How heavily involved will the Big Ten be in this cycle of the coaching carousel?
There seemed to be a consensus among the national media that the coaching carousel would be limited due to the pandemic. Cash-strapped athletic departments couldn’t possibly afford 7- and 8-figure buyouts, could they?
Guess again. South Carolina paid Will Muschamp $13 million to go away, and Vanderbilt just this week fired Derek Mason, though the buyout figure wasn’t available. Surely, there will be more shuffling before it’s all said and done.
The carousel figures to heat up in the coming weeks, and the Big Ten will likely play a prominent role.
Here’s how the Big Ten could potentially be impacted, ranked in order of how likely I believe the school is to be involved:
1. Michigan: Will Jim Harbaugh get an extension?
This is the biggest domino in the Big Ten and arguably the entire country. Harbaugh, who is 49-22, is under contract through 2021, which means that Michigan has to make a decision on him this offseason. Coaches can’t recruit when there is only 1 year left on a contract. The good news is that Harbaugh’s buyout is only $6,367,929, per USA Today.
The case against extending Harbaugh is pretty obvious. This is a program with 42 Big Ten championships, yet none since 2004. In Harbaugh’s sixth season, Michigan is further away than ever from ending that drought.
The disappointing development from Michigan’s standpoint is that Texas appears likely to move on from Tom Herman. The Longhorns have the prestige and resources to attract the same caliber of candidates as Michigan, and it’s not unreasonable to say that Texas is actually the better job. The Big 12 is much more winnable, because Texas is much closer to Oklahoma than Michigan is to Ohio State. Michigan is also hurt by the fact that some of the best potential hires (Urban Meyer, Luke Fickell and Matt Campbell) all have ties to either Ohio State or the state of Ohio and would probably be reluctant to join the enemy.
2. Illinois: Has Lovie done enough?
Lovie Smith is just 17-37 in 5 seasons with the Illini. Under contract through 2023, his buyout is only $2.6 million. That’s a fraction of what some schools are paying.
Illinois doesn’t have sky-high expectations for its football program, and the men’s basketball program may take some of the heat off the football team. That said, Illinois does have some standards. One bowl game in 5 years probably is not meeting that standard.
The Illini (2-3) caught a huge break with the Ohio State game getting canceled, but they will still be big underdogs against Iowa and Northwestern.
3. Indiana: Tom Allen will be a hot commodity
The Hoosiers are going to have to fight to keep Allen. That’s what happens when a program that hasn’t been in the top 10 since 1969 reaches the top 10 in Year 4. Allen has gone 13-6 over the last 2 years, finding a way to compete in a division with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Imagine what Allen could do with the resources of a premier program?
The question would be, where? Allen has strong recruiting connections in Florida, so theoretically, he could be a candidate anywhere. Because who doesn’t recruit in Florida? All of the prominent Florida programs (Miami, Florida and Florida State) are set for now.
The biggest problem for a potential suitor will be Allen’s buyout, which would be about $23.5 million.
I need to amend an earlier tweet, forgive me:
Tom Allen's buyout between now and Dec. 1, 2021, is actually about $23.5 million. #iufb
— Zach Osterman (@ZachOsterman) November 30, 2020
4. Penn State: Does James Franklin have eyes for Texas?
Penn State is in last place in the Big Ten, yes, but one bad season won’t tank the stock of Franklin. He is still 57-28 in 7 seasons at Penn State, and he did what no one could at Vanderbilt in going 24-15.
Franklin has interviewed at Texas before and would surely be a candidate high on the Longhorns’ list should they part ways with Herman.
5. Minnesota: PJ Fleck momentum slowing?
Fleck was one of the hottest coaches in the country after helping Minnesota finish in the top 10 for the first time since 1962. Fleck has helped 2 programs (Western Michigan is the other) reach their ceiling. Surely he will have an opportunity at a bigger job. After this uninspiring season, though? Fleck is under contract through 2026, but his buyout drops from $10 million to $4.5 million this offseason.
6. Wisconsin: Is Jim Leonhard a candidate?
The defensive coordinator will eventually be a head coaching candidate, though he may not be quite ready. Leonhard is just 38, but he’s in his fourth season as a DC. Wisconsin currently is No. 1 in total defense in the country, was No. 4 last season and No. 2 in 2017. Leonhard is like the Ryan Day of coordinators; he didn’t build this defense, but he has done a damn good job of making sure it stays at this elite level. Even though programs are intent on hiring offensive coaches, Leonhard will eventually be poached to take over his own program.
7. Nebraska: Is Scott Frost really on the hot seat?
CBSSports’ Dennis Dodd put Frost on the hot seat before this season. I don’t think he is (not after getting an extension and having a buyout north of $25 million), but if he was going into this season, being 1-4 and last in the West would not help his cause. Frost is only 10-19 at Nebraska, but the school probably gives him another year or 2, at least.
8. Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald is the white whale
Fitzgerald is probably a Northwestern lifer. If he hasn’t left by now, why would he? That said, any high-profile program on the hunt this offseason would be foolish to not at least kick the tires on Fitzgerald, who is 104-80 in 15 seasons.
In that same vein, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz probably isn’t going anywhere either because he is tied to Fitzgerald, having been with Northwestern since 2008, and he’s 72 years old.