Hoge: Which Big Ten Coaches Are On The Hot Seat?
Sports Fan Insider
By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) Four teams in the Big Ten will feature new head coaches this season, a high number for a conference that hadn’t seen a coaching change since Danny Hope took over at Purdue after the 2008 season.
The most notable changes were at Ohio State and Michigan, where Luke Fickell and Brady Hoke bring fresh blood to two programs in turmoil. How rare is it for the Buckeyes and Wolverines to both enter a season with new coaches? Very rare. The last time it happened was 1929 and it’s only happened three other times, in 1892, 1896 and 1897.
While two of the Big Ten’s signature programs undergo major changes, two of the conference’s cellar dwellers are once again welcoming new coaches. Former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson takes over at Indiana and becomes the Hoosiers’ fifth coach since 2001. Meanwhile, former Northern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill takes over for Tim Brewster at Minnesota.
So, with turnover at a third of the Big Ten’s programs, does that mean the conference will once again see job stability for the next couple years? Not necessarily. All four of the new coaches will have to prove themselves immediately, while a couple of other Big Ten coaches are starting to feel some intense heat under their seats.
Let’s take a look at job security across the Big Ten, starting with those who are on the hot seat and ending with those who simply won’t be fired this year:
1) Luke Fickell, Ohio State – 1st year, Record at Ohio State: 0-0 (Career: 0-0)
Fickell takes over for the much embattled Jim Tressel and while he appears to have some real coaching talent, he’s kind of a in a no-win situation in Columbus. Despite the fact that Tressel left the Buckeyes program in disarray, none of the Ohio State faithful seem to blame him at all. That means Fickell is going to have to live up to a guy who won a national title and seven Big Ten titles. Good luck.
Will keep his job if… He leads Ohio State to another BCS bowl despite additional NCAA penalties that are sure to be handed down in August. These could include more suspensions of key players.
Will lose his job if… He doesn’t have instant success. This is Ohio State and Urban Meyer is still going to be an option next winter. It might not be fair, but no matter what the NCAA decides, if Fickell doesn’t win at least 10 regular season games, he likely won’t be retained. Best case scenario for Fickell might be if the NCAA bans OSU from bowl games for a couple of years. That will limit other elite coaches’ interest in the position and Ohio State really won’t have any options until the bowl ban is lifted. That might give him an opportunity to build something.
2) Ron Zook, Illinois – 7th year, Record at Illinois: 28-45 (Career: 51-59)
Zook’s job security is in serious jeopardy for two reasons. First, his record sucks. He’s 17 games below .500 in seven years despite some good recruiting classes. That alone should be a fireable offense at a school like Illinois, even with the one Rose Bowl appearance. Second, with Ron Guenther stepping down as athletic director, someone new is going to step in and see a new vision for the football program. That’s only natural, so it’s probably not a good idea to hand over a resume to your new boss that says you’re 17 games below .500.
Will keep his job if… He leads Illinois to another BCS bowl game. It’s unlikely, but there is enough talent there for the Illini to be a team you can’t completely count out. If Zook gets them to the Capital One Bowl or the Outback Bowl and he lucks out with a new athletic director that likes him, that might be enough.
Will lose his job it… He fails to get Illinois to a good bowl game. We used to use New Year’s Day bowl games as the barometer, but the Big Ten has completely taken over New Year’s Day so let’s say he needs to get the Illini to at least the Outback Bowl. Even then, he’d probably have to win it.
3. Danny Hope, Purdue – 3rd year, Record at Purdue: 9-15 (Career: 9-15)
We’ve gotten out of extremely hot territory now that we are past Fickell and Zook. Most coaches get at least four years to build a program before they are fired. Still, Hope hasn’t done much in his first two seasons. While he beat No. 7 Ohio State in 2009 – his only signature win – he also lost to Northern Illinois in 2009 and Toledo 2010. Both of those losses came at home.
Will keep his job if… He wins at least five games. I see five must-wins on Purdue’s schedule this year, which means if the Boilermakers can beat either Illinois, Ohio State or Iowa at home (or beat Michigan on the road), they will be bowl eligible for the first time under Hope. That’s the goal this year.
Will lose his job if… The Boilermakers endure an absolutely horrible year in which they only win one or two games. They managed to go 4-8 last season with a ton of injuries so I don’t see this team winning any less than five games.
4. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa – 13th year, Record at Iowa 89-60 (Career: 89-60)
It’s kind of weird to think that a coach signed through 2020 could lack job security, but since Ferentz received a contract extension last September, the program has been a disaster. First, his team failed to live up to lofty expectations and stumbled to a disappointing 8-5 record last season. Then there was the drug-house incident that I’ve repeatedly been told involved a number of players, not just Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. And then there was the incident where 13 players were hospitalized with a muscle disorder after an off-season workout. Parents aren’t happy, fans are worried and the athletic department isn’t providing many answers.
Will keep his job if… He wins. Most of these issues are off the football field and as long as they aren’t directly Ferentz’s fault – although a see a scary pattern developing under his watch – he’ll be fine if he wins football games.
Will lose his job if… The team loses and there continues to be serious issues off the field. Trust me, people are starting to ask questions in Iowa City and all these issues need to disappear quickly.
5. Brady Hoke, Michigan – 1st year, 0-0 (Career 47-50)
We’re officially done with coaches on the hot seat as Brady Hoke isn’t going to be fired after one season. But this is still Michigan and expectations to turn around the program are now in the hands of a coach whose career record is under .500. Ultimately, I think a move back to a pro-style offense will be good for Michigan, but Hoke will be making a mistake if he forces it right away. Remember, Rich Rodriquez forced his spread offense on Michigan when he arrived and it was a disaster. He could have had Ryan Mallet as his quarterback, but instead he let Mallet transfer to Arkansas in favor of Steven Threet, who ended up transferring to Arizona State later anyway. Hoke’s best player is Denard Robinson and for now, he needs to find a way to get the most out of his quarterback.
Maintains his job security if… The defense shows improvement and Michigan reaches a bowl game once again, which is more than reasonable.
Will get in trouble if… He loses to his former team, San Diego State in Ann Arbor Sept. 24 and the team only wins one or two games all year. That would be bad.
6. Kevin Wilson, Indiana – 1st year, Record at Indiana: 0-0 (Career: 0-0)
You don’t always know what is going on behind the scenes and at least on the surface, it seemed like a weird move for Wilson to take this job. Obviously he wanted his own program, but Indiana is dead-end school in my mind and holding the offensive coordinator job at a school like Oklahoma is usually a ticket to better jobs than Indiana. But, IU did give him a seven-year deal worth $1.2 million a year – which is about double what Bill Lynch made – so they are attempting to make a statement that indicates they are willing to invest in their football program.
Maintains his job security if… He beats South Carolina State. Look, Indiana has a lot of turnover this year so matching last year’s win total of five probably isn’t likely. This is a free year for Wilson.
Will get in trouble if… He does something off the field that warrants a firing. Of course, that goes for every coach.
7. Jerry Kill, Minnesota – 1st year, Record at Minnesota: 0-0 (Career 23-16)
One of the nicest guys in his profession, Kill is also a no-nonsense coach. He built Northern Illinois back up after Joe Novak left the cupboard dry following the 2007 season. As soon as Brewster was fired, I immediately put Kill on top of my imaginary wish list for Minnesota and in the end, that’s exactly who they hired.
Maintains his job security if… He improves on Minnesota’s 3-9 record from last season. The Gophers have some weapons and if you give Kill some weapons, he’s going to win games. It’s not crazy to think Minnesota will make a bowl game.
Will get in trouble if… He clashes too much with big time players, they leave and the Gophers struggle to win three games. Kill is a fair coach, but he also doesn’t put up with the drama Brewster allowed.
8. Bo Pelini, Nebraska – 4th year, Record at Nebraska: 30-12 (Career: 30-12)
Pelini has already proven himself in Lincoln, but let’s not forget that expectations are always high at Nebraska and fans weren’t happy with the Cornhuskers losing three of their last four games last season. They fully expect Nebraska to reach the first ever Big Ten Championship Game.
Maintains his job security if… He does exactly that. Reaching the conference title game should be the goal and getting to the Rose Bowl would just be a bonus.
Will get in trouble if… The Cornhuskers struggle in their first year in the Big Ten. Nebraska opens the conference season with a road trip to Wisconsin and it also visits Penn State and Michigan later in the season. Fans will expect to win two of those three games.
9. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State – 5th year, Record at Michigan State: 33-19 (Career: 51-36)
After three mediocre-to-good seasons at Michigan State, Dantonio won over the fans last season by posting an 11-2 record while also battling through heart issues. The Spartans earned a share of the Big Ten title before being humbled by Alabama 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl. One year of success doesn’t exactly buy you a lifetime contract in the Big Ten, but Dantonio is in a good place right now.
Maintains his job security if… The Spartans challenge Nebraska for the Legends Division crown. This is Dantonio’s best team in East Lansing, which means expectations to reach the Big Ten title game should be high.
Will get in trouble if… The Spartans fail to live up to expectations and don’t win at least nine games.
10. Joe Paterno, Penn State – 46th year, Record at Penn State: 401-135-3 (Career: 401-135-3)
Look, we all know Paterno will never be fired, but we’ve heard the grumblings before. The Nittany Lions finished 7-6 last year and I don’t see any superstars on this team. I think they will improve a little bit this season, but if they don’t, you might hear more whispers about finding a way to get Paterno out of there.
Maintains his job security if… He wins. We all know he’s basically just the face of the program now and his assistants do most of the game-day coaching. As long as that formula leads to wins, then no one in Happy Valley will complain.
Will get in trouble if… The Lions endure their first losing season since 2004. That’s the last time fans got really upset.
11. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin – 6th year, Record at Wisconsin: 49-16 (Career: 49-16)
Things change quickly. At the end of 2008, Bielema would have been near the top of this list. But the truth is that Athletic Director Barry Alvarez never seriously considered firing Bielema when the Badgers finished 7-6 in 2008 after being ranked as high as No. 9. In fact, he made efforts to make sure Bielema could supplant himself as the long term coach of the Badgers. Now, after a Rose Bowl appearance last season, Wisconsin will do everything they can to keep him in Madison.
Maintains his job security if… The Badgers compete for the Leaders Division crown. In the eyes of the fans, they expect at least an appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game, but realistically, the only way Bielema’s five-year rolling contract doesn’t get picked up for another year is if the Badgers fail to make a bowl game.
Will get in trouble if… The Badgers fail to reach the Big Ten title game. FireBretBielema.com might be re-launched if that happens. With Russell Wilson in the fold and Ohio State in disarray, expectations are high in Madison. Also, the fans are eerily similar to Chicago Bears fans… they turn quickly if something goes wrong.
12. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern – 6th year, 34-29 (Career 34-29)
Northwestern wants Fitzgerald to be in Evanston until he retires and the only job I could ever see him taking is Penn State. He also has limited expectations and doesn’t have to compete for conference titles every year to stay off the hot seat.
Maintains his job security if… He keeps doing what he’s been doing. Fitz is slowly building the best program he possibly can with his limitations and consistently making bowl games. That’s more than enough at Northwestern.
Will get in trouble if… He fails to reach a bowl game for three straight years. Part of building up a level of consistency is that you set the bar a little higher. The only way Fitzgerald ever gets fired is if he starts losing nine or ten games every year. I can’t see that happening.
A final word of caution on all these coaches: Just remember that Jim Tressel would have had the most job security at this time last season. Anything can happen.
Do you agree with Adam? Post your comments below.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the White Sox, Blackhawks and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.