Penn State's James Franklin takes the top spot among Big Ten coaches
Ranking the Big Ten coaches is no easy task. Penn State's James Franklin takes the top spot for 2020, but Ohio State's Ryan Day and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh aren't far behind. The next tier of coaches features Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Wisconsin's Paul Chryst, Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald. Purdue's Jeff Brohm and Nebraska's Scott Frost look to rebound this fall after disappointing 2019 seasons.
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 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:
Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Coaches for 2020
14. Mike Locksley, Maryland
Locksley returned to College Park after a successful stint as an assistant at Alabama (2017-18), including serving as the team's offensive coordinator his last season there. The Washington, D.C., native had previous stints at Maryland as an assistant from 1997-2002 and '12-15 and worked as the team’s interim coach for the final six games of the 2015 season. The Terrapins started fast in Lockley’s debut last fall by crushing Howard and Syracuse by a combined score of 142-20. However, the program finished 2019 by dropping nine of its next 10 contests. Counting the interim stint in 2015, Locksley is 4-14 at Maryland. He previously went 2-26 as the head coach at New Mexico from 2009-11. Locksley is regarded for his work on the recruiting trail and it will take a couple of years to rebuild the roster and have Maryland competing at a higher level in the Big Ten.
13. Mel Tucker, Michigan State
Mark Dantonio’s late retirement put Michigan State into a difficult spot, and the program paid big money (over $5 million a season) to lure Tucker to East Lansing. Tucker takes over at Michigan State after spending just one year as the head coach at Colorado. The Buffaloes went 5-7 under Tucker, who took over the job after three years as Georgia’s defensive coordinator (2016-18) under Kirby Smart. Tucker also has been an assistant at LSU (2000), Ohio State (2001-04).
12. Lovie Smith, Illinois
The Fighting Illini showed marked improvement in Smith’s fourth season. After winning just nine games overall and four in Big Ten play from 2016-18, Illinois finished 6-7 and won four games in conference action. Additionally, the Fighting Illini showed marked improvement on defense with Smith calling the signals. After giving up 39.4 points a game in 2018, the defense cut that total to 26.2 last season. Smith slowly established a foundation for the 2019 team by playing a lot of young players in the previous three years, which now sets the program up for another run at a bowl. Smith previously went 81-63 as an NFL head coach for the Chicago Bears (2004-12) and 8-24 in two years in Tampa Bay (2014-15).
11. Tom Allen, Indiana
Indiana faces a tough road in the Big Ten East with games against Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State every year. However, the Hoosiers are coming off of their best season since 1993. Allen guided Indiana to an 8-5 finish and an appearance in the Gator Bowl last fall, which marked only the eighth time this program has won eight or more games. The eight-win season was the best of Allen’s tenure in Bloomington. After taking over for Indiana’s bowl in 2016, he started his career with back-to-back 5-7 seasons. After three full years on the job, Allen is 18-20 overall. Prior to taking over as the program’s head coach, Allen worked as the Hoosiers’ defensive coordinator in 2016 and had stops as an assistant at USF, Ole Miss and Arkansas State at the FBS level.
10. Greg Schiano, Rutgers
It’s no secret Rutgers is a tough job, but Schiano is the right pick to help get this program competitive in the Big Ten. He previously went 68-67 with the Scarlet Knights from 2001-11 and guided the team to six bowl trips over his final seven years. Rutgers won 11 games and finished No. 12 overall in 2006, which is arguably the best season in school history. Of the 10 bowl trips in program history, six occurred under Schiano and three others took place within three years after his departure. Schiano left Rutgers after the 2011 season to take over as the head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-21 in two seasons) and later spent three seasons at Ohio State (2016-18). Considering the Scarlet Knights haven’t won more than four games in each of the last five years and play in a tougher conference (Big Ten) than Schiano’s last tenure (Big East), patience will be needed for his second act.
9. Scott Frost, Nebraska
High expectations surrounded Frost – a former Nebraska quarterback – when he returned to Lincoln in 2018. However, the Cornhuskers are 9-15 over the last two years and haven’t made a bowl trip in that span. Additionally, the program is only 6-12 in Big Ten play, and the high-scoring offense Frost built at UCF has yet to materialize. Despite the slow start, Frost is still reeling in talent on the recruiting trail, and a bowl trip should be within reach for 2020 if Nebraska can survive a brutal late-season schedule. After spending seven years at Oregon (2009-15), Frost took over as the head coach at UCF prior to 2016. The Knights improved from 0-12 in the year before Frost’s arrival to 6-7 in his debut. UCF took a massive step forward in his second season, finishing 13-0 and No. 6 nationally after beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Frost still has plenty of time to get Nebraska on the right track and into contention for future West Division titles.
Related: Big Ten Football 2020 Predictions
8. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
Injuries took a major toll on Brohm’s team last season, as the Boilermakers finished 4-8 and missed a bowl for the first time under his watch. The four-win season dropped Brohm’s overall mark to 17-21 in West Lafayette. Prior to taking over at Purdue, Brohm went 30-10 during a three-year stint at WKU. The Hilltoppers finished 8-5 in his debut but went 22-5 over the next two seasons, which included back-to-back Conference USA East Division titles. Brohm is regarded as one of the top offensive minds in college football. With a little better luck in the health department, Purdue should rebound back into a winning record and bowl for 2020.
7. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
It’s obvious the Big Ten is a deep conference for coaching talent when Fitzgerald ranks No. 7 in the league for 2020. Since taking over as the program’s head coach in 2006, Fitzgerald is 99-79 overall and has a 57-59 mark within the Big Ten. Northwestern has just four losing seasons under Fitzgerald and has played in nine bowl games since 2008. Additionally, the Wildcats won the West Division in 2018 and finished No. 21 overall in the final Associated Press poll. Northwestern has four seasons of 10 victories in its program history, with three taking place under Fitzgerald’s watch. While last season was a major disappointment (3-9), don’t expect Fitzgerald’s program to be down for long and a quick rebound is likely in store for 2020.
6. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Minnesota has made steady progress under Fleck’s direction. After a 5-7 debut in 2017, the Golden Gophers jumped to a 7-6 mark in ’18 and posted an 11-2 record last season. The 11-win campaign marked Minnesota’s first double-digit victory total since 2003 and best top-25 finish (No. 10) since 1962 (No. 10). Fleck came to Minnesota after a successful four-year run at Western Michigan. The Broncos went 1-11 in his first season but he finished his tenure in Kalamazoo with three consecutive bowl games, including an appearance in the 2016 Cotton Bowl as the top Group of 5 program. Fleck has always been regarded as a good recruiter and his ability to reel in talent will help Minnesota become a factor for the Big Ten West Division title every year. Additionally, Fleck is proving he can do more than just attract talent, as the program he’s building in Minneapolis is going to win a lot of games over the next few years.
5. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Chryst continues to pile up the wins in Madison, as last year’s 10-win campaign marked the fourth time in five seasons he’s reached double-digit victories. Overall, Wisconsin is 52-16 and 34-10 in Big Ten play under Chryst. The Badgers have claimed three West Division titles during his tenure and finished two times in the top 10. Chryst is a native of Madison, played his college ball with the Badgers, and later worked as an assistant with the program in 2002 and again from '05-11. Prior to taking over at Wisconsin, Chryst spent three years as the head coach at Pitt, finishing 19-19 (2012-14). He’s the perfect fit to lead this program and has Wisconsin once again picked atop the West Division going into 2020.
4. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Ferentz is the nation’s longest-tenured coach going into the 2020 season. After replacing Hayden Fry in 1999, Ferentz went 4-19 over his first two years. However, the Hawkeyes showed steady improvement from there. The program has reeled off 158 victories since 2001, including three consecutive double-digit win seasons (2002-04) and a West Division title with a Rose Bowl trip in 2015. Ferentz has just one losing season since 2007 and two overall since '01. Ferentz is 162-104 at Iowa and 174-125 overall counting a three-year run at Maine from 1990-92.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
3. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Harbaugh doesn’t have a win over Ohio State or a Big Ten title in his first five years at Michigan, but it’s also important to remember what he has accomplished. The Wolverines have won at least nine games in four of his five seasons at the helm and have a 47-18 mark in that span. Additionally, Harbaugh has finished in the top 20 in four years and has two trips to a New Year’s Six bowl. Harbaugh previously went 44-19 in the NFL with an appearance in the Super Bowl with the 49ers, finished 29-21 at Stanford (2007-10), and 29-6 at San Diego (2004-06). While Harbaugh needs to close the gap to the program’s biggest rival and add a little hardware to the trophy case, he’s still one of the top 15 coaches in college football, and Michigan is certainly more relevant on a national level than it was under Rich Rodriguez or Brady Hoke.
2. Ryan Day, Ohio State
Replacing Urban Meyer was no easy task, but Day has already earned a spot among the nation’s top coaches. The Buckeyes finished 13-1 in Day’s first year at the helm, which included a Big Ten title and a trip to the CFB Playoff. Just how dominant was Day’s debut? Consider this: None of the team’s 13 victories came by less than 11 points. Ohio State fell short against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, but Day’s team was just a couple of plays away from a trip to the national championship game. In addition to his week-to-week ability to guide this program, Day remained the team’s play-caller and led the offense to an average of 46.9 points a game and 6.94 yards a snap. He previously went 3-0 as Ohio State’s interim coach in 2018, bringing his overall mark to 16-1 going into 2020.
1. James Franklin, Penn State
Penn State has solidified itself as one of the nation’s top programs under Franklin’s direction. After a successful three-year run at Vanderbilt (2011-13), the Nittany Lions went 14-12 through Franklin’s first two seasons (2014-15). However, the program has won 11 games in three out of the last four years and claimed the 2016 Big Ten title. Penn State has also finished inside of the top 10 three times in that span and played in three New Year’s Six bowls. Franklin went 24-15 at Vanderbilt – the hardest job in the SEC – and was the only coach in its program history to go to three consecutive bowl games. Counting his stint with the Commodores, Franklin is 80-38 overall as a head coach at the FBS level.