Big 10 has best overall CFB coaching

FootballWith the anti-Big 10 nonsense that is currently dominating the media, many overlook one shining example of Big 10 superiority: coaching.

Of course, great coaching is not limited to a particular conference. There are examples of excellence from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Starting on the left coast, consider Carroll & Tedford. One is considered a genius by general consensus, the other a rising superstar who does scary things with average players and sub-par facilities.

Crossing the Rockies into the Big 12, one first has to scale the wall erected by Bob Stoops to keep the best players from the Plains states in-house, where 10-win seasons and national title contention is the minimum acceptable level of performance.

Continuing east across the Mississippi, men like Les Miles and Urban Meyer stand out as consistently above their peers, even during those off-years when the talent they’re coaching is not. Steve Spurrier and his dominant teams of the 90s should also be mentioned, here.

But cross north of the Ohio River Valley and you enter a land dominated by coaching excellence, tradition, skill, and competitiveness that is unequaled anywhere else in college football. Other conferences have their leaders, but none is as deep as the Big 10. Consider just a few examples:

Jim Tressel
The Sweatervest is the only active coach in Division I-A with five or more national titles in any division. Since taking over OSU’s job in 2001, he has an 83% winning percentage, which includes the aberrant 7-5 record earned his inaugural season after taking over the team from the fired John Cooper. In the seven years since joining the Big 10, his teams have earned the conference title four times and gone 4-2 in bowl games, including two BCS title games (one win, one loss in each). In 2007, despite losing a Heisman-winning quarterback and seven “skill position” starters to the NFL, he coached his team to another Big 10 championship and third BCS title game appearance. With a victory against LSU, he’ll be the only coach in history to have two BCS titles.

Ron Zook
Zook’s coaching success started at OSU in the 80s, followed shortly thereafter with a stint with that dominant 90’s Spurrier staff. In 2005, he inherited a rock-bottom Illini program and improved it from 2-10 to 9-3 by his third year. Zook recruited and trained most of the starters on Florida’s 2006 national championship squad. In 2007, his team finished tied for second-place in the Big 10, which included a road victory over #1 Ohio State, and his 2008 team will be favored by many to win the conference.

Lloyd Carr
What can one say about Carr that hasn’t been blogged about incessantly over the past few weeks? I’ll plagiarize Brian, here:

    Michigan in the Carr era: 121-40, one national championship, two BCS bowl wins, five conference titles, five bowl wins, no losing seasons.

‘Nuff said. Sure, we’ve had our fun with Carr, but we wouldn’t dare argue that he wasn’t a pillar to the college football coaching community.

Joe Paterno
Is there really a need to list JoePa’s career accomplishments here? He’s the winningest coach in history for a reason.

Joe Tiller
I list Tiller here because he is more responsible than any other coach for bringing in the modern era to the Big 10. Tiller’s “Basketball on Grass” made the rest of the Big 10 sit up and take notice of how best to combine speed and spread formations. If Tiller had ever acquired a competitive defensive coordinator, the past decade of Big 10 champions might have looked a lot different.

Bret Bielema
Since being selected by Barry Alverez as his successor two years ago, he’s gone 21-4, including a 12-1 inaugural season (which has only been done three times in NCAA history). That’s something that Tressel didn’t even accomplish at OSU, and Bielema’s done it with Alverez’s recruits. No doubt UW will become even stronger as Bielema’s initial recruiting classes get more playing time over the upcoming seasons.

Mark Dantonio
As of 2007, Dantonio is still getting settled in as new coach of MSU, but his history of success at multiple levels and for multiple teams is proof of his coaching prowess. Dantonio served as an assistant coach on all of Tressel’s dominant staffs, from YSU to OSU, including coaching the national-champion 2002 Ohio State defense. As head coach of Cincinnati, in his first year alone he led his team to its first winning season in 23 years, and directed the team into the Big East (where they beat an undefeated #7 Rutgers squad). Dantonio has the same challenge as his predecessors in East Lansing… how to woo talented players away from Ann Arbor. If he can be successful in that effort, there’s no question that MSU would transform back into an elite program.

Past Tradition
Finally, what would an article about Big 10 coaching be without mentioning men from the past such as (and in no particular order): Fielding Yost, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Barry Alverez, Fritz Crisler, Lovie Smith, Biggie Munn, Hayden Fry, Cam Cameron, Lou Holtz, Wes Fesler, Earl Bruce, etc., etc. There is no other conference with as deep a coaching tradition as the Big 10. All elements, motifs, and styles of modern football began as experiments and adjustments by the head coaches there. College football’s past is rooted in the Big 10, and the conference’s current group of coaches are continuing that tradition by being the most influential leaders and shapers of the sport.

So, over the next few weeks, as you hear over and over again how “OSU doesn’t have a chance to win the title,” or “Illinois doesn’t deserve to be in the Rose,” or “UM is going to lose by 900 to the Gators,” consider at least one area where the Big 10 has an advantage over everyone else, and don’t immediately discount any team that has such excellent leadership.


  1. With tomorrow’s announcement of Petrino at Arkansas, I think you’ll need to rethink this comparison.

    Meyer, Richt, Fulmer, Miles, Nutt, Saban, Tuberville Petrino, and Spurrier at the top of the SEC list. But don’t forget the SEC coaches that are building foundations, like Rich Brooks and Sly Croom.

    If I were an SEC coach, I think *I* would call Michigan at this point. The SEC is *salty*.

  2. Cam Cameron? I’m a fan of the Big T(elev)en, but….

    Cam Cameron?

  3. Okay, Joe… maybe I stretched the point a bit by listing Cameron. 😉

  4. If it’s not the SEC speed and superior talent overall, it’s the elite coaching.

    When will it end?

  5. Eric Wilson says

    I’m a Buckeye and Big 10 fan, but I don’t see it.

    Tressel is without question an elite coach. Carr is gone. Paterno should be gone, and his powerhouse Penn State program has struggled to 28-28 in conference over the past seven years.

    Give Tiller credit for outdoing Paterno at Purdue, where they have gone 29-27 over the same time. But don’t tell Boilermakers that he’s a great coach, they’re ready to move on.

    Zook, Bielema, and Dantonio are too new to really evaluate. Zook may be better than his Florida reputation, but I’m still suspicious.

    Answer this: Who is the second best coach in the Big 10? I’m not ready to bestow that honor to Zook or Bielema, and I’m sure that it isn’t Tiller or Paterno. Frentz? Randy Walker?

    If Zook, Bielema, and Dantonio turn out to be good, and if Michigan and Penn State make good hires, then I’ll feel good about the B10’s coaches. But for now, it’s Tressel and a bunch of average guys.

  6. “If Zook, Bielema, and Dantonio turn out to be good, and if Michigan and Penn State make good hires, then I’ll feel good about the B10’s coaches. But for now, it’s Tressel and a bunch of average guys.”

    I largely agree with this. Tressel’s heads-and-shoulders over his peers, as it stands. I think he’s the best overall game tactician in the conference (Zook is close, though), but there’s no one better at keeping a program on top. Zook’ building a good one at Illinois, but let’s see him do it over the long haul.

    The entire conference will be improved if – and it’s a BIG “if” – the two closest rivals in our conference make good hires. If Hoke ends up coaching m*ch*g*n, it’ll hurt the conference, but I’ll be laughing hysterically during the entire length of his contract. I expect Schiano will probably evince a lot of interest in the PSU job, as soon as Paterno gets caught in the sunlight too long and dissolves into dust.

    Show me, though, a conference reeking with more duplicity on the part of its coaches than the SEC. Institutionally, I can’t find a conference where the coaches and ADs participate in more shady, back-door, cloak-and-dagger politicking than the SEC. Poll spots, job openings, salary negotiations – you name it – it’s all up for grabs in the SEC.

    The SEC has loads of talent and experience, but methinks the character aspect might be found wanting.

  7. Eric –

    “If Zook, Bielema, and Dantonio turn out to be good..”

    It seems like you’re automatically disregarding past excellence at multiple levels and for multiple teams.

    I understand your point about waiting to see how much better or worse these guys get… but I don’t agree with your argument that these guys aren’t good right now, but might someday be. To me, these coaches have ALREADY proven themselves, through excellent performance with many teams at multiple levels.

    My attempt here was to point out that these individuals have – collectively – been more successful at whatever they’ve done in the past than any other collection of coaches in any of the other major conferences. Of course, there are exceptions on an individual basis (my first few paragraphs), but collectively, the Big 10 coaches have the best resume.

  8. “It seems like you’re automatically disregarding past excellence at multiple levels and for multiple teams.”

    I’ll grant you that I think Dantonio is good, despite the lack of information at the highest level. But Zook had three very mediocre years at Florida, and winning only 4 games in his first two years was very bad. One good year isn’t enough to put him on the good list for me.

    If Bielema has done more than maintain (for two brief years) what Barry built at Wisconsin, then I am simply unaware of it.

    I stand by my point that we have little evidence of good B10 coaching outside of Columbus.

    Oh, Paterno was great, I should say. And I entirely discount his greatness, as it had almost expired before PSU joined the league.

  9. Eric – Thanks for the comments.

    Just a few more comments from me…

    I know that Zook’s Florida experience a few years ago marred his record, but you can’t discount a career of high performance just because of a few down years. Sooner or later every coach has a bad few years. It is worth noting, though, that it was his players that won the title last year. Also, taking over the worst program in the Big 10 and taking them to the Rose Bowl in three years should be grounds for major props. Between those two items and his absolute, proven, statistical dominance with Florida’s 1990’s squads (and OSU’s 1980’s teams), I think he deserves a bit more credit that what some (with short memories) are willing to give him. [grin]

    As for Bielema and Paterno, there’s no need to repost or rephrase what I wrote in the article. The fact that JoePa he had a few bad years recently shouldn’t cause one to discount his lifetime of dominance. Actually, the fact that he’s been more challenged ever since joining the Big 10 should be proof of the conference’s toughness, especially in coaching.

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