Ranking the 14 Big Ten head football coaches from first to worst
These rankings could look much different a year from now
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – This column ranks the 14 Big Ten head football coaches from first to worst based mostly on body of work, and on recent job performance along with the challenges and obstacles that come with each job.
For example, most would agree that having success at Ohio State is much easier than having success at Northwestern, which has the Big Ten’s toughest academic standards.
Ohio State almost always has either the best recruiting class in the Big Ten, or one of the best recruiting classes.
So, while that helps to win on a consistent basis, it also works against current Ohio State head coach Ryan Day in these rankings because he is perceived as having the best players and that means he should win.
- Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: The Big Ten’s second longest tenured head coach behind Kirk Ferentz has led the Wildcats to two Big Ten West Division titles since 2018, and to at least seven victories in nine seasons since taking over in 2006.
Fitzgerald, a former All-Big Ten linebacker at Northwestern in the mid-1990s, was only 31 years old when he was promoted to head coach in the wake of Randy Walker’s sudden and unexpected death on June 29, 2006.
Though he has had chances to leave his alma mater, Fitzgerald has stayed loyal to Northwestern, and as a result, Northwestern has stayed competitive for the most part.
Fitzgerald’s biggest problem has been sustaining success as evidenced by Northwestern finishing 3-9 last season and in 2019.
It seems the Wildcats often go from having a losing record to challenging for a conference title the next season.
No other head coach in the conference faces the kind of obstacles that Fitzgerald deals with at Northwestern from an academic requirement standpoint.
Northwestern’s stadium also leaves much to be desired, and its fan base is easily distracted from being so close to Chicago.
And yet, more times than not, Pat Fitzgerald builds a quality team and does more with less, including having a 9-7 record against Iowa.
2. Ryan Day, Ohio State: He took over a program that was hugely successful under his predecessor, Urban Meyer, and has since maintained a level of excellence.
Day has a 34-4 record in three seasons as the Ohio State head coach, including 23-1 in conference play. He was just recently given a contract extension and a raise that now pays him more than $9 million annually, and deservedly so.
But on the other hand, Day has sort of just picked up where Meyer left off as the Ohio State head coach. Meyer in seven seasons as the Ohio State head coach had an 83-9 record, including 54-4 in conference play.
He also left Day with a roster filled with future NFL players.
3. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan: He helped his cause by finally defeating Ohio State last season and by making the college playoff for the first time.
The glow has sort of rubbed off Harbaugh due to his lack of success against the Buckeyes and against instate rival Michigan State.
But he also has won at least 10 games in four of his eight seasons at his alma mater, and that combined with his success at San Diego and Stanford, and as the head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, demands respect.
Harbaugh has the distinction of coaching in the college playoff and in a Super Bowl.
4. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: The nation’s longest tenured head coach seems to be getting better with age as Iowa has won 10 games in two of the last three seasons.
Iowa also won the Big Ten West Division last season and is considered one of the favorites to win it this season.
Ferentz doesn’t face the same academic requirements that Fitzgerald does at Northwestern. But sustaining success at a developmental program like Iowa, and in a state with a low population, also has its disadvantages.
The racial unrest from the summer of 2020 hurt the 66-year old Ferentz from an image standpoint, but it hasn’t stopped Iowa from having success.
Iowa has a 16-6 record over the past two seasons, and that says a lot about Kirk Ferentz’s ability to coach under tough circumstances.
Ferentz was given the edge over Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst due mostly to Ferentz’s much larger body of work and because Iowa has finished above Wisconsin in the conference standings in each of the past two seasons.
5. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin: The Badgers have won three Big Ten West Division titles and just once have finished lower than second in the division during Chryst’s seven season as head coach at his alma mater.
And that came during the 2020 Covid-shortened season when Wisconsin’s roster was gutted by the pandemic.
Chryst only had a 19-19 record in three seasons as the Pittsburgh head coach.
But that didn’t stop Barry Alvarez from hiring Chryst to lead the program that Alvarez turned into a Big Ten power.
Alvarez trusted his instincts when hiring Chryst, and it has since paid dividends.
6. Bret Bielema, Illinois: The former Iowa defensive lineman and assistant coach has a very respectable 102-65 overall record as a college head coach.
He finished 68-24 during seven seasons as Barry Alvarez’s hand-picked successor at Wisconsin, but then his record slipped to 29-34 in five seasons at Arkansas.
Illinois was close to making a bowl game in Bielema’s first season as head coach last fall, finishing 5-7 overall.
He seems to have the Illinois program moving in the right direction.
7. James Franklin, Penn State: Franklin, much like Ryan Day, gets judged a little harder due to Penn State’s status as a traditional power.
And while he has had success in eight seasons at Penn State, including winning 11 games three times, Penn State has combined to finish just 11-11 over the previous two seasons, and has won seven or fewer games four times under Franklin.
8. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota: His high-energy approach and his love for the spotlight might rub some people the wrong way.
But the guy can coach.
In five seasons at Minnesota, Fleck has finished with a winning record three times, including 11-2 in 2019 and 9-4 last season.
The Gophers won nine games last season despite losing their top four running backs to injuries.
That wouldn’t have happened without a strong culture and without solid leadership from the head coach.
9. Jeff Brohm, Purdue: He would probably be ranked first among Big Ten coaches if it came down to just coaching offense.
His spread attack has caused fits for some of the conference’s top defenses, including the vaunted Iowa defense, which Purdue shredded for 377 passing yards during a 24-7 victory last season at Kinnick Stadium.
Purdue bounced back from consecutive losing seasons in 2019 and 2020 to finish 9-4 last season.
Should Brohm ever figure things out on defense, Purdue could become a contender.
10. Mel Tucker, Michigan State: This might seem low for the reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year, but it’s due mostly to having a small body of work.
Tucker has only been a head coach for three seasons in college and twice he has finished with a losing record. He finished 5-7 in his only season at Colorado in 2019 and 2-5 in his first season at Michigan State in 2020.
But then last season Michigan State proved the prognosticators wrong by finishing 11-2 overall. Should the Spartans continue to have success next season, Tucker would make a huge jump in the rankings.
Brohm and Franklin both have the advantage over Tucker at this moment due mostly to their body of work. Brohm was highly successful as the head coach at Western Kentucky, while Franklin had a 24-15 record in three seasons as head coach at Vanderbilt from 2011 to 2013, which is quite an accomplishment given Vanderbilt’s tough academic standards and lack of success in the Southeastern Conference.
P.J. Fleck also has a slight advantage over Tucker partly for having rebuilt the Western Michigan program where Fleck’s team finished 13-1 in his final season in 2016 and played in the Cotton Bowl. Fleck’s success at Western Michigan paved the way for him to get the Minnesota job.
These rankings are very fluid, so if Michigan State comes close to accomplishing this coming season what it accomplished last season, then Tucker as previously stated would climb multiple spots in the rankings.
It’s easy to be a prisoner of the moment in Tucker’s case because what he accomplished last season truly was spectacular. But it was also just one season for which he has been handsomely rewarded with a new contract that pays him more than $9 million annually.
Tucker just needs more time to prove himself as a head coach.
11. Greg Schiano, Rutgers: A case could be made for ranking him higher based largely on his first stint as the Rutgers coach when he compiled a 68-67 record from 2001 to 2011.
But the Scarlet Knights are just 8-14 since Schiano was re-hired before the start of 2020 season, including 5-13 in conference play.
Schiano has yet to show that he can make Rutgers a Big Ten contender, but he also needs more time to try to meet that challenge.
Should Schiano lead Rutgers to a winning record next season, his ranking would also improve considerably.
12. Tom Allen, Indiana: He would’ve been ranked much higher on this list a year ago with Indiana coming off back-to-back winning seasons in 2019 and 2020.
But the Hoosiers unraveled last season, finishing 2-10 overall.
So, the jury still is out on Allen’s ability as a head coach.
He has proven to be a master motivator and his players seems to love him.
But it ultimately comes down to winning and Allen failed miserably in that respect last season.
13. Mike Locksley, Maryland: A strong case could be made for Locksley being ranked last in the conference, considering Maryland’s record is just 13-23 with Locksley as head coach. He also finished just 2-26 in three seasons as the head coach at New Mexico State from 2009-11, and he has a 15-49 overall record as a head coach.
However, the fact that Maryland finished 7-6 this past season and played in a bowl game kept Locksley from being ranked last.
But just barely.
14. Scott Frost: Once thought to be the savior of Nebraska football, Frost still hasn’t finished with a winning record in four seasons at his alma mater.
Inconsistency at quarterback, lousy special teams and defensive woes have kept Nebraska from meeting the incredibly high expectations that accompanied Frost.
Frost was thought to be a rising star after he led Central Florida to a 13-0 record as head coach in 2017. But his star has since faded, and now the 47-year old Frost will be coaching to save his job next season.