Michigan's Jim Harbaugh takes the top spot among Big Ten coaches
The Big Ten boasts arguably the nation's best collection of coaches for the 2019 college football season. With Urban Meyer retired, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin and Nebraska's Scott Frost take the top spots in the rankings. However, the next tier - led by Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz - isn't far behind.
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.
How did we compile the rankings for the Big Ten Conference coaches? For starters, it’s an impossible task. However, we tried to weigh every possible factor into this ranking. 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.
Every team has a different variety or built-in resources available, and hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. Those factors, along with career biography/resume, success in developing talent and landing prospects on the recruiting trail factored into the ranking. Additionally, how well programs value staff (is the head coach better as a CEO or hands-on approach) and the facilities or program resources matter into forming an outlook of how coaches have performed at different stops throughout their career.
Again, wins and the career biography to this point 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 Conference:
Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Coaches for 2019
14. Chris Ash, Rutgers
Landing a spot in the Big Ten was a big deal for Rutgers. However, in a division with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, it’s not an easy job to maintain success. Ash spent time as an assistant at Iowa State, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Ohio State before landing his first head-coaching gig at Rutgers. After a 2-10 debut in 2016, Ash’s team improved to 4-8 and won three games in Big Ten play the following year. However, the Scarlet Knights slipped to 1-11 last season. Improvement in 2019 is a must if Ash wants to return for 2020 and beyond.
13. Mike Locksley, Maryland
After helping Alabama’s offense average 45.6 points a game and winning the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach last season, Locksley is getting a second chance to be a head coach at the FBS level. However, unlike the first job (New Mexico), this one appears to be a great fit for the Washington, D.C. native. Locksley has extensive ties to the DMV area, and his connections should help keep some of the talent in College Park. He previously worked as an assistant at Maryland from 1997-02 and again from 2012-15 (with a stint as interim coach in ’15). Locksley also has stops from jobs at Army, Florida and Illinois, but his previous stint as a head coach resulted in a 2-26 mark with the Lobos.
12. Lovie Smith, Illinois
Smith was an intriguing hire by athletic director Josh Whitman prior to the 2016 season. As a NFL head coach with the Bears (2004-12) and Buccaneers (2014-15), Smith compiled an 89-87 record and took the 2006 Chicago squad to the Super Bowl. However, while Smith had an impressive resume at the NFL level, his last stop in college came during the 1995 season at Ohio State. Through three years, the jury is still out on whether or not Smith is going to work out at Illinois. After a 3-9 debut in 2016, Smith went 2-10 in ’17 and 4-8 in ’18. The Fighting Illini are 9-27 overall in Smith’s tenure. This program has played a lot of young players over the last few years, so there’s optimism the youth will turn into wins in 2019 and ’20.
11. Tom Allen, Indiana
Indiana has finished 5-7 in both years under Allen’s watch. The Hoosiers were likely a little better than the record indicated, but a brutal Big Ten slate hindered the program’s bowl hopes. Allen stepped away from calling the defensive signals this year, which should allow more time to focus on the overall direction of the program. Prior to taking over as head coach in Bloomington, Allen worked for one year as Kevin Wilson’s defensive coordinator in 2016 and also had stops at USF, Ole Miss and Arkansas State.
10. Ryan Day, Ohio State
Make no mistake: Replacing Urban Meyer will be difficult. However, Day certainly seems up to the task. The New Hampshire native started his coaching career as an assistant at Temple in 2006 (and again in ’12) and spent time at Boston College (2007-11 and 2013-14) before leaving to work in the NFL with the Eagles and 49ers under Chip Kelly. Day joined Ohio State’s staff in 2017 and took over the play-calling duties in ’18. Additionally, Day served as the team’s interim coach for the first three games of the season, defeating Oregon State, Rutgers and TCU to start 3-0. Ohio State’s offense led the Big Ten by averaging 42.4 points a game last fall, and quarterback Dwayne Haskins thrived under Day’s watch by tossing 50 touchdowns to only eight picks. With experience working under Chip Kelly and Meyer, Day has two of the best mentors a coach could find at the college level.
9. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
After a 5-7 record in his first year at Minnesota, Fleck guided the Golden Gophers to a 7-6 finish and a bowl victory last fall. And with 16 starters back for 2019, another step forward is within reach for Fleck and this Minnesota program. Prior to taking over in Minneapolis, Fleck guided Western Michigan to a 30-22 record over four years. The Broncos went 1-11 in 2013 but improved to 13-1 and earned a Cotton Bowl trip in ’16. Fleck is regarded as an excellent recruiter and is 42-35 overall in six years as a head coach.
8. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
This might seem low for Chryst, but his ranking among Big Ten coaches also shows just how deep this conference is in terms of coaching talent. The former Wisconsin quarterback worked as an assistant in Madison from 2005-11 before becoming the head coach at Pitt in 2012. He went 19-19 through three years (2012-14) with the Panthers and was hired as Wisconsin’s head coach prior to the ’15 campaign. Chryst led the team to 10 wins in his first year, followed by a 24-4 mark over the next two seasons. The Badgers slipped to 8-5 last fall, but this program is still 42-12 with two Big Ten West Division titles under his watch.
7. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
Brohm was rewarded with a monster contract after passing on a return to his alma mater (Louisville) to stay in West Lafayette. And with Brohm at the helm, Purdue should continue to rise in the Big Ten West. After winning just three Big Ten games from 2013-16, the Boilermakers have recorded nine over the last two years. Purdue is 13-13 under Brohm’s watch and has played in back-to-back bowl games. Prior to taking over at Purdue, Brohm went 30-10 with two Conference USA titles at WKU. He’s also regarded as one of the top coaches on offense at the FBS level.
6. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Northwestern is one of the toughest Power 5 jobs, but Fitzgerald continues to push this program to new heights. The Wildcats finished 9-5 and claimed their first trip to the Big Ten Championship Game last fall. Since Fitzgerald took over in 2006, Northwestern is 96-70 overall and has played in nine bowl games. The Wildcats also have three seasons of at least 10 victories and four finishes in the final Associated Press poll under Fitzgerald. Just how big of an impact has Fitzgerald had on his alma mater? Northwestern has only five seasons of at least 10 victories and three have come under his watch.
5. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Ferentz enters 2019 as the nation’s longest-tenured coach and an overall mark of 152-101 at the helm in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes have not posted a losing record since 2012 (4-8) and have just two since 2001. Ferentz guided Iowa to three consecutive years of double-digit victories from 2002-04, ’09 and again in ’15. The Hawkeyes nearly won the Big Ten title that season and finished No. 9 nationally after a loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Since 2001, Iowa has only one season (2012) of fewer than six wins.
4. Scott Frost, Nebraska
Frost returned to Lincoln tasked with elevating his alma mater back into the mix for Big Ten titles and more of a factor on the national scene. As expected, there were growing pains in Frost’s first year, but Nebraska showed improvement down the stretch with a 4-2 finish over the final six games. Despite a 4-8 mark in his first year, Frost heads into 2019 with momentum on his side. Led by quarterback Adrian Martinez, the Cornhuskers will be a trendy pick to win the Big Ten’s West Division this fall. Frost previously went 19-7 at UCF from 2016-17. The Knights were 0-12 in the year prior to Frost’s arrival but improved by six games the following year. And in 2017, UCF went undefeated (13-0) and finished No. 6 nationally in the final Associated Press poll.
3. James Franklin, Penn State
Franklin came to Happy Valley after a successful three-year stint at Vanderbilt. The Commodores went 4-20 in the two seasons prior to his arrival but finished 24-15 with three bowl trips over three years. Franklin inherited a program dealing with the effects of NCAA scholarship sanctions and went 14-12 over his first two seasons (2014-15). However, the Nittany Lions took a big step forward in 2016 with an 11-3 finish, followed by an 11-2 mark in ’17. Penn State claimed the 2016 Big Ten title and made back-to-back trips to New Year’s Six bowls (Rose and Fiesta). The Nittany Lions are coming off another solid (9-4) season, which puts Franklin’s overall record at 45-21 entering 2019.
2. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
With three victories in 2019, Dantonio will become the winningest coach in Michigan State history. Under Dantonio’s watch, the Spartans have recorded 107 victories and an outright or share of a conference title three times since 2007. Additionally, Dantonio has recorded six seasons of 11 or more wins, guided the team to a No. 3 finish in the final poll for the 2013 season and led the program to a berth in the CFB Playoff in ’15. After finishing sixth or higher in three consecutive polls from 2013-15, Michigan State has only one finish (’17) over the last three years. Prior to taking over at Michigan State, Dantonio went 18-17 at Cincinnati from 2004-06.
1. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Michigan has made significant strides under Harbaugh’s watch. The next step: Win a Big Ten title and earn a trip to the CFB Playoff. Both of those goals were within reach last season and should be the expectation going into 2019. Prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, the Wolverines had only one season of 10 or more wins from 2008-14. Michigan has posted three over the last four years and finished inside of the top 14 in the final Associated Press poll in each of those 10-win campaigns. The Wolverines are 38-14 under Harbaugh’s watch and recorded their best (8-1) mark in Big Ten play last fall. Harbaugh has been successful head coach at every stop in his career. He went 44-19 with a Super Bowl trip with the 49ers (2011-14), guided Stanford to a 29-21 record from 2007-10 and finished 29-6 at San Diego (2004-06). He’s 96-41 overall as a head coach at the collegiate level.
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