Who are the most secure head coaches in the B1G?
As this disturbing situation at Iowa has unfolded over the past few months, I started to think about how quickly things change.
If I were to have ranked the most secure coaches in the Big Ten last year, Kirk Ferentz would have been near the top of my list — if not the very top. After the Hawkeyes struggled a bit toward the end of Hayden Fry’s tenure, Ferentz quickly reinvigorated the program, and they’ve become a heart-warming story, from the way they develop under-the-radar recruits and turn them into bona-fid NFL starters, to the wave to the Children’s Hospital between quarters.
That’s why Ferentz is the longest-tenured head coach in FBS and is 4th in the B1G in all-time wins. And in a state that isn’t exactly California, Florida or Texas in terms of fertile recruiting ground, it’s nothing short of impressive.
But with former players coming forward and exposing a culture of racial bias within the Iowa program, Ferentz experienced a fall from grace that is all too familiar to other Big Ten coaching giants. Heading into the 2020 season, he is far from secure. A bad season or 2, or another incident that reflects poorly on the program, and Ferentz, 65, may be retiring earlier than expected.
That got me wondering, where exactly would Ferentz fall now in these hypothetical rankings? And which other coaches could survive a scandal or poor performance on the field?
Keep in mind, the 2020 season is going to be wild. The coaching carousel, though? Probably not so much. I don’t know if I would predict any coaching turnover once the 2020 season is complete because it isn’t exactly the best time for cash-strapped universities to be paying buyouts. It might be difficult convincing boosters to hop on board with that, especially when they will have as little access to the program as ever before.
Here’s how I would rank the Big Ten, with the hottest seat at No. 14 and the coolest seat at No. 1:
14. Lovie Smith (Illinois)
The standard isn’t very high at Illinois, but Lovie Smith is just 15-34 in 4 seasons. The Illini had momentum in 2019 after a 4-game winning streak put them at 6-4, but they floundered down the season — including an embarrassing loss to Northwestern. Smith is under contract through 2023, but the buyout drops dramatically in 2021. Illinois wants its 1st bowl win since 2011, and if Smith isn’t moving closer to that this year, he might not be long for this job.
13. Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)
If Ferentz hadn’t been entering his 22nd season, he might not have survived and gotten a second chance. But he has built up a ton of goodwill in Iowa City, as I wrote in the opening of this column. That said, it’s difficult to imagine Iowa tolerating any sort of trouble with Ferentz moving forward. It’s a situation where it won’t matter if he wins. Ferentz is under contract through 2025.
12. Jim Harbaugh (Michigan)
Harbaugh is the 3rd-highest paid coach in the country, and he’s done fine while at his alma mater, but the reason he’s so high on this list is that the fan base is conflicted about the type of program it should be. Should the Wolverines expect to be College Football Playoff contenders every year and nothing less, like Ohio State? Or should they be more in the range of Wisconsin? Actually, Paul Chryst has won 52 games in his 5 seasons with the Badgers, and Harbaugh has won 47, so Michigan should strive to be a little more like Wisconsin.
In fact, Michigan has the same number of wins as Iowa during the Harbaugh era. And that’s not bad. But it’s not at the level anyone expected when Harbaugh signed that 7-year contract. At some point, Michigan might want more than going 10-3, which is Harbaugh’s best record in Ann Arbor. He is under contract through 2021. While Harbaugh said that an extension was in the works until the pandemic hit, the longer that extension isn’t done, the more speculation there will be about his future.
11. Mike Locksley (Maryland)
In Locksley’s 1st season, the Terrapins finished just 3-9 — their worst record since 2015 when Randy Edsall was fired and Locksley took over midseason as the interim coach. After a promising start, it got ugly quickly. The best thing Locksley has going for him is in recruiting, as he has done well to keep some of Washington, D.C.’s, top recruits at home, including the top player in the 2020 class (Rakim Jarrett) and 3 of the top 7 in 2021. Still, though, wins on the recruiting trail pail in comparison to wins on the field. With a Big Ten-only schedule in 2020, wins could be hard to come by for Locksley. He is under contract through 2024.
10. Scott Frost (Nebraska)
I know, I know, he just signed that extension and is under contract through 2026. And AD Bill Moos has said he’s committed to Frost. But you know what matters more than an extension? Winning. Frost hasn’t done that yet in Lincoln. Nebraska has 9 wins in Frost’s 2 seasons, which dwarfs only Maryland (8) and Rutgers (3). Frost would have needed a 10-win season in a non-pandemic year just to reach his predecessor Mike Riley, who went 19-19 before getting fired after 3 seasons. Frost’s extensive Nebraska ties and votes of confidence from his boss make it unlikely he won’t get a few more years, but man, he needs a good 2020 season.
9. Ryan Day (Ohio State)
Everything has gone right for Day after 1 year as head coach, but that doesn’t buy him any job security. Since winning Big Ten championships and competing for national championships is the standard at Ohio State, Day will have to have a few more seasons like that to move up this list. Think about it — if the Buckeyes went 10-3 this season (or even 11-2), that would be an abject failure. If they had back-to-back 3-loss seasons, there would be all sorts of questions about Day. There is no margin for error at Ohio State and winning the Big Ten will be a distant memory in a hurry. That said, Day and his staff are recruiting exceptionally well and he looks to be on his way to being 1 of the elite college coaches in the country; he just has to do it for multiple years.
8. Jeff Brohm (Purdue)
It’s strange seeing Brohm ahead of Day in any ranking, but it underscores how vastly different their situations are. Brohm is averaging fewer than 6 wins over his 3 seasons with the Boilermakers and Day just won 13 games in his head coaching debut, but Purdue’s expectations give Brohm a lot more leeway to try to build this program. As long as the Boilermakers are competing for bowl games, fans will generally be happy (for now). Besides, it wasn’t that long ago that Purdue held on for dear life while Brohm’s hometown Louisville Cardinals courted him. Going 4-8 isn’t ideal for long-term security, but most would look at Purdue’s injuries plus Brohm’s prowess on the recruiting trail and conclude that is just a blip.
7. Mel Tucker (Michigan State)
It’s hard to even rank 1st-year head coaches on this list because at a minimum, you’d expect them to get at least 3 years (and you could argue it should be a full 4-year recruiting cycle). With the situation Tucker inherits — a program in decline that has dropped off significantly in recruiting — and how desperate the Spartans were to get him after Mark Dantonio abruptly retired, Tucker should have quite a leash. But Michigan State won’t wait forever for significant signs of progress. After all, this is a program that had 6 double-digit win seasons last decade and is the lone non-Ohio State team from the B1G to make the College Football Playoff.
6. James Franklin (Penn State)
The top 6 of this list is its own tier and probably could be scrambled any which way and still make sense. So coming in at No. 6 is no slight at Franklin, who has done just about everything you could ask for in rebuilding the program post-Joe Paterno. I’m on record as saying he is the best head coach in the Big Ten. Penn State would be happy to have him the rest of his career, considering he would be an excellent candidate for any top job. Not that Penn State isn’t one, it’s just that whole playing in a division with Ohio State and Michigan thing could get annoying after a while.
5. Paul Chryst (Wisconsin)
Like Franklin at No. 6, Chryst being at No. 5 is no insult and more of a product of who is around him. The Badgers have quietly become 1 of the best programs in the country under Chryst. In his 5 seasons, they have the 7th-most wins in college football. There isn’t much more he can do, at this point, aside from beating Ohio State. The Badgers need to start recruiting at a higher level for that to happen, but that’s a story for another day.
4. Greg Schiano (Rutgers)
Rutgers wanted Schiano so bad, and frankly, it needed him. That’s why he is going to have every opportunity to get this struggling program turned around. The bar is so low at Rutgers that Schiano averaged 3 wins for the 1st 4 years of his previous tenure with the Scarlett Knights and still wound up coaching 11 seasons and leaving on his own accord. At what other Power-5 program is that possible? And given how Rutgers has fallen on hard times again with just 9 wins in the past 4 years, Rutgers will be very patient again with Schiano.
3. Tom Allen (Indiana)
Allen finished under .500 in 2 of his first 3 seasons in Bloomington, and yet here he is, 1 of the most secure head coaches in the Big Ten. That’s because the 2019 season in which he won 8 games was Indiana’s best season since 1993. It’s a basketball school and always will be. In that regard, Allen could become the Big Ten’s version of Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, who might get a statue if he wins 8 games a few more times. Allen will never be under the outside pressure that some of his rival coaches in the Big Ten will be under. Before 2019, Indiana had reached 7 wins just once (2007) since 1993. All Allen has to do is contend for bowls each year, sprinkle in a few 7- or 8-win seasons every now and again, and he can be there as long as he likes. He just signed a 7-year extension at the end of last regular season.
2. Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern)
Fitzgerald rightfully has as good of a reputation as any Big Ten coach for the way he has led a Northwestern program with academic restraints unlike any of its peers. He signed a 10-year extension through 2027 back in 2017. Last year, he would have been at No. 1 on this list, but a 3-9 season in 2019 drops him a spot. Granted, it was the Wildcats’ 1st season under .500 since 2014, but still, you don’t want to be stacking those sorts of seasons on top of one another — even at Northwestern.
1. P.J. Fleck (Minnesota)
Fleck vaulted to the top of this list after Minnesota’s breakthrough 2019 season. Making a program like Minnesota nationally relevant is an impressive feat, as the Golden Gophers beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl and finished the season with their highest AP ranking (10) since 1962. Fleck got an extension during the season that will keep him under contract until 2026. Minnesota would be fortunate to hold onto him for that long, as Fleck is quickly rising to the top of the college football coaching profession after winning big at Western Michigan and now with the Golden Gophers.