Urban Meyer leads the way in a deep group of Big Ten coaches.
College football’s best collection of head coaches resides in the Big Ten. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer boasts three national championships in his career and takes the top spot in Athlon’s rankings. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, Penn State’s James Franklin and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald round out an impressive top five. And the depth continues into the next tier with Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst.
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. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
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. It's always easier for programs 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 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 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 and their career trajectory? Remember, you don't get the assistants - only the head coach. And head-to-head wins do not matter for this ranking. Athlon's editorial staff has voted on a ranking of coaches for all 10 conferences. Here are the results for the Big Ten:
Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Coaches for 2017
14. Chris Ash, Rutgers
As expected, Ash’s first season at Rutgers was a struggle. The Scarlet Knights finished 2-10 overall and winless in Big Ten play (0-9). The problems weren’t just limited to wins and losses. A deeper look at the stats showed just how far this program has to go to catch the middle of the conference. Rutgers was held scoreless in four games and gave up 40 points a contest in Big Ten action. It’s no secret Ash is going to need another year or two to recruit and restock the roster. However, judging by his track record as an assistant at Ohio State, Arkansas and Wisconsin, Ash should help this program take a step forward in the next couple of seasons.
13. Tom Allen, Indiana
After Kevin Wilson’s dismissal in early December, Indiana athletic director Fred Glass didn’t have to look far for his replacement. Allen – an Indiana native – was promoted to head coach after spending 2016 as the program’s defensive coordinator. The Hoosiers’ defense showed marked improvement under Allen’s watch. After giving up 6.4 yards per play in 2015, Indiana cut that total to 5.1 last season. Even though Allen now carries the head coach title, he’s still going to play a key role in shaping the defense. However, this will be his first full year as the program’s head coach, and the Big Ten’s East Division is one of the toughest in college football. Prior to Indiana, Allen worked as a defensive coordinator for one year at USF (2015) and spent three years as an assistant at Ole Miss. He’s 0-1 in his head coaching career after Indiana lost 26-24 to Utah in the Foster Farms Bowl.
12. Lovie Smith, Illinois
It’s not often a program can hire a coach who led a team to a Super Bowl appearance, but that’s exactly the opportunity Illinois was awarded last season. Athletic director Josh Whitman aimed high after his arrival in March and secured Smith with a significant six-year deal. As expected with a late start and a roster in need of repair, Smith’s debut was a struggle. Illinois finished 3-9, with two of those wins coming in Big Ten action. And with less than 10 returning starters for 2017, Smith is facing a tough second act in Champaign. Prior to taking over at Illinois, Smith spent two years at Tampa Bay’s head coach and finished with an 8-24 mark. His tenure in Chicago was significantly better, as Smith guided the Bears to an 81-63 record and a berth in the Super Bowl for the 2010 season. Smith was a big-name hire at the right time for Illinois. However, it’s going to take a few years to turn this program around.
11. DJ Durkin, Maryland
Durkin is one of the Big Ten’s rising stars, and it’s only a matter of time before he moves up in our rankings. Additionally, Durkin’s No. 11 rank among the Big Ten shows just how deep this league is in coaching talent. Prior to taking over as Maryland’s head coach before the 2016 season, Durkin gathered a wealth of knowledge and experience as an assistant at Stanford, Bowling Green, Florida and Michigan. He worked under some of college football’s top coaches in those stints, including Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer. The Terrapins finished 3-9 in 2015 but showed marked improvement in Durkin’s first year, finishing with a 6-7 record. The Terrapins also won three games in league play and earned a trip to the Quick Lane Bowl. Additionally, Durkin is upgrading the roster via the recruiting trail. Maryland’s 2017 class ranked No. 18 in the 247Sports Composite and is considered the best in school history.
10. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
Brohm’s high-powered offense should provide a much-needed boost to Purdue. After earning 10 bowl trips from 1997-07, the Boilermakers have just two postseason appearances over the last nine years. Brohm is just one part of the rebuilding effort for the program, as Purdue is planning on providing a makeover to its facilities to keep up with the rest of the Big Ten. In three years at WKU, Brohm went 30-10 and guided the Hilltoppers to back-to-back Conference USA titles. Additionally, Brohm’s acumen on offense was on display, as WKU was the only team from 2014-16 to average over 40 points a game in three consecutive years. He also has two seasons of Big Ten experience as an assistant at Illinois from 2010-11. Brohm has a lot of work to do in 2017 and beyond, but he’s the right hire for Purdue.
9. Mike Riley, Nebraska
After a 6-7 record in Riley’s debut in 2015, Nebraska took a step forward last year and finished 9-4 overall. Even though Riley is 15-11 and has a winning mark (9-8) in Big Ten play, the third-year coach isn’t sitting idle. He dismissed long-time assistant Mark Banker in favor of Bob Diaco as the program’s new defensive coordinator. Diaco is a standout hire, but it may take a year to transition to the new 3-4 scheme. Prior to Nebraska, Riley went 93-80 at Oregon State from 1997-98 and 2003-14. Considering Oregon State is one of the Pac-12’s toughest jobs, Riley has a good idea of what it takes to win at programs with fewer resources. But in Lincoln, the third-year coach has more to work with and a national recruiting base to acquire talent. With expectations of contending for Big Ten Championships, the next two seasons are critical for this coaching staff.
8. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Few coaches in college football can match Fleck’s overall enthusiasm and energy level on a day-to-day basis, but the Illinois native is more than just a salesman for the program. After a successful playing career at Northern Illinois and a brief stint in the NFL, Fleck turned to the coaching ranks in 2006 as a graduate assistant at Ohio State. He returned to his alma mater in 2007 and remained in DeKalb until 2009. A two-year stint with Rutgers (2010-11) allowed Fleck to follow Greg Schiano to Tampa Bay in 2012. Fleck returned to college in 2013 as Western Michigan’s head coach and went 1-11 in his debut. However, the Broncos weren’t down for long. Fleck upgraded the team’s talent level with standout MAC recruiting classes and emerged as one of the top Group of 5 coaches over the last three seasons. Western Michigan posted back-to-back 8-5 campaigns from 2014-15, followed by a 13-1 season, a MAC Championship and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl last year. Fleck is a dynamic recruiter and has the right personality to take Minnesota’s program up a notch in the Big Ten West Division.
7. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
As a native of Madison and a former Badger player and assistant coach, Chryst is the perfect fit at Wisconsin. Before landing his first head coaching gig at Pitt in 2012, Chryst worked under Barry Alvarez in Madison in 2002 and 2005 and with Bret Bielema from 2006-11. Chryst struggled to find the right formula at Pitt as a head coach and never eclipsed the seven-win mark over three years (2012-14). The Panthers finished 19-19 overall under Chryst and earned three bowl trips. However, Chryst is a better fit at Wisconsin and has this program entrenched as the Big Ten West Division favorite for 2017. Since taking over for Gary Andersen prior to the 2015 season, Chryst is 21-6 overall with just four losses in league play. Additionally, Wisconsin claimed the 2016 Big Ten West Division title.
6. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Ferentz is the nation’s second-longest tenured coach, with a tenure spanning 19 years at the start of the 2017 campaign. While Ferentz has experienced a few low points (4-8 in 2012), Iowa has been a consistent winner under his watch. The Hawkeyes have claimed 135 victories since 1999 and recorded five top-10 finishes in the Associated Press poll. Additionally, Iowa just missed on a playoff berth in 2015 after a close loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship. Also notable: Ferentz has just one losing record since 2001, and the Hawkeyes have won at least four Big Ten games in nine out of the last 10 years.
5. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Northwestern is one of the toughest jobs at the Power 5 level, but there’s not a better coach to guide this program than Fitzgerald. The former Northwestern linebacker took over as head coach under difficult circumstances following the sudden passing of Randy Walker prior to the 2006 season. Fitzgerald went 10-14 over his first two years and guided Northwestern to five consecutive bowl trips from 2008-12. The Wildcats slipped to 5-7 in back-to-back seasons but have a 17-9 mark over the last two years. Northwestern has four 10-win seasons in its program history. Two of those have come under Fitzgerald.
4. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
After winning 11 or more games in five out of six seasons from 2010-15, the Spartans fell to 3-9 last year. While the Big Ten East is getting tougher with Penn State’s rise under James Franklin, and Jim Harbaugh’s arrival at Michigan, it’s hard to envision Michigan State staying down for too long under Dantonio. After all, he’s 90-42 since 2007 in East Lansing and has guided the program to nine bowl trips. Dantonio’s 2015 team won the Big Ten Championship and earned a trip to the CFB Playoff, while the 2013 version played in the Rose Bowl after beating Ohio State in the conference title game.
3. James Franklin, Penn State
Penn State is trending up entering Franklin’s fourth season in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions are coming off an 11-3 record – the program’s first double-digit victory total since 2009 – a Rose Bowl berth and Big Ten Championship. The 11-win campaign was Franklin’s best at Penn State after starting his career with a 14-12 mark from 2014-15. And with a roster improving on depth after recovering from scholarship sanctions, the Nittany Lions are poised to become a bigger factor in the Big Ten East Division on a more consistent basis. Prior to taking over at Penn State, Franklin guided Vanderbilt – the SEC’s toughest job – to three bowl appearances and 24 wins from 2011-13.
2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
With Harbaugh at the helm, it’s only a matter of time before Michigan is in the CFB Playoff and among the nation’s best every year. The Wolverines are 20-6 overall and 13-4 in Big Ten play under Harbaugh’s direction. One reason Michigan is poised for a return to the top of college football? Recruiting. The Wolverines have inked back-to-back top-five classes and another standout haul is on the way for 2018. Harbaugh also has a track record of success. At San Diego, he went 7-4 in his first year (2004) and proceeded to record a 22-2 mark over the next two seasons. After going 4-8 in his debut at Stanford (2007), Harbaugh improved the program’s win total in three consecutive years, culminating in a 12-1 finish in 2010. After a 44-19-1 mark with the 49ers from 2011-14, Harbaugh returned to his alma mater and is one of the nation’s best coaches.
1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Meyer continued to add to an already impressive resume by guiding Ohio State to an 11-2 mark and a CFB Playoff berth last season. Under Meyer’s direction, the Buckeyes are 61-6 and have won at least 11 games every year. Ohio State won the 2014 national championship and has claimed or won a share of the Big Ten East Division title in each of the last three seasons. The run in Columbus rivals Meyer’s tenure at Florida, as he went 65-15 from 2005-10 with two national titles. He also had a 22-2 mark at Utah from 2003-04 and a 17-6 record at Bowling Green from 2001-02. Simply, Meyer recruits and develops talent as well as any head coach in college football and consistently wins at a high level.