Because of the over-glorification of former college football coaches, many collegiate head coaches spend each Saturday coaching against monster expectations, not to mention the opposing team. Other head coaches have the distinct advantage of being the fresh face of an upstart program or the purported savior of a downtrodden team. This year's crop of Big 10 head coaches have all of the aforementioned attributes...and more. So enjoy Part 1 of The Rivalry's Big 10 Coaching Grades for the 2008 college football season.
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State University
Analysis: Dantonio has done a wonderful job of building a disciplined, no-nonsense team that has played well in close wins over Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan. His simple offensive scheme has created playmakers in Javon Ringer, Brian Hoyer, and Blair White (probably not his real name - I think he stole it off Gossip Girl). Dantonio's high efficiency offense has also fostered a low turnover rate. Check the stats - in the four years preceding Dantonio, Spartan quarterbacks threw the third most picks in the Big 10. In the two years of his tenure, MSU QB's have thrown the third fewest. The former Tressel protege has led the Spartans to the most wins in the first two years of any MSU coach's reign - this statistic leads me to believe that he is taking advantage of the tradition and money that surrounds this Spartan program. Dantonio's impact has been about more than statistics. He is a calm, somewhat humorless man who has earned the respect of the East Lansing faithful. Most importantly, he has avoided boneheaded coaching moves, idiotic public statements, and player scandals - things which plagued former coaches Nick Saban, Bobby Williams, and most noticeably John L. Smith.
3/4's Season Grade: A-
Outlook for Rest of Season, Postseason: Our resident bowl predictor has a presumably three loss MSU team facing Georgia in the Capitol One Bowl. This is a top notch bowl game (Mascots are fun!) and would add credence to a Dantonio program that has already signed more than half of the top 10 football recruits coming from the state of Michigan. Maybe a Spartan or two will say, "Graham, how could you not give him an A+? Is 9-10 wins and a resurgent program not enough for you to show some respect?" I say this to those who question me: If the Spartan coach wins one of his prime time match-ups (Cali, OSU, PSU), I give him an A+. So far in those games, 0 wins.
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern University
Analysis: Fitzgerald has brought defensive intensity to the Wildcats and pushed Northwestern into the rankings (#24 in the nation today). That's a far cry from a football program that went 22 years without a winning season ('72-'94). The players have remarked that although Fitzgerald was overwhelmed when he began as college footballs youngest football coach, he has gained much confidence since then and has learned to run the team effectively. Fitz showed some of this increased coaching confidence against Minnesota last Saturday. On the road against a ball-hawking, quarterback-killing Minnesota defense, the young coach switched from a quick-pass offensive philosophy to a power running offense that fit backup QB Mike Kafka's athleticism. 220 team rushing yards later, the Wildcats walked out of the Dome with an upset win over a superior team.
3/4's Season Grade: B+
Outlook for Rest of Season, Postseason: The brainiacs from Evanston have a challenging final three games, with OSU, UM, and Illinois on the schedule. Winning two out of three of those games will result in a nine win season, something predecessor Randy Walker never was able to accomplish.
Rich Rodriguez, University of Michigan
Analysis: No one expected the offense to be any good this year, and that's a good thing because the offense has been horrendous. "Round Peg, Square Hole" is how I described RichRod's spread in the hands of inexperienced underclassmen that weren't recruited for this system. But no one expected the experienced defense to be so horrendous; opposing teams have thrown for a Big 10 high 250 ypg against defenders Morgan Trent, Brandon Graham, and Terrence Taylor (all possible NFL draft picks). The Wolverines are last in the Big 10 in scoring defense and recently gave up 48 points to a dysfunctional Purdue offense led by a third string sophomore. D-Co Scott Shafer will lose his job, but Rodriguez must take some of the blame here. Shafer wasn't allowed to bring assistants from his past D-Co jobs at Western and Stanford, inheriting a mishmash of UM and West Virginia coaches. The possibility of a two win team in Ann Arbor throws chills down the spine of many Michiganders, but let me say a few words in support of RichRod. First, he wasn't hired to win 10 games in his first year, he was hired to change the culture of the program. Second, in spite of all the historic losses, he hasn't given the media any idiotic sound bites to play over and over again, ala John L. Smith. So let RichRod attempt to build this program his way before you roast him on the coaching hot seat.
3/4's Season Grade: C
Outlook for Rest of Season, Postseason: No bowl for the Wolverines, so expect the conversation about the Wolverines to center around the two dual threat quarterback recruits coming to Ann Arbor.
Analysis: The Rivalry expected an 8-9 win season from Purdue. Instead, Tiller gave us a pathetic final season, complete with quarterback issues and the worst rushing defense in the Big 10. Tiller, with some help from Curtis Painter, took all the sexiness and efficiency out of "Basketball on Grass." After it became clear in week 4 that this Purdue team wasn't going to be able to complete the 5 yard slants and sit down routes that have become a trademark of Tiller teams, the coaching staff should have made some changes. But the Retiring Mustache kept trucking along with the same offensive plan and his reward for this "no change" philosophy was a season of watching inaccurate passes bounce off young receivers into the hands of defenders. Tiller has also been unable to shield the undersized linebackers from a weekly pummeling by opposing running backs. 2008 wasn't exactly a banner year from the respected head coach.
3/4's Season Grade: D+
Outlook for Rest of Season, Postseason: One Pontiac Game Changing Performance couldn't get Tiller a "C" from The Rivalry. However, Tiller had a great run in the Big 10, leading the Boilermakers to 10 winning seasons in 12 years.
Analysis: The Sweatervest was the hardest coach to grade. I downgraded him for the Buckeye's failure to score an offensive touchdown in three games. I also downgraded Tress for OSU's obvious lack of preparation for the USC game. But I had to give him respect for how quickly he turned over the reigns to Terrelle Pryor. Many, MANY coaches have allowed their middling veteran QB to keep playing for too long, hamstringing the team in the future. But Tressel saw Pryor's skill and decided he would alter the offensive system and rely on the defense for big plays. That is the kind of decision that a confident coach makes.
3/4's Season Grade: B
Outlook for Rest of Season, Postseason: Not only have the Bucks avoided any crippling upsets, but they are in line for a Rose Bowl. Plus, Tressel has pulled another top 10 recruiting class. Maybe we should start calling him The Binder for these 5 Star recruits he brings to OSU.
Stay Tuned for Part 2!