already won the award in recent years. There’s a case to be made that Chryst should be at the top of the list, actually. To deal with not practicing for nearly 2 weeks because of COVID and to come back and absolutely clobber Michigan in the Big House like that with a QB making his second start, that to me says that Wisconsin is an incredibly well-coached team. You’d have to be, in order to stick together through that adversity.
For now, though, Allen and Fitzgerald have the best narrative, and Locksley is probably third. All of those guys have gone above and beyond expectations, while Day and Chryst have merely met them.
Sidenote: Something I was thinking about recently is how ironic it is that Indiana loves basketball so much and devotes so many resources to it and can’t win big, yet Allen is able to build a winner in football. Michigan is the opposite–it loves football so much and devotes absurd resources to it and still can’t win like it wants to, yet John Beilein developed a terrific basketball program.
CONNOR: It is strange to see that play out. And you’re right, this award is “who surpasses expectations the most.” Let us never forget that Denny Green won B1G Coach of the Year honors in 1982 … for going 3-8. Why? Northwestern went 6 seasons (!) without multiple wins. It’s all about expectations. As messed up as it is, perhaps Indiana being a popular preseason sleeper will hurt Allen’s chances and boost Fitzgerald? I hate that I just typed that.
I agree that “coach of the year” should go to the coach who does his job the best. If that means Ryan Day blowing out every B1G team en route to the Playoff, then he deserves it even if we thought that’s what Ohio State would do. So what if he has arguably the best player in college football on his team. He was put in a spot with zero margin for error, and 11 completions is about as close to that as one can get. Day deserves praise for that, too.
I wouldn’t bank on that, though. After all, Urban Meyer is arguably the best coach in B1G history and he never won the award, even when he won a national title!
It’s all about the narrative. You’re probably right that the narrative favors Allen. The only way the narrative will favor Fitzgerald is if Northwestern rips off an unbeaten season.
RYAN: If Fitzgerald can take down Wisconsin or Allen pulls off the upset at Ohio State, they move into the driver’s seat. Otherwise, we could be looking at a co-Coach of the Year, which has happened twice in the last 4 years.