Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention.
With that in mind, Athlon continues its countdown to the season by ranking the college football coaches by conference. Needless to say, ranking college football coaches is no easy task. Similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
What was the criteria used to rank coaches? This is not simply a list of coaches ranked by accomplishment or wins. While those aspects are important, it doesn’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky. Also, every program has a different amount of resources available. Hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. However, it’s easier for programs like Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and Texas with more built-in advantages to contend for a national title on a more consistent basis.
A couple of other factors to consider when ranking coaches: How well are the assistants paid? A good program is willing to spend big to keep its assistants. And a staff with two of the nation’s top coordinators could be a sign the head coach is better as a CEO and may not be as strong in terms of developing gameplans. How is the coach in the X’s and O’s? Can the coach recruit? Are the program’s facilities on par with the rest of the conference? Much like assistants, a program needs good facilities to win big. If a team is winning at a high level with poor facilities and a small budget, it’s reflects positively on the head coach. Is the coach successful at only one stop? Or has that coach built a solid resume from different jobs?
Again, wins are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire knowing what they accomplished so far, how well they recruit, gameday tactician and how they develop talent? And what about their career potential? Is there upside or is the coach trending down?
Related: SEC Coach Rankings for 2015
Ranking the Big Ten’s Football Coaches for 2015
1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Record at Ohio State: 38-3 (3 years)
Career Record: 142-26 (13 years)
There was never really any doubt about his place among the nation’s best coaches, but if there was, Meyer clearly solidified his top billing with Ohio State’s 2014 season. The Buckeyes lost their No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks, yet won 14 games and claimed the national championship over Oregon. In three seasons at Ohio State, Meyer is 38-3 and has not lost a regular season game in Big Ten play. The 2014 national title was Meyer’s third as a head coach, as he claimed two during his tenure at Florida (2006, 2008). In addition to his national championships in Gainesville, Meyer went 65-15 with the Gators, 22-2 in two years at Utah and 17-6 in two seasons with Bowling Green.
2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Record at Michigan: First Year
Career Record: 58-27 (7 years)
Harbaugh is the right coach to return Michigan back among the nation’s elite. At three different coaching jobs, Harbaugh has delivered a quick turnaround and won at a high level. At San Diego from 2004-06, Harbaugh went 29-6 and lost only two games over the final two years. Harbaugh moved to the FBS level in 2007 at Stanford and won 29 games in four seasons. The Cardinal missed a bowl appearance in the first two years, but managed 20 wins over Harbaugh’s last two seasons, including a 12-1 finish in 2010. Harbaugh left Stanford for the NFL and won 44 games with the 49ers from 2011-14. San Francisco lost in the NFC Championship Game twice under Harbaugh’s watch and lost to Baltimore in Super Bowl XLVII. As a former Michigan quarterback and player under Bo Schembechler, Harbaugh knows what it takes to win in Ann Arbor. Expect to see the Wolverines back among the top 10-15 teams in the nation in the next few years.
3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Record at Michigan State: 75-31 (8 years)
Career Record: 93-48 (11 years)
Dantonio has transformed Michigan State from an underachieving program to one of the best in the Big Ten. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in four out of the last five years and finished No. 3 nationally after winning the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl in 2013. Under Dantonio’s watch, Michigan State also has claimed four consecutive bowl victories and went 15-1 in conference play from 2013-14. And if you needed any more information on why Dantonio is among the nation’s best: The Spartans have six seasons of 10 or more wins in program history. Four of those have come with Dantonio at the helm.
4. James Franklin, Penn State
Record at Penn State: 7-6 (1 year)
Career Record: 31-21 (4 years)
Franklin will return Penn State back to contention for the Big Ten title and as a consistent top-25 team – it just may take a little longer than we anticipated. High expectations surrounded the Nittany Lions last year, but Franklin’s team finished 7-6 and won only two games in Big Ten play. Fixing the offensive line is Franklin’s top priority in 2015, and there’s hope for improvement with one of the nation’s top assistants (Herb Hand) leading this group. Franklin went 24-15 in three years with Vanderbilt and recorded back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2012-13. Considering what Franklin managed to accomplish at Vanderbilt – the SEC’s toughest job – combined with the success on the recruiting trail, it’s only a matter of time before Penn State wins again at a high level.
Related: Penn State 2015 Schedule Analysis
5. Jerry Kill, Minnesota
Record at Minnesota: 25-26 (4 years)
Career Record: 152-99 (21 years)
As we mentioned above, college football coaches can’t be judged strictly on wins and losses. Kill is a perfect example of why record isn’t the best indicator of coaching ability, as he’s only 25-26 in four years with Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have made significant improvement under his watch, going from 3-9 in his first year to three consecutive bowl games. And Minnesota is coming off back-to-back eight-win seasons and finished 5-3 in Big Ten play last year – the first winning mark in conference play since 2003. Kill is a proven winner at four other coaching stops in his career, including a 23-16 record at Northern Illinois and a 55-32 mark at Southern Illinois.
6. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Record at Northwestern: 60-53 (9 years)
Career Record: 60-53 (9 years)
Northwestern is coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time under Fitzgerald and is 4-12 in Big Ten play over the last two years. While it’s easy to only judge coaches by recent history, this is not an easy job and Fitzgerald has won 60 games since 2006. Additionally, the Wildcats went to five consecutive bowl games from 2008-12, including a 10-win campaign in '12, concluding with just the program’s second postseason victory. Considering what Fitzgerald has accomplished at one of the Big Ten’s toughest jobs, what could he do at a program with more resources?
7. Mike Riley, Nebraska
Record at Nebraska: First Year
Career Record: 93-80 (14 years)
Nebraska’s hire of Riley came as a surprise, but the Idaho native seems to be the right coach at the right time. The Cornhuskers won at least nine games in each of Bo Pelini’s seven seasons, yet never finished higher than 14th in the Associated Press poll or claimed a conference title. That’s the challenge for Riley in 2015 and beyond. Can he elevate Nebraska back into contention for a national title or compete with Ohio State and Michigan for Big Ten championships? Oregon State is a challenging job, yet Riley won 93 games in 14 seasons and guided the Beavers to a winning conference record in six of those years. Another mark in favor of Riley’s hire is his experience in recruiting and finding talent in Texas and California. Also, Riley and his staff did a good job of developing talent while in Corvallis. If Nebraska can’t beat Ohio State or Michigan for five-star recruits, it needs to develop three-star talent into five-star players.
8. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Record at Iowa: 115-85 (16 years)
Career Record: 127-106 (19 years)
Ferentz enters 2015 as the nation’s third-longest tenured coach. Over the last 16 seasons, Ferentz’s tenure with the Hawkeyes has experienced its share of ups and downs. And entering 2015, it’s fair to wonder where this program is headed after a 9-7 mark in Big Ten play over the last two years. Iowa has won 10 games at least four times under Ferentz but has not finished better than 8-5 since 2010. Maintaining success at a program for a long period isn’t easy, and as the nation’s ninth highest-paid coach in 2014, Ferentz is drawing plenty of criticism from the Iowa fanbase. In Athlon’s recent expert poll, Iowa tied with Maryland as the No. 7 coaching job in the Big Ten. This program has its share of challenges (in-state talent in recruiting), but there's really no reason why the Hawkeyes can't contend for the Big Ten West Division title each year.
9. Randy Edsall, Maryland
Record at Maryland: 20-30 (4 years)
Career Record: 94-100 (16 years)
Edsall’s tenure at Maryland got off to a rocky start with a 2-10 record in 2011. But since that two-win campaign, the Terrapins are 18-20 over the last three seasons and finished their first year in the Big Ten with a 7-6 record and a 4-4 mark in conference play. Prior to Maryland, Edsall went 74-70 at UConn, guiding the Huskies to the Fiesta Bowl and a share of the Big East title in 2010. After earning back-to-back bowl appearances, Edsall’s next challenge is to elevate Maryland into the Big Ten East Division’s top tier, which includes Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State. That’s not an easy task, but with the talent available in the Maryland/Washington, D.C. area, Edsall should be able to keep some of those players at home. This fall looks like a rebuilding season for Maryland, but Edsall should have this team in contention for a bowl.
10. Kevin Wilson, Indiana
Record at Indiana: 14-34 (4 years)
Career Record: 14-34 (4 years)
Indiana is one of the Big Ten’s toughest jobs, but Wilson has this program moving in the right direction. The Hoosiers won only one game in Wilson’s first year (2011), improved to 4-8 in 2012 and just missed on a bowl game in '13 by finishing 5-7. Bad luck hit Indiana last season, as this program was poised to hit six wins but starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld was lost midway through the year with a shoulder injury. Sudfeld is back in 2015, giving the Hoosiers an opportunity to push for six wins once again. Considering Wilson’s background on offense, along with Indiana’s production on that side of the ball over the last four years, scoring points won’t be a problem. However, the defense has allowed six yards per play in Big Ten games in five consecutive seasons. That must be addressed for this program to move forward.
11. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Record at Wisconsin: First Year
Career Record: 19-19 (3 years)
Gary Andersen surprisingly departed Wisconsin for Oregon State this offseason, but the Badgers were able to turn to a familiar name in Chryst. After three years as Pittsburgh’s head coach, Chryst is coming back to Madison to guide a program that has won at least 10 games in four out of the last six seasons. In addition to being a Madison native, Chryst played quarterback for the Badgers and served as an assistant with the program in 2002 and again from 2005-11. There’s no denying that Chryst is an excellent fit at Wisconsin. However, he was only 19-19 in three seasons with the Panthers.
12. Tim Beckman, Illinois
Record at Illinois: 12-25 (3 years)
Career Record: 33-41 (6 years
Beckman enters 2015 facing a make-or-break year at Illinois. The Fighting Illini have showed some improvement in Beckman’s tenure by increasing their win total by two games in each year after a 2-10 mark in 2012. Illinois finished 4-8 in 2013 and improved to 6-7 with a 3-5 mark in Big Ten play in 2014. While improvement has been noticeable in the overall win column, this program is just 4-20 in Big Ten games over the last three years and has not finished higher than fifth in its division. Beckman’s tenure got off to a rough start, but things have stabilized over the last two years. A few more wins this fall would help Beckman ensure a fifth season.
13. Kyle Flood, Rutgers
Record at Rutgers: 23-16 (3 years)
Career Record: 23-16 (3 years)
Rutgers was one of the Big Ten’s biggest surprises last year. In the Scarlet Knights’ debut in their new conference, Flood guided the program to an 8-5 record and a 3-5 mark in Big Ten play. Rutgers improved late in the season and finished with wins in three out of their last four games, including a 40-21 victory over North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl. The 8-5 record in 2014 was the second winning mark during Flood’s tenure, as he finished 9-4 in his debut (2012) and finished 2013 with a 6-7 mark. Keeping Rutgers in bowl contention in the Big Ten East will be a challenge in 2015. And Flood’s task was made even more difficult when Ralph Friedgen decided not to return to his staff in 2015. Flood was on the hot seat entering 2014, but a solid 8-5 record in the first season of Big Ten play has reduced some of the pressure on him.
14. Darrell Hazell, Purdue
Record at Purdue: 4-20 (2 years)
Career Record: 20-30 (4 years)
After guiding Kent State to a 16-10 record in two years, including an impressive 11-3 mark in 2012, Hazell appeared to be the right coach for Purdue. After two years with the Boilermakers, however, it's apparent that there’s still a lot of work ahead for Hazell. Purdue is only 4-20 over the last two seasons and has won only one game in Big Ten play. The Boilermakers had two losses in conference play by seven points or less, but lost three out of their last four games by 15 points or more. Hazell has made small gains through his first two years. However, plenty of work remains going into 2015, and Hazell needs to show progress in year three.