After two months of avoiding this conversation, we are well overdue to have a chat about Big Ten men’s basketball coaches. The conference has taken a giant step back from the days that John Beilein, Bo Ryan, and Thad Matta were roaming the sidelines competing against a Tom Izzo in his prime. All four of those guys made multiple Final Fours and were threats to win the conference every year after they got their programs up and running. Even the goofy Tom Crean put together a handful of truly excellent teams.
Today’s Big Ten coaches don’t appear to belong in the same category. Izzo is still around, but there’s an ongoing debate within the Spartyverse about whether he’s lost his step. Illinois, Wisconsin, and Purdue maintain hope that their coaches can break through to be on the national stage in late March but between the trio there is just one Elite 8 appearance. Underwood has yet to even make a Sweet 16.
Everyone else appears to be treading water with the possible exception of Steve Pikiell trying to catch lightning in a bottle next season with one great recruiting class. It’s time for the Big Ten to start bringing in better caliber head coaches, but before that happens some of the current crop of leaders have to be shown the door. That means it’s time to talk about the hot seats.
Before we begin, a friendly reminder.
BoilerUp89 asks that you remember these coaches are real people with a family. I personally wish the best for most of them except when they are playing Purdue. Watching the performance of some of these coaches is extremely appropriate for young children, degenerate gamblers, and fans with addiction problems. This is college basketball. Why wouldn’t you watch?
The Hot Seat Rankings
1. Ohio State Buckeyes HC Chris Holtmann
7th season, 136-84 (66-63)
Best Post Season Finish: Round of 32 (2018, 2019, 2022)
Best Regular Season Finish: T-2nd (2018)
Tournament Drought: Currently 1 year
Contract: $3.5M/year plus incentives through 2028
Buyout: Full remaining salary ($14M)
I've always been in the camp that Holtmann isn't that great of a coach. I'm a believer that he got the job solely due to the timing of Matta being forced out in June of 2017 and the coaching carousel having already been completed at the time. However, I also thought that with the natural recruiting advantages at OSU he was just good enough to keep the job at a football school by continuing to make the NCAA tournament every year (or at least almost every year).
After the complete collapse last season, a second consecutive Big Ten collapse will catch the attention of the often inattentive Buckeyes fanbase. Even Ohio State fans notice when they look at the bracket on Selection Sunday and don't see their football program’s basketball team. In the midst of another disappointing Big Ten run, the Buckeyes have now lost 15 consecutive road games last winning on the road against Northwestern on January 1, 2023.
The highs haven’t been high enough to justify sticking with Holtmann after missing the NCAA tournament in back to back years after his 7th season. It would be one thing if Ohio State had won a Big Ten title or made a Sweet 16 under Holtmann. Then fans could point towards previous success and there would be reasons to consider a turnaround probable. Holtmann’s best season at OSU was his first though, and he’s had just one top 4 finish (tied for 4th in 2022) in the Big Ten standings since then. Considering how long the program has been under his control now, that’s a tough pill to swallow.
Holtmann can still coach his way out of this hole just by winning enough remaining games to make the NCAA tournament. The odds that Ohio State manages to go from 3-9 in conference play to put themselves in the conversation at 10-10 are long despite the talented guards on the roster.
There are two other issues lurking in the background that could save Holtmann and grant him another season. The new AD Ross Bjork doesn’t take over until July 1. While you can likely work around this (with or without Bjork’s involvement), let’s note that Bjork is continuing in his current job as Texas A&M AD until then. Bjork may even have to make a final basketball hire for the Aggies this spring if Buzz Williams fails to make the NCAA tournament. This is a complication, so perhaps Ohio State allows Bjork to make the coaching hire which inevitably pushes the decision back at least a year. There's also the matter of whether football obsessed Ohio State will spend $14M on a basketball coach's buyout especially when if Ryan Day loses to Michigan again in the fall they will be looking to spend a lot more money on football. The Buckeyes likely have the cash available though, so that’s less of an issue than it would be for any other Big Ten program.
2. Michigan Wolverines HC Juwan Howard
5th season, 87-63 (49-40)
Best Post Season Finish: Elite 8 (2021)
Best Regular Season Finish: 1st* (2021)
Tournament Drought: Currently 1 year
Contract: $3.38M/year increasing by 70k/yr through 2026
*Illinois fans would be mad at me if I did not put an asterisk on the 1st place finish during the 2020-21 COVID season so here we are. Not like any Michigan fans around these parts read the basketball articles anyway.
Juwan Howard took over a program that was at the top of college basketball under John Beilein. While things looked okay early (resulting in a contract extension after a surprise Elite 8 run), they've been falling downhill ever since. Despite having 2 NBA picks on last year's roster (and Hunter Dickinson), Michigan fell short of the tournament. They look poised to make the NCAA drought two years this spring.
Howard's record in close games (games decided by six points or fewer or in OT) has been abysmal. Last season, the Wolverines went 4-13 in close games. This season they are 2-6.
Program momentum has ground to a halt, fan apathy is high (as a Purdue fan I appreciate the affordable tickets at Crisler as I look to go watch the Boilermakers in person this season), and to top it all off we have Juwan's anger issues. You could argue that Juwan should have been fired for cause in 2022 following an altercation in the handshake line after the Wisconsin game. Juwan has also had run ins with the highly respected Michigan basketball strength coach Jon Sanderson (a Beilein holdover who seems likely to leave this offseason).
Further muddling the waters: what is going on with the Howard/Martelli dynamic? When Howard had to step away for health reasons at the beginning of the season, it made perfect sense that top assistant Phil Martelli stepped up to be interim coach. It made less sense when Howard’s health permitted him to return to the sidelines but he did so as an assistant. Even stranger was after Howard had taken head coaching duties back over, he decided the day of to let Martelli coach the road game against Penn State at the Palestra. Honoring Martelli’s years as a head coach in the Philadelphia area is one thing, but Howard is the head coach and needs to be coaching if he’s healthy.
With these issues and a low buyout, why is Howard not at the top of the hot seat rankings? Well, he does have a few things going for him even if he seems more likely than not to get the axe at the conclusion of this season.
- Thanks to the postseason train wrecks by Purdue, Howard still has the conference’s most recent Elite 8 appearance. That’s more of an indictment on the rest of the Big Ten than anything else, but it is a nice feather in Howard’s cap.
- Howard is a former Michigan star and that should buy him some additional runway. Alumni coaches tend to get the benefit of the doubt and nobody likes to have awkward player reunions that also involve a failed former coach.
- The Michigan athletic director is Warde Manuel. Manuel was patient with Harbaugh following 2020 and that patience paid off big time this January. He could very well make the mistake of comparing that patience following the 2020 football season to the current situation instead of recognizing that the COVID season had weird results all around (including Michigan basketball). There have also been some within the Michigan fanbase that view Manuel as incompetent. Some of that is misplaced anger at Harbaugh leaving (Harbaugh was always going to do that), but there have been other coaching decisions that Manuel has made that have called into question his ability.
- Howard had heart surgery this past fall and missed significant time as a result. Does Howard deserve a pass for missing much of the preseason and a big stretch of games early on as he dealt with health issues? It’s not hard to argue that Howard wasn’t physically able to do his job early this season and that’s a contributor to the Wolverines issues.
3. Nebraska Cornhuskers HC Fred Hoiberg
5th season, 56-92 (24-68)
Best Post Season Finish: Round 1 of Big Ten Tournament (4 losses), no other post season play
Best Regular Season Finish: 11th (2023)
Tournament Drought: Currently 4 years
Contract: $3.5M/year through 2027
Buyout: Full contract ($10.5M)?
You weren’t expecting to see Hoiberg here and the seat doesn’t even feel warm based on our conversations with the Nebraska fans around OTE. That said, if we scan the Big Ten men’s basketball head coaches and consider all possible scenarios for the rest of the season, Hoiberg is the third most likely guy to be let go at the end of this season.
Nebrasketball has not lost a Big Ten home game this year. That’s great. The Cornhuskers also haven’t won a Big Ten road game this year. That’s an issue that needs to get resolved if Nebraska wants to make the NCAA tournament. If it doesn’t, it’s less clear on whether Hoiberg would be retained or not after year 5.
In four seasons at Nebraska, Hoiberg has lost on the opening day of the Big Ten tournament every time. The first three seasons were so bad (13th place or worse), that Hoiberg almost didn’t get a fourth season; a looming Scott Frost buyout that fall may have saved him at the time. Would a fifth straight NCAA tournament miss be something Hoiberg can survive with the same athletic director firmly entrenched? As long as Nebraska is close to the bubble, probably but it’s not a sure thing.
Nebraska basketball doesn’t have a long history of success. In the past 25 years, they’ve managed to make just one NCAA tournament. Tim Miles (coach of the lone NCAA tournament appearance in this stretch) saw a 5 year NCAA tournament drought conclude his 7 year tenure. Doc Sadler and Barry Collier both survived through a 6 year tournament free tenure before being let go. Based on the previous three coaches, Hoiberg will probably be back next season even if the Cornhuskers don’t hear their name on Selection Sunday but he’s close to running out of chances to make Hoiberg’s Nebrasketball happen.
There’s clearly been progress made the past two seasons. Nebrasketball has turned into a very fun watch for both Cornhuskers and neutral observers. They have even beaten AP #1 for the first time in 41 years. If Hoiberg wants to remove all doubt though, Nebraska should go ahead and win two Big Ten road games while maintaining their undefeated Big Ten home record. Indiana, Ohio State, and Michigan stand between him and this goal.
One further note on Hoiberg’s contract. His buyout at the end of this year isn’t something that’s been published. Had he been let go after last year it would have been $11M. However, with just $10.5M on his contract (3 years at his salary) that clearly isn’t the number anymore. Perhaps it’s a sign of just how cool Hoiberg’s seat is that the media hasn’t talked about his buyout at all. Based on his progress and fan support, Hoiberg should be back. Athletic directors can have a mind of their own though and the overall accomplishments are lacking enough that a change isn’t out of the question.
4. Minnesota Gophers HC Ben Johnson
3rd season, 37-46 (12-38)
Best Post Season Finish: Round 2 of Big Ten Tournament (2023), no other post season play
Best Regular Season Finish: T13th (2022)
Tournament Drought: Currently 2 years
Contract: $1.95M/year through 2027
The final head coach in the rankings is the one that has done the most to help his cause this season. At 6-5 in the Big Ten, the Gophers find themselves just a half game out of a double bye in the Big Ten tournament. They have already matched the conference win totals of the 2022 and 2023 seasons combined and are perhaps the biggest positive surprise of the season.
Nevertheless, Johnson is still included in these rankings. While the Gophers do have a winning record in Big Ten play over halfway through the grind, they will be underdogs in all of their five remaining road games. Although the home games are more manageable and the Gophers should be able to collect some additional wins, none of those are guaranteed. Currently just one win above playing on the opening night of the Big Ten tournament, a slide back to the bottom of the pack isn’t out of the realm of possibility. If that were to happen, a fourth season is not guaranteed.
The lowest paid head coach in the Big Ten, Ben Johnson was an odd choice to succeed Richard Pitino and the decision made by AD Mark Coyle has been openly questioned by the vast majority of college basketball observers. Many still hold to the opinion that a) Richard Pitino is a better coach than Ben Johnson and b) there were and still are better options to run the Minnesota program than Johnson.
Perhaps the biggest coaching name out there with Minnesota connections is Niko Medved, who has had Colorado State in and out of the top 25 several times this season and whom many thought was the front runner for the Gophers job when Johnson was hired. Medved is from Minneapolis, graduated from Minnesota in 1997, and was an assistant there for the 2007 season. Considered a rising star amongst coaching circles, it would be a shame if the Gopher let him slip through their grasp to another program.
With Johnson showing signs of life this season, he’s likely to be back unless the fear of losing out on someone like Medved prompts the AD to make a move. Considering Coyle hired Johnson over Medved in the first place that seems unlikely to occur. Especially when you consider that the Gophers have very few seniors in their rotation and would appear to be poised to make some noise in the conference next season.
Quick Thoughts on Some Slightly Warming Seats
Indiana Hoosiers HC Mike Woodson: Indiana fans are starting to question Woodson’s roster construction choices and whether he will be the one to return them to the promised land. This is where we remind everyone that Archie Miller got four seasons and Woodson isn’t going to be let go after one disappointing season. As a Hoosier legend who had success in years 1 and 2, Woodson will at the very least get next season and probably the season after that to address the issues that have held back this season’s team.
Maryland Terrapins HC Kevin Willard: Maryland fans have soured on Willard very quickly. A coach isn’t getting fired in year 2 after making the NCAA tournament in year 1.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights HC Steve Pikiell: Pikiell has the #2 and #3 recruits in the 2024 class signed. Rutgers isn’t firing a coach with that recruiting class coming in. That being said, expectations are going to be very high next year. Pikiell will have to return to the NCAA tournament in 2025 or he isn’t likely to be at Rutgers past that.
Iowa Hawkeyes HC Fran McCaffery: Everyone’s favorite angry man, Fran had made the past four NCAA tournaments and was in position to receive a bid in 2020 too. One down year isn’t going to see him fired, but this could still be his final year. Fran’s eldest son Connor has graduated, his middle son Patrick is currently a redshirt senior, and youngest son Jack has said he envisions playing somewhere other than Iowa. Add in Fran’s 64 years of circling the sun and a retirement seems like a possibility.
Michigan State Spartans HC Tom Izzo: Izzo is not getting fired. I don’t care if he’s lost a step, and hasn’t made a Final Four since 2019 (how awful that must be for Spartan fans), he’s still a better coach than at least half the collection of misfit toys currently running around the Big Ten.
Safe This Season
Wisconsin Badgers HC Greg Gard: Gard has not quite clinched a NCAA tournament bid this season so perhaps he shouldn’t go here since a second consecutive NCAA tournament miss would see a fiery debate about whether he should go or not. It would be a major surprise to see the Badgers completely collapse down the stretch after what they’ve accomplished to this point in the season.
Illinois Fighting Illini HC Brad Underwood: Underwood’s post season results have been disappointing but he’s consistently making the NCAA tournament and has been competitive in the conference more often than not since getting the program up and running.
Purdue Boilermakers HC Matt Painter: Painter has the regular season accolades to be included in the Big Ten coaching greats but has been an awful NCAA tournament head coach. Blame injuries, bad luck, or pin it all on him. Either way, he’s not getting fired this season for on court issues.
Northwestern Wildcats HC Chris Collins: This is a golden era of Wildcats basketball. Even with slightly raised expectations, Collins has plenty of leeway at the moment.
Penn State Nittany Lions HC Mike Rhoades: Rhoades is in his first season and performing much better than expected considering the complete overhaul of the roster.
The next fired Big Ten men’s basketball coach will be...
This poll is closed
Other (I’ll tell you in the comments)
What did I get wrong? Should your team’s coach get fired? Tell us in the comments.