The 2023 Big Ten football season is off to a whimpering start and with it numerous coaches have showed they are unable to develop players, call plays, or motivate their team. Before we get into a discussion regarding all of them, let’s take a moment to briefly talk about our first firing of the season: Mel Tucker.
Mel Tucker became the first head coach or coordinator fired in the Big Ten this season when Michigan State officially let him go last week following a suspension without pay. Yes, I’m defining the season as after the first games started. We won’t waste too much space in our hot seat rankings talking about Tucker other than to say his behavior was gross, inappropriate, and has led to a change in my disclaimer (which probably should have been made for the preseason edition because of Fitzgerald, but I didn’t think of it then).
As a reminder, the OTE hot seat rankings are a reflection of coaches’ on-field performance. I’m not predicting or wading into off field scandals and turmoil because quite simply I don’t want to. If you think the hot seat rankings should consider these coaches then leave a comment or write your own list.
Okay. Back to discussing the guys who only embarrass their programs on the field. Where the preseason list had me struggling to come up with a top 5, this week’s edition has no such problem. In fact, if the season ended today, I suspect we would be looking at near double digit firings. Even more surprising, none of them would be at Rutgers, where the coaching staff has taken my preseason rankings to heart and determined to improve upon their past performances.
Coordinators are ranked based on the likelihood that their performance gets them fired but not their head coaches axed. That makes it somewhat difficult to rank the three coordinators already onto an interim head coach this season. While I would prefer to leave Northwestern offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian off the list permanently due to him being around a toxic program culture for years, our magnanimous leader has strongly suggested that I include him on the hot seat rankings. While you’ll have to read on to see if I lack journalistic integrity, you will note that Scottie Hazelton and Jay Johnson are positioned on the list based on how likely interim head coach Harlon Barnett is to get the full time position AND let them go.
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The Top 5
1 - Michigan State Spartans HC Harlon Barnett (previously unranked)
salary: $525K/year (as secondary coach)
contract: runs through March 31, 2024
buyout at end of season: N/A if returned to DB coach role, ~$130K otherwise
Harlon Barnett makes his debut in the standings following the unexpected departure of Mel Tucker. Although Barnett has been at Michigan State for 14 seasons prior to this one and Tucker’s scandal doesn’t involve the rest of the staff, it is widely expected that Michigan State will make an outside hire. The bar to clear that would secure Barnett the job next year is so high it’s nearly impossible to imagine things playing out that way. Combine that with the fact that Michigan State is now 0-3 under Barnett and he’s the clear choice for the #1 spot in the rankings. It’s a tough spot for Barnett who I’m sure would love to lead his alma mater to glory, but realistically the best he can hope for is that the new head coach keeps him on staff as the DB coach.
2 - Indiana Hoosiers OC Walt Bell (previously 4) 2nd season salary:$700K/year contract: expires December 31, 2023 buyout at end of season: N/A
The following was written Saturday night before the news broke on Sunday that Walt Bell has been let go by the Hoosiers:
Indiana’s offense doesn’t have the least amount of points scored by a Big Ten offense this season. They are third in that category: beating out just Iowa (whose team is outscoring Indiana due to defensive and special team scores) and Nebraska. Unlike Nebraska (94 points) and Iowa (95 points), Indiana’s offensive point total of 97 has been aided by a FCS game which saw them put up 41 points.
Walt Bell’s play calling is unimaginative and predictable. His job status does however give us an interesting window into Tom Allen’s job security. If Walt Bell is let go before the end of the season, that probably indicates that there are at least discussions about Allen’s own job. If Bell isn’t fired before the end of the season (when it costs nothing to replace him), Allen is likely to see one more trip around our exploding star as the head football coach of the Indiana Hoosiers.
Sunday Update: Walt Bell has been fired by the Indiana Hoosiers.
3 2 Northwestern Wildcats HC/DC David Braun (previously 1)
salary: NORTHWESTERN DOES NOT REPORT
contract: NORTHWESTERN DOES NOT REPORT
buyout at end of season: NORTHWESTERN DOES NOT REPORT
With the comeback win over the Gophers and renewed competitiveness this season, Braun could make this into a decision at the end of the season. We aren’t there yet (Braun’s going to have to win a few more games to truly make this a conversation), but the fact that an interim coach
has had moved behind a non-interim coach on the rankings list says something. Whether that is anything other than an indictment of the Gophers remains to be seen.
4 3 Nebraska Cornhuskers OC Marcus Satterfield (previously unranked)
contract: runs through 2025 season
buyout at end of season: $2.8M
In a league of terrible offenses, Nebraska’s takes the crown for worst offense five weeks into the season. Satterfield has been with Rhule at multiple stops the past decade: Temple, Baylor, and the Panthers. While Satterfield was only an OC under Rhule at Temple, he’s also led offenses at Tennessee Martin, Chattanooga, Tennessee Tech, and South Carolina.
Gamecock fans have gleefully taken to Twitter (yes, I’m still calling it Twitter) to tell Nebraska fans “I told you so” following Satterfield’s offense getting off to a slow start. While the offense struggles are somewhat understandable due to Nebraska not having a capable quarterback, the play calling has been indefensible and it was Satterfield and Rhule that decided to bring in Jeff Sims leading to the departure of the more capable Casey Thompson. Nebraska donors have plenty of money to enable a change if Rhule wants to make one. While Nebraska can still make a bowl game (long live the Big Ten West!), don’t be shocked if an upgrade is made at the OC position regardless of how the overall record looks. The offense has to be better or Rhule will join the long list of failed Nebraska coaches.
5 4 Illinois Fighting Illini OC Barry Lunney Jr. (previously unranked)
contract: runs through 2025 season
buyout at end of season: $1.65M
Through their first four games, Illinois’s offense had struggled but their games were against mostly good teams. Ranked Kansas. A dominant Penn State defense. MAC favorite Toledo. It’s somewhat understandable to struggle against them. In week 5 however, the Illini failed against a Purdue defense that has been a turnstile for much of the early part of 2023. Despite having a running quarterback and facing a defense that has struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks, Altmyer only had one good rush. The Illini were 2 of 14 on third down!
The passing game hasn’t been anything to write home about in either of Lunney’s two seasons at the helm. The running game and offensive line have taken a massive step back this year after a successful 2022. Bert is no stranger to making quick decisions on replacing coordinators. If Lunney isn’t producing, Bert isn’t going to sit around waiting for him to turn it around.
5 - Indiana Hoosiers HC Tom Allen (previously watchlist)
contract: runs through 2027 season
buyout at end of season: $20.8M
Indiana fans like Tom Allen the person, but college football is a business and Indiana fans are ready to move on from the concept of Tom Allen: head football coach of the Hoosiers. By firing Walt Bell just 5 games into the 2023 season, that tells me Tom Allen is facing some pressure to win (or at least be more competitive) now. Allen’s clock has officially started clicking.
Allen’s buyout is massive and it’s an open question whether Indiana boosters will spend that much money on football. Allen would still be advised to grab a couple of additional wins to make the decision to keep him easier for the athletic department.
Michigan State Spartans DC Scottie Hazelton
The preseason #2 has moved all the way down to the watchlist portion of the rankings, but no thanks to his own performance. Hazelton’s movement reflects the fact that you have to be incredibly bad as a coordinator to be fired by an interim head coach. While I’ll acknowledge that Hazelton probably reaches that level, it’s still more likely than not that he finishes the season out due to the head coaching change. If by the end of the season Hazelton hasn’t improved things enough to justify being kept, then Harlon Barnett isn’t sticking around either.
Michigan State Spartans OC Jay Johnson
See Scottie Hazelton. Johnson isn’t doing himself any favors when it comes to his job security (the Spartan offense is ineffective and the play calling bizarre at times), but it really doesn’t matter. A new coach is bringing in his own guys anyway and there is little reason to bring in an interim OC.
Prince of Iowa Hawkeyes Brian Ferentz
While we are all aware of the Ferentz line, the Iowa offense is being greatly helped out by their defense and special teams as they chase that milestone. Through 5 games, Iowa’s offensive touchdowns, extra points after offensive touchdowns, and field goals account for just 95 points. Iowa’s defense scores, special teams touchdowns, and extra points following defensive and special teams touchdowns account for 16 points. Not to mention the short fields that the Iowa offense has scored on. Oh, and Iowa’s opponents so far are a combined 13-12. Outside of Penn State - who blanked them - Iowa hasn’t been facing very good teams.
Minnesota Gophers OC Greg Harbaugh Jr.
Angsty Rutgers fans will note that Greg Schiano has disappeared from the hot seat rankings entirely after opening the season 4-1. A big part of the Rutgers turnaround is their new offensive coordinator: the former Gophers OC Kirk Ciarrocca. Rutgers gain is Minnesota’s loss, as the Gophers offense has struggled through the early half of the season. In his first season as a play caller, Greg Harbaugh Jr. has shown that he’s not quite ready for prime time. Despite that, the Gophers offense is still near the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
Off the rankings/watchlist
Rutgers HC Greg Schiano - This was a big year for Schiano’s tenure at Rutgers. Building program momentum prior to the return to divisionless football is critical, and a bowl game is within Schiano’s grasp. Sure, the four wins came against Northwestern and three bad non-conference opponents, but they weren’t super narrow victories either.
Rutgers DC Joe Harasymiak - Rutgers defense has been much improved this season. Credit where credit is due. With games against Ohio State, Penn State, and Maryland remaining, a collapse is still possible but unlikely.
Ohio State HC Ryan Day - The Buckeyes beat Notre Dame which should help keep Day safe even if he loses to Penn State and Michigan this year. I say should because this is still the Ohio State fanbase.
former Michigan State HC Mel Tucker - FIRED September 27
former Indiana OC Walt Bell - FIRED October 1
Coaches that should be safe for 2023
Mike Locksley, Kirk Ferentz, Ryan Walters
The win totals each head coach needs to reach to be safe for next season (barring off field issues). These reflect coach’s tenure, season expectations, and contract. Note these are the win totals needed to be completed safe - most coaches would return anyway with less wins than these levels.
Coordinators can be let go regardless of record, so you won’t see them with a win requirement. Instead they will move to the safe category in the second half of the season when their unit has accomplished enough. A handful are getting close, but with over half the season remaining, too much can still go wrong for all coordinators.
Need 3 wins: Nebraska HC Matt Rhule
Need 5 wins: Indiana Hoosiers HC Tom Allen
Need 6 wins: Minnesota Gophers HC P.J. Fleck, Rutgers Scarlet Knights HC Greg Schiano
Need 7 wins: Michigan State Spartans interim HC Harlon Barnett
Need 8 wins: Michigan Wolverines HC Jim Harbaugh, Northwestern Wildcats interim HC David Braun (assuming cleared of having knowledge of the program’s cultural issues), Penn State Nittany Lions HC James Franklin
Need 9 wins: Ohio State Buckeyes HC Ryan Day
Who do you think will be fired? Who am I completely off on? What creative ways have you come up with to jettison your underperforming coordinators? Sound off in the comments and make your predictions for who gets fired next.
Who gets fired next?
This poll is closed
Barry Lunney Jr.
Other and I’ll tell you who in the comments
Other and I’m super shy so I won’t talk to you in the comments, but will rec others’ comments