Big Ten Conference football coaches showcase stability in ’21
The Associated Press
Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck sees the rampant coaching turnover going on this season and feels grateful about his relative security.
“There are a lot of things going on around the country, coaches who had great years last year that don’t have jobs now a year later,” said Fleck, who owns a 33-23 record in five seasons coaching the Gophers.
Coaches across the Big Ten have reason to feel thankful on this holiday week.
The Big Ten is the only Power Five conference that hasn’t had at least one head coaching change already this season. That follows an offseason in which only one Big Ten school fired a coach, with Illinois hiring Bret Bielema after Lovie Smith went 17-39 in five seasons. Penn State announced a 10-year deal for coach James Franklin on Tuesday.
“I think there’s a little bit of an old-school mentality from the administration at a lot of these universities,” ESPN analyst and former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit said. “I think importance of athletics. And they’re obviously very, very important, but people can roll their eyes all they want, but how a guy runs his program, is he graduating his players, are they good citizens, those things add up.”
Only three of the 14 Big Ten coaches (Bielema, Rutgers’ Greg Schiano and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker) are in their first or second season on the job. Rutgers fired Chris Ash four games into the 2019 season and Mark Dantonio retired at Michigan State in February 2020.
“I just think that the intensity of social media, especially in that middle tier of the Big Ten, I just don’t think it’s as rabid as you might find in some other regions,” Herbstreit said. “Most notably the SEC, where it’s win a championship today. Win every game.”
Ten of the 14 Southeastern Conference members have interim coaches, lame-duck coaches or coaches in their first or second seasons running their teams.
LSU announced last month that Ed Orgeron wouldn’t be back next year, even though he led the Tigers to a national championship two seasons ago. Dan Mullen, who coached Florida to an SEC East title in 2020, was fired Sunday after losing six of his last nine games.
By contrast, Nebraska’s Scott Frost has produced a losing record each of his four seasons but will be back next year, though he took a pay cut and fired four assistants.
Big Ten network analyst and former Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo says the expectations are the same at any of the schools that have what he describes as “national championship or bust programs,” regardless of conference.
But there’s a big difference.
“In the Big Ten, there’s only one national championship or bust program,” DiNardo said in reference to Ohio State. “In the SEC, there’s probably five.”
In the Pac-12, three of the 14 member schools have fired their coaches since the start of this season ( Clay Helton at Southern California, Nick Rolovich at Washington State, Jimmy Lake at Washington).
Other Power Five programs to change coaches during the season include TCU, Texas Tech and Virginia Tech.
ESPN analyst and former Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge is the son of Ron Blackledge, a longtime college and NFL assistant who was Kent State’s head coach from 1978-80. He sees a difference in the way Big Ten schools are handling things.
“I think the Big Ten wants to consider themselves more civilized in that their mission is more than just football,” Blackledge said. “Maybe that’s why they show more patience.”
Blackledge then adds this caveat.
“Make no mistake,” Blackledge said. “Football still drives the train at every Big Ten school just the way it does at all the other Power Five schools. Being successful in football is very, very important for all the universities.”
Indeed, Nebraska essentially put Frost on notice even while keeping him. Nebraska is hoping it can match the success of Michigan, which brought back Jim Harbaugh on a new five-year deal after a 2-4 season in 2020. Michigan now is 10-1 and ranked sixth in the Associated Press Top 25.
Frost and Harbaugh are former quarterbacks coaching their alma maters, which may help explain why both schools were patient with them.
DiNardo notes that the lack of recent coaching changes in the Big Ten also is cyclical to a certain extent because many of the coaches with the league’s tougher jobs haven’t been there quite long enough to be evaluated fully.
At Minnesota, Fleck understands what’s expected of him. He just likes being at a place where he has a good working relationship with his bosses and in a conference that often rewards patience.
“I’m sure at some point you don’t win enough games at some point, people get fired,” Fleck said. “I’m no different than that. I’m not exempt to that. But I think when you look back on it, at the end of the day, I’ve always said: ‘Did we make it better? Was it better when we left it than when we found it?’ Somehow, some way.
“That is not comparing it to anybody else. That is just, ‘Did you make it better and make your players better somehow? That is all you can do in a world that we are living in right now where it’s just win at all costs.”