Coaching is a cutthroat business. So much so that nothing in this modern era can be considered that big of a surprise. Conventional wisdom used to be that a new coach got four years to prove himself, but that now seems to be the upper limit. Now it almost always feels like there’s room on the hot seat for all but the game’s best coaches.
And that puts the Big Ten in a unique spot heading into the 2017 season. I’m not sure any of the conference’s coaches are on the hot seat based on what we know now. We’re going to proceed with that premise even though we know strange developments are sort of the name of the game.
Here’s how I’d categorize the current Big Ten coaches based on their proximity to the proverbial hot seat.
I’ve got six schools that aren’t even thinking about what comes next at this point and won’t be for a while.
IOWA: Not sure what else Iowa would have had to show over the past handful of years to prove that Kirk Ferentz is the guy until he decides he’s not. That’s particularly true after four consecutive winning seasons.
MICHIGAN: Jim Harbaugh has made Michigan feel like Michigan again, but he has yet to deliver a division title after two years, and, given all the Wolverines have to replace, it’s not coming this year either. For afar, that’s not that big of a demerit in a division that includes Ohio State, but up close things are always more intense earlier. So what’s the grumblings grace period here? Five seasons? Four seasons? If Harbaugh doesn’t have some sort of trophy at the end of the 2018 season (four years in), do we need to change this categorization? Maybe, but Michigan was pot-committed for Harbaugh two years ago, and having to go back out on the open market would be a tough hand to fold.
NORTHWESTERN: A former Wildcat hero as a player, Pat Fitzgerald just does his thing. Most years he wins a game or two more than he should, new facilities are being built and who’s going to do better? With a nod towards what has been proven in Iowa City, there may not be a better fit in the Big Ten.
OHIO STATE: The Urban Meyer era ends in Columbus when Meyer decides he’s had enough. It happened once at Florida, so you can never count out the surprise factor here, but it feels pretty far away.
PENN STATE: Last October Penn State’s AD had to come out and urge patience with the James Franklin era. After he turned that 2-2 team into Big Ten champions in 2016, Franklin doesn’t have anything to worry about. In fact, he may be the reason we have a no-hot-seat list this year. If Penn State had finished close to .500 again, he would’ve been there.
WISCONSIN: Paul Chryst was an unassuming local hero with a middling record at Pittsburgh when he was hired at Wisconsin. A 21-6 record after two seasons and an ability to peacefully exist in Barry Alvarez’s athletic department, mean he’s pretty safe. We’ll see if he can maintain the momentum with his third defensive coordinator in as many years.
A variation of the “No Way” group, first-year coaches are maybe the safest bet of all. There are three in the Big Ten this year, each interesting in his own way.
INDIANA: Indiana probably didn’t want to move on from Kevin Wilson (now the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator), but when it felt it had to it tapped former defensive coordinator Tom Allen. A defense-first approach is usually good news in the rugged Big Ten, but can Allen consistently lure the players to do it in Bloomington? Receivers and a quarterback willing to throw it around are a lot easier to find than defensive linemen and defensive backs. It’s a big question for the first-time head coach, but one that won’t be asked for a while.
MINNESOTA: The Gophers came away with a steal by luring P.J. Fleck after it looked like the red-hot Western Michigan coach was going to pass on making a move. He’s recruiting well already and his personality certainly gets people’s attention.
PURDUE: Let’s do this, Jeff Brohm. The ground-based Big Ten is better off with at least one team that’s going to air it out and it’s best off in my mind if that team is Purdue. Love this hire and he should have a pretty long leash.
Catastrophic Failures Only
If we’re talking about the potential to be on the hot seat a year from now, these are the guys who would probably have to bottom out in 2017 to get there. That said, they still feel pretty safe right now.
MARYLAND: Personally, I loved D.J. Durkin’s first year. He has a rising offensive coordinator guiding an explosive if inconsistent offense, he recruited well (and continues to) and he led the Terps to a bowl game. If he keeps Maryland as, say, the fifth-best recruiter in the Big Ten — it’s tough to see Maryland higher — more wins will be on the way. Take a step back and then get a little dicier, but Durkin seems to have bought himself some time already.
MICHIGAN STATE: This is the toughest one to assess in the conference. On the one hand, Mark Dantonio is one of the best coaches in program history. On the other, the Spartans went 3-9 a year ago, which wouldn’t have been that big of a deal if it wasn’t combined with an ugly year off the field. Combine both again — or have further controversies to deal with — and Michigan State might have some serious thinking to do.
NEBRASKA: Everything is above average for the Mike Riley era right now. The 9-win season, even if it required context, soothed some concerns from 2015 and recruiting is trending up. That said, if the Huskers go 6-6, as some places are projecting, expect there to be plenty of discussion about Nebraska’s future in the summer of 2018.
Maybe Next Year?
If you had to pick two schools that were the closest to a hot-seat debate, these are the two.
ILLINOIS: It’s still early, but it’s hard to get a good read on what the Lovie Smith era is supposed to be. It was as splashy a hire as Illinois is probably going to make, but 3-9 in year one with a very talented defensive line wasn’t that encouraging and the Illini roster doesn’t look like it’s better off heading into 2017.
RUTGERS: It’s a tough gig and, man, was 2016 a rough year. Rough enough that Chris Ash almost has to show some gains in year two. I don’t really see Rutgers pulling the trigger on a coaching change in the near future, but that probably won’t stop Ash from showing up on some summer lists if the Scarlet Knights go winless in conference play again.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.