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The Most Significant Hire In The Big Ten Since The Ten Year War is...

Over on the fanshot that linked to the Jerry Kill article on SBN Minnesota, a solid question was asked about who was the most significant football coaching hire the Big Ten has seen since 1980. Why 1980? Well, because that's the question that was asked. But because I wanted to include the Hayden Fry hire of 1979, I decided to back it up to the end of the Ten Year War in 1978, when the conference perception of 'The Big Two and Little Eight' was arguably at it's highest point.

And when you ask, followers of Off Tackle Empire, we answer. Well, at least try to answer. So BentNotBroken, PariahWulfen, and Grixxly, this Blog's for you. Bud, blog...see what I did there?

Because Jerry Kill and Brady Hoke haven't, you know, coached a game or anything, I don't think that they can really count, but they do deserve a hat tip simply for the fact that they both seem like good hires that spurred the conversation.

So let's do this, after the jump.

So this is a great question. Which coach was the most significant hire in the last 30 years or so? To figure this out, I think it's important to judge the program prior to that coach's arrival, and then look at the winning percentage once the new coach took over. I'll also look at rivalry games and bowl games. And I'll freely admit I don't know all the anecdotal things for every coach at every program, so please feel free to make your case (this is predominantly a blog of lawyers, after all) in the comments.


Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin: When Barry Alvarez took over what can only be described as a moribund Badger football program, no one really expected much. His two predecessors had gone 9-36 (5-27 in the conference) over four years, had last made a bowl appearance in the 1984 Holiday Bowl (a loss), had a 1-6 all time record in bowl games, and hadn't won the Big Ten since 1962. They were on a 1-5 streak to Minnesota, and hadn't beaten Iowa since 1976. They had started to revive under Dave McClain, winning seven games twice and recording Wisconsin's only bowl win to that point, but after his tragic death caused by a heart attack in 1986, Wisconsin nosedived.

It took Alvarez a few years, but once he was able to recruit his players, Wisconsin became, and has remained, a force in the Big Ten. In 1993, Wisconsin won a share of the Big Ten title and went to the Rose Bowl, defeating UCLA 21-16. From 1993 on, Wisconsin only had two losing seasons under Alvarez, and his overall record was 118-73-4, going 65-60-3 in the Big Ten and becoming Wisky's all time winningest coach. Alvarez also took Wisconsin to back-to-back Rose Bowls after the 1998-99 seasons, winning both. It was the first back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances for a Big Ten team not named Michigan or Ohio State since Minnesota did it following the 1960-61 seasons, and they are the only Big Ten team to win back to back Rose Bowls. 1998 was a shared conference championship, but the 1999 season was Wisconsin's first outright Big Ten title since 1962.

In overall bowl games, Alvarez was 8-3, going undefeated in the Rose Bowl with three victories. In rivalry games, Alvarez was 11-5 against the Gophers, but only 5-9 against Iowa. He lost his first five games against the Hawkeyes, but then won five straight (they didn't play in 1993-94).


Hayden Fry, Iowa: If what Alvarez did at Wisconsin would be considered stunning, what Fry accomplished at Iowa was borderline miraculous. When Fry arrived in 1979, the Big Ten was still 'The Big Two And Little Eight'. Iowa was one of the littlest, having not seen a winning season since 1961, and they hadn't been to the Rose Bowl since Dwight Eisenhower was president. Like Alvarez, Fry needed a couple years to get competitive, but when he did Iowa football took off. In his third season (1981) Iowa won a share of the Big Ten title and went to the Rose Bowl, the first appearance by a Big Ten team not named Michigan or Ohio State since Indiana went after the 1967 season. He won an outright title in 1985, Iowa's first solo conference championship since 1958, and shared a third conference title in 1990.

Overall Fry's bowl record hurts him, as he only went 6-8, with no Rose Bowl victories, but he makes up for it in his rivalry games. Prior to Fry's arrival, Iowa had gone 4-10-1 against Minnesota for the Floyd of Rosedale, but went 12-8 in his 20 years as the Hawks coach, including 5 and 4 game winning streaks. Against Wisconsin, Iowa had gone 6-10-1 in nearly two decades prior to Fry's arrival, but went a ridiculous 15-2-1 against the Badgers, not losing until his final two seasons. Yeah, that's right: he didn't lose to Wisconsin in 18 years (they didn't play for two seasons during his tenure due to scheduling).

When Fry had success also needs to be taken into context as well. He was the guy that broke the OSU-UM dominance, and ended the 'Big Two, Little Eight' perception once and for all, something that a lot of people thought would not be broken for a long time.


Gary Barnett, Northwestern Okay, if Alvarez and Fry resuscitated dormant programs, Barnett, when taken in context of Northwestern ineptitude for almost 50 years, is the football Jesus that revived Lazarus Northwestern from the dead. Yeah, he went to Colorado and it ended badly blah blah blah, and yeah, he had an overall losing record at Northwestern blah blah blah...but he took the goddamn Rose Bowl. Let's refresh, for those of you who's football memory doesn't go back past 1995...which is everyone in the Northwestern fanbase. Oh, and since there's more than 7 of you that call yourself Wildcat football fans, thank Barnett.

Anyways, Northwestern football history is as disastrous, at least in a historical context, as the Hungarian Army. Their all time winning percentage...all time, is .371. Jesus, even the Hungarian Army wins more than that, and they haven't won a significant battle since the freakin' Middle Ages. For example, from 1976-1981, Northwestern won three games. Yeah, that's right. In six years, they won three games, and set the NCAA record for most consecutive losses while doing it. For those of you too young to remember, Northwestern was the ultimate slump buster in the Big Ten, even during the heyday of the Big Two Little Ten days. Scoring against Northwestern was as easy as yelling 'Action' to Jenna Jameson. Seriously--me, Stephen Hawking, and 9 other guys could've kicked Northwestern's ass, they were that bad.

Too inappropriate? No, I don't think so.

But that ship sailed when Gary Barnett took the Wildcat job. Like Alvarez and Fry, he needed a couple years to get going, but in 1995 Northwestern won the Big Ten and went to the Rose Bowl. Let me say that Rose Bowl. I still remember that season. They beat a dominant Lou Holtz coached Notre Dame team in South Bend the first week of the season, and everyone...and I mean everyone...went 'WTF--Northwestern beat Notre Dame? You're shittin' me dude'. It was almost...almost...App State beating Michigan monumental from a few years back. It was so awesome, that I sent my some good friends that were Notre Dame fans condolence cards with the words 'May God Hold and Comfort You' on the outside and 'HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA YOU LOST TO NORTHWESTERN!!!!' drunkenly scrawled on the inside (see, back then we didn't have the Internet, so you had to use regular mail). Oh, I also scratched out 'God' in the front and inserted 'Touchdown Jesus'. Anyway, the Wildcats kept rolling, beating Michigan and Penn State enroute to winning the conference title outright...something Alvarez and Fry didn't do their first time, and securing a Rose Bowl berth.

What's that you say? They didn't win the Rose Bowl?

I say so what. Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl. That's like winning it for them. Northwestern doesn't win conference championships, unless you can remember back to the Great Depression...or farther. Prior to 1995, NU hadn't won a Big Ten championship since 1936. Not only did Barnett win a Big Ten title outright in 1995, he came back in 1996 and won a share of the Big Ten title with Ohio State.

Randy Walker and Pat Fitzgerald have done a very good job of keeping Northwestern football productive and competitive, but it started with Barnett.


Jim Tressel, Ohio State Taking OSU's history into context, this seems out of place, but hear me out. Ohio State had a fair amount of success under Tressel's predecessor John Cooper, but college football was beginning to change, as the BCS-era has taken over and altered the landscape of the game. Jim Tressel inherited a program that was at a crossroads after the 2000 season. Coop had won a lot of games (111-43-4 overall as OSU coach), but not the big ones, and there was a perception that he was losing control of the team. Tressel, a relative unknown at the time, was received by the ever-understanding Buckeye fanbase with skepticism, if not outright derision. He immediately changed perceptions by going to Ann Arbor and beating a heavily favored Michigan team in 2001, and has dominated their arch rival ever since. Cooper was an infamous 2-10-1 against Michigan, and by Tressel's third year he had as many wins that Cooper had in 13. Overall, Tressel has only lost one game against UM, going 9-1 overall.

He also started winning Big Ten championships. Whereas Cooper piled up a lot of victories, he could only manage a share of the Big Ten title three times, as his teams quite frankly choked when the pressure was on. Tressel has won the Big Ten 7 times, winning back to back outright titles in 2006-07. 2006 was the first outright title for the Buckeyes since 1984, and in 2002 he won the national championship game, beating Miami in double overtime.

//Pulls pin on rhetorical hand grenade//

Thanks, Terry! Ah, screw that. Had the refs called this play right, there wouldn't have been overtime. Screw Miami. OSU won that game fair and square. Sorry, I digress.

In the BCS era, no team has made a BCS bowl game more than Ohio State, no team has won more BCS bowl games than Ohio State, and they are the only Big Ten team to appear in the BCS National Championship Game, winning one. In an era of parity, the Buckeyes have been about as dominant as one can be. In the BCS era, where conference perception is almost as important as individual team results, no coach has had as much influence over his conference's perception than Tressel has had over the Big Ten as the Ohio State coach.


Lloyd Carr, Michigan A lot of folks these days are a 'what have you done for me lately' person, and if you are you might discount Lloyd Carr and his contribution to Michigan football. But let's remember when Carr was hired in 1995---UM was just a few years removed from Bo, Gary Moeller had gotten himself fired over a drunken outburst at a restaurant, and there was a crisis of confidence in Michigan football. What did Carr do? Nothing, really. Except win 122 games, 4 Big Ten titles, and a national championship over 13 years. He also owned Michigan State, Ohio State for 6 years, and was over .500 against Notre Dame. Carr never really got the respect he deserved in my book, because a lot of folks thought he won his national championship with Moeller's players, and his record in his last few years against Ohio State suffered.

But Carr won a national championship, something that Moeller...or the beloved Bo Schembechler...never did. His record in bowl games was better than Bo's, and although he slipped in his final seasons, at one point his bowl record was 5-3, including his Rose Bowl victory over Washington State that won Michigan the national championship.

Carr never seems to get enough credit for what he did for Michigan football, because of what happened in the last few years of his tenure, and that's a shame. Yes, you must take the whole career into context, but when you do, Carr needs to be on this list because he was able to navigate the Wolverines through difficult times off the field while bringing Michigan to the pinnacle of success on the field.


Joe Tiller, Purdue Joe Tiller deserves serious consideration, because it was Tiller that changed the way offense was played in the Big Ten forever. For as long as I can remember growing up, the Big Ten was power football. You line up your 11, I'll line up mine, and whoever is the bigger and tougher will usually prevail. Yeah, Tiller kind of set that line of thought on it's ear. Except in Wisconsin.

Well, he not only set it on it's ear, but he cut that ear off and wore it as a war trophy necklace. Tiller's spread offense revitalized Purdue and forced the Big Ten into the 21st century kicking and screaming. From 1985-1996, Purdue did not have a winning record, and in Tiller's first season the Boilermakers went 9-3, going to a bowl game for the first time since 1984. Prior to Tiller's arrival, Purdue had gone to five bowl games all time, and by the time he left Tiller doubled that number, going 4-6 overall.

Tiller's best season was in 2000, when Purdue won a share of the Big Ten title and went to the Rose Bowl, ultimately losing to the Washington Huskies. Tiller never won the Rose Bowl, but his innovative offenses changed the face of how football was played in the Big Ten, and he took Purdue to levels of success they hadn't seen in a generation.

So there you go. Agree, disagree, come up with other options. I think I'm going with Fry, but Alvarez is tough to discount.