clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Big Ten Coaching Hot Seat, 2010

For the most part, the Big Ten is a conference that holds on to coaches, with frequent turnover a rare thing. Why? It’s a premiere conference, and the top jobs are destinations, not stepping stones, and the big programs, with one notable exception, have good coaches who have produced. Even for the lower tier programs, there’s a fair amount of patience to give a coach time to build his program and recruit for his system. Maybe that’s due to our Midwestern sensibilities, or the fact that most programs are in good places, relatively speaking. There’s usually not a lot of coaching hot seat talk in the Big Ten, but in 2010, we’ve got several coaches who have warm fannies, and a lot riding for 2010. I’ve ranked the conference coaches from Mr. Heat Christmas Hot to Mr. Ice Christmas Cold, with a lot of caveats as we move farther down the list.


Michigan—Rich Rodriguez. UM hadn’t had a losing season since 1967 and hadn’t missed a bowl in 33 years prior to Rodriguez arriving in Ann Arbor. In two years, he hasn’t posted a winning season, and the UM faithful are very restless. Being an outsider, he wasn’t fully embraced by all of the Michigan faithful to begin with, and hasn’t done himself any favors since being on campus. He started off on the wrong foot with the West Virginia buyout controversy, and the program has also been sanctioned by the NCAA for off-season workout violations, a first in program history. Rodriguez has never seemed…comfortable…in such a bright spotlight that is Michigan football, and his run spread option is a radical change from what UM had been doing, very successfully, for a long time. I think Rodriguez needs to beat two of UM’s big three rivals, win 7 games, and get to a bowl to save his job.


Illinois—Ron Zook. Ah, the Zooker. Ron Zook, in some ways, is becoming a victim of his own recruiting success. He’s brought in a bevy of talent to Champaign, and he guided the Illini to a 9-4 record in 2007 and gave Illinois the honor of being the annual Big Ten Sacrificial Lamb to USC in the Rose Bowl. You can argue whether or not Illinois should have even gone to the Rose Bowl, but they did, and it was quite an accomplishment for the Illini, considering his first two years he won a total of four games. But he’s gone 5-7 and 3-9 since, while garnering consecutive top 20 recruiting classes in 2007 and 2008. Because of those recruiting classes, expectations moving forward were high, but Illinois has gone in the opposite direction. Similarly, the 2009 recruiting class dropped to 35th, and bottomed out in 2010 with a ranking of 57 (all rankings according to the website). If Zook cannot get it turned around in 2010, I think Illinois will ‘move in another direction’, as they like to say.


Minnesota—Tim Brewster. Brewster has, in some respects, a combination of the problems that Rodriguez and Zook have. Like RRod, Brewster’s hiring was controversial in that he had no head coaching experience and he had been in the NFL prior to the Gopher job. He is also an outsider, and as a native Minnesotan, I know we don’t do outsiders very well. He also had the gall to declare that Minnesota is a sleeping giant, and that his only stated goal was to take the Gophers to the Rose Bowl. The reaction was mildly amusing to downright indignant, and Brewster caught hell from just about everyone on that. Like Zook, he has recruited well, raising expectations, and has failed to meet those expectations. Like both men, Brewster better deliver the goods this year, or there’s a good chance he’s out. Of course, with Bob Bruiniks and Joel Maturi running the ship, Brewster might get himself a lifetime contract.


The coaches following the ‘top three’ have virtually no chance of being fired during or after the 2010 season. Unless, as they old political saying goes, they’re caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl. I’m just ranking them to round out the list from top to bottom.


Indiana—Bill Lynch. Bill Lynch had one of the more unenviable tasks in football—succeed a popular coach who had died tragically. Terry Hoeppner refused to accept mediocrity for Indiana football, and had started to turn the corner with that program before he passed away from a brain tumor in 2007. Lynch became interim head coach, and Hoeppner died just a few days later. Indiana played inspired football, earning a bowl berth for the first time since 1993, and were hands down the feel good story in the Big Ten. I got chills up and down my spine when Indiana kicked a field goal to beat Purdue and earn a bowl berth as Terry Hoeppner’s widow looked towards the heavens to give thanks. The emotional high wore off in 2008 and 2009, however, as Indiana finished 3-9 and 4-8. But 2009 was a deceiving 4-8, as Indiana narrowly lost to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Northwestern. I think Lynch gets two more years to see if he can get Indiana over the hump.

Wisconsin—Bret Bielema. When Barry Alvarez decided to end his coaching career, he handpicked his successor to ensure that all the work he had done to Make Wisconsin back into a national power didn’t go to waste. His pick was Bielema, and Wisky went 12-1, an Outback Bowl win over Arkansas, and a #7 AP ranking in 2006. 2007 and 2008 were disappointments, and 2008 ended unranked with a 7-6 record and a 42-13 whipping at the hands of Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. Bielema’s seat got a bit warm, and there were rumblings coming out of Camp Randall that Bielema couldn’t recruit or coach well enough to keep Wisconsin in the lifestyle they’d become accustomed to. That pretty much ended at the end of last season with a 10-3 record, a top 20 ranking, and a victory over Miami in the Champs Sports bowl. Bielema has seemingly righted the ship, and once again Wisconsin has high expectations for 2010, and is considered by many a legitimate Big Ten title contender. The only way Bielema ends up on the hot seat is if Wisconsin completely tanks and misses a bowl game, and I don’t see that happening.

Iowa—Kirk Ferentz. The NFL courted Kirk Ferentz a few years back, and there were a few people who thought he might jump. Iowa followed three consecutive #8 rankings with essentially three .500 seasons, lost two bowl games in ’05 and ’06, and missed a bowl completely in 2007. From Iowa’s perspective, he was never in serious trouble, but there was some thought that he had lost control of his team, as they matched their on field mediocrity with numerous off the field incidents. Ferentz reasserted control in 2008, got his team a bowl win and a top 20 ranking, and got all the way back last year with Iowa’s first ever BCS victory. Barring the football team burning Iowa City to the ground, or the ‘live boy dead girl’ theory, Ferentz is as secure as an Army Ranger perimeter.

Michigan State—Mark Dantonio. Dantonio has been a shot in the arm for an MSU program that was demoralized after the success of Nick Saban…elsewhere, and the Greek Tragedy Comedy of the John L. Smith era. Last season was supposed to be a breakout season for Sparty, but they struggled to a 6-7 record, and suspended just about everybody for their bowl game against Texas Tech. However, they have equaled Michigan in terms of recruiting, and will be considered the favorite entering that game in 2010. Dantonio can’t afford another 6-7 season, or his seat will start to get warm, but they have a schedule that looks like an 8 win season.

Northwestern—Pat Fitzgerald. Like Lynch, Fitzgerald, a former Northwestern standout as a player, took over for a ‘turn the program around’ coach after a tragic death. Randy Walker had turned Northwestern into a winner, something a lot of people thought impossible, and with Walker’s death, many thought Northwestern would slip back into the Suckitude Ocean. Fitzgerald defied conventional wisdom, going .500 or above in each of the last three seasons. Northwestern is still on their apex up, so while Fitz hasn’t attained JoePa status, his job is about as safe as anyone’s in the conference.

Purdue—Danny Hope. Hope took over for Joe Tiller, who had made Purdue relevant again. Hope had a disappointing 2009, finishing under .500, but were just a couple of bad breaks and close games away from going to a bowl. Had you told me three years ago that in 2010 Purdue would beat both Ohio State and Michigan in the same season and NOT go to a bowl, I would have thought you were nuts. Hope has at least two years before his seat warms up, and if he can keep showing progress like the Boilermakers were at the end of the season, he’ll be fine.

Ohio State—Jim Tressel. Other than Penn State, the most stable and secure coaching position in the Big Ten is at Ohio State, where it’s been pretty much Duckies and Bunnies between Tressel, the University, and the fans since the day he was hired. There has been some grumbling about his conservative nature, but Ohio State hasn’t enjoyed this level of sustained success since Woody Hayes. With no interest in the NFL, Tressel will be welcome at Ohio State as long as he wants to stay.

Penn State—Joe Paterno. The Dean of all college coaches, I firmly believe JoePa will be around forever. He survived a coup early in the decade, and quashed the ‘game has passed JoePa by’ crap with several consecutive good seasons. His record is out of reach of Bobby Bowden, so he’s just playing with house money now. And why leave if you’re playing with house money? I wouldn’t.

If I had to bet, my money is on RRod getting the axe first, but a lot can happen between now and the end of the season.