Media days are on the horizon in just a few short weeks but we still have plenty of time left as our long national nightmare — the college football offseason — winds down. The lack of games on the TV and between the lines isn’t going to hamper us from talking about the sport that never stops at a place like CFTalk however.
As part of our continuing series taking a look at coaching hot seats at the FBS level, we’re taking a trip to the northern regions and hitting the Big Ten. The conference has seen some massive changes recently, starting at the commissioner level and filtering on down to major news regarding the retirement of Urban Meyer at league stalwart Ohio State. Mix in a handful of veterans entering key situations in 2019 and a number of head coaches aiming to rebound from a disappointing 2018 and there’s a fascinating mix across the 14 programs.
Left unsaid for some? Those record revenues from media rights deals mean buyout money is increasingly easy to find after this year and well beyond.
The new guys
Mike Locksley (Maryland)
Ryan Day (Ohio State)
Chris Ash (Rutgers)
Ash has seen public support from his athletic director but a 7-29 record — with just three conference wins in three seasons — is going to draw plenty of heat to the job you’re doing and especially so given how the Scarlet Knights seemed to regress during last year’s 1-11 campaign. He still sports a pretty hefty buyout going forward but it’s more manageable after 2019 and the program can only be stuck at the back of the bus for so long before change is needed. There’s optimism in Piscataway that things will be better — and they better be or else one of the hardest gigs around will be open again.
Tom Allen (Indiana)
The Hoosiers are not prone to rush into any big changes when it comes to their football program and have shown more patience than most when it comes to their head coaches on the gridiron. While that means Allen is more likely than not given runway past his upcoming third season, a bowl game appearance is generally the bar to clear for most and IU has come up short the last two years — with some maddeningly close losses to boot. He’s only won four games in Big Ten play after being elevated to the full-time gig and it doesn’t help that others like Purdue and Minnesota have started to make strides after having down years. There’s plenty of support from above but another mediocre campaign will start to weigh on fans who are pining for more consistency in the league.
The Great Unknown
Mark Dantonio (Michigan State)
Dantonio has won over 100 games with the Spartans and is as much the face of the program as any other coach in the Big Ten save perhaps Kirk Ferentz at Iowa. But there are a few factors that put him in a strange no man’s land. The first is off the field, where he’s dealt with a ton of issues the last few years and that’s been coupled with the school’s overarching Larry Nassar scandal that has seen a near complete leadership changeover the past 18 months. Then there’s the on-field stuff, which saw an impressive bounce-back in 2017 give way to a huge disappointment in 2018. Reshuffling the coaching staff isn’t exactly the kind of move the fan base wanted this offseason and a hard to watch offense remains an issue for MSU getting back to 2013/15 levels. While the upcoming season isn’t make-or-break exactly, it could go a longways in determining what the future holds in East Lansing long term for Dantonio and others.
Safe and secure
P.J. Fleck (Minnesota)
Fleck was brought on to help turnaround the Gophers and has made some progress after two seasons, leading the team to a bowl win last year and generally upping the energy around the football team in the Twin Cities. It helps being in the division they are in of course but doing things like returning Paul Bunyan’s Axe to Minneapolis for the first time since 2003 is a nice sign of progress. There’s still work to be done of course but Fleck seems more inclined to leave on his own compared to being fired for anything that happens on the field right now.
James Franklin (Penn State)
It speaks to the high level of expectations that have been established in State College under Franklin that the recent 9-4 campaign was a bit disappointing for the Nittany Lions. Still, the team has posted big wins on the field, is competitive year-in and year-out for the division and Big Ten titles and generally back to operating on the Penn State level we’re used to under their head coach. There’s still a part of the fan base that feels more can be done though and some of those feelings were brought up again after some offseason rumors linking Franklin to a not-open USC gig. He’s got the support of his AD, has recruiting humming along nicely and, while it’s not a picture perfect marriage, things are still very good at the moment at PSU.
Jim Harbaugh (Michigan)
The perception of Harbaugh outside the Michigan administration is a bit different from inside it, where he continues to enjoy broad support and belief in the job he’s doing. Outside of Ann Arbor though, the doubters are there in droves — some thanks to his antics away from the lines and others as a result of that 2-6 mark against rivals MSU and Ohio State. The loud noises they make have seemingly obscured the fact that he’s won 10 games three of his first four years and has led the Wolverines to a pair of New Year’s Six bowls. He’s going to be the coach of the maize and blue for as long as he wants for the most part but even he understands that the seat is going to be hotter externally than internally, especially given the results against the Buckeyes the last few times out.
Scott Frost (Nebraska)
There was nobody celebrated more for returning home than Frost was when he agreed to take over the program he led to the national title many moons ago. While it’s still probably safe to say that honeymoon period is ongoing between Big Red and their head coach, the feeling has cooled a bit after such a disappointing debut campaign saw the team miss out on a bowl game and start out 0-6. Still, there’s plenty of faith that he can get things turned around on both sides of the ball and have the Cornhuskers making the trip to Indianapolis sooner rather than later.
Paul Chryst (Wisconsin)
College Football Playoff expectations in 2018 gave way to plenty of disappointment last year but the program’s native son is still in as good of a situation as any in the league. He’s 42-12 overall with the Badgers and has the team on a level of consistency that few have matched. There’s still some hoping Wisconsin can truly break through into the nation’s elite after so many close calls but nobody inside or outside of Madison is arguing with the job that Chryst has done so far.
Jeff Brohm (Purdue)
After turning down his alma mater of Louisville, it’s safe to say that Brohm is as committed to his program as any coach in the league. Of course, it helps to command an elite salary as a result of that offseason wooing but few in the business have handled a situation better while also producing results on the field. While his overall 13-13 record at the school doesn’t tell the whole story, the Boilermakers are thrilled with the way this hire has turned out and hopeful for even more wins going forward.
Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)
Ferentz isn’t just the dean of the Big Ten coaches, he’s the dean of all of college football thanks to a tenure that dates back to 1999. Though he’s won just one division title in the past decade, the consistency the Hawkeyes have shown under his watch has been remarkable and a good reminder as to why he’s been where’s at for so long. His contract (and resulting buyout) is always great talk for fans and the media but it’s been pretty clear the last few years that Ferentz will be the one to decide when it is time to move on and nobody else.
Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern)
One of the Wildcats’ most recognizable football players of all-time seems like a lifer in Evanston right now, especially given the school’s humongous facilities upgrades the past few years. Guiding the team to the Big Ten title game was an impressive accomplishment last season and there’s hope that the program can even make the jump to another level going forward too. It’s often been said that the Chicago Bears is probably the only gig that would be enough to pry Fitz out of his current one but even that seems like a stretch to say as he enters season No. 14.