Big Ten Leaders Division: Which Team Assembled the Best Coaching Staff for 2012?
In only the second year of the new Leaders Division in the Big Ten Conference, half of the head coaches will be new in 2012. Each of those coaches had to scramble to assemble a coaching staff before National Signing Day on February 1 to maintain the best recruiting classes possible to move forward.
However, these three schools were not the only teams needing a new coaching staff. After two straight Big Ten championships and Rose Bowl game appearances, Wisconsin lost seven assistant coaches as Bret Bielema lost the majority of his staff to other opportunities.
So outside of the second-year coaching staff at Indiana and Danny Hope's staff at Purdue, the Leaders Division will have a whole new look on the sidelines. But which team made out the best with a coaching staff built for immediate and future success?
Urban Meyer was hired at the end of November and perhaps said it best in his introductory news conference: "I want a bunch of coaches that coach like their hair's on fire...go surround [good players] with the best coaches in the country, you usually find a way to win a few games."
Meyer should know, as his Florida staff included the likes of Dan Mullen (current Mississippi State head coach), Charlie Strong (current Louisville head coach), Steve Adazzio (current Temple head coach) and Greg Mattison (current Michigan defensive coordinator). It's easy to look like a genius when you surround yourself with that level of coaching talent.
Bielema also had that kind of coaching staff and now joins Meyer in trying to recapture that magic with a new group of co-workers. Meanwhile, rookie head coach Bill O'Brien and former Toledo coach Tim Beckman try to put together quality groups of coaches in their first attempt leading a major college football program.
So which program has the best leaders and mentors for the young players? Let's take a look, position by position.
Illinois: Tim Beckman
Illinois turned to the MAC for its next coach, grabbing Tim Beckman following three successful seasons at Toledo. Beckman has coached for 24 seasons overall, but his turnaround of the Rockets from a declining program to the top of the MAC West in 2010 and 2011 (14-2 conference record) proves he has the recruiting and coaching prowess to compete.
Beckman was one of the only coaches able to recruit 4-star athletes to Toledo, and he will need to use the same strategies to recapture Chicago and compete with the other Big Ten powers in the Midwest. Beckman ran a passable defense at Oklahoma State and at Toledo, but will need to go back to his defensive roots to compete consistently in the Leaders Division.
Beckman makes an interesting hire for a team that struggled to find consistency on offense the past few seasons. As long as Beckman can bring in some more solid running backs, the Illini will have a chance to solve those woes.
Ohio State: Urban Meyer
Although many pundits tabbed Meyer as Jim Tressel's replacement when he stepped down from Florida following the 2010 season, few imagined that Tressel would be gone in less than a year. However, Meyer still took the opportunity to return home to Ohio where he coached at Bowling Green at the start of the last decade.
Following a good coaching career in the assistant coaching ranks, Meyer put together an amazing 81.4 win percentage in his first 10 years as a head coach. Meyer also brought two national titles to Florida and a BCS bowl win and undefeated season to Utah.
It is easy to see why Ohio State grabbed a coach in his prime to lead the football program. The early recruiting results look good, but will Meyer flame out quickly after a hot start? Only time will tell.
Penn State: Bill O'Brien
After a lengthy coaching search following the dismissal of legend Joe Paterno, Penn State decided to look outside the Happy Valley coaching family to grab a coach off the Bill Belichick coaching tree from the NFL. O'Brien may have spent his past few years coaching pro athletes, but his roots were built in college football before his appointment to the Patriots.
When O'Brien served as offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and Maryland, both teams established great running games and solid offenses. For a program that struggled to find any identity on offense in the past decade, O'Brien could be the salve that fixes most of the pressing problems with the current talent in Happy Valley.
O'Brien stands out in that he has no head coaching experience. Thus, he will need to rely on his many mentors like Belichick and Ralph Friedgen to figure out the ropes quickly. It will always be difficult to follow a legend, but perhaps this is the right scenario for O'Brien to succeed.
Wisconsin: Bret Bielema
The one most important constant in Wisconsin's coaching staff is the man at the top, Bret Bielema. Bielema took over a program seemingly at a peak under Barry Alvarez and took it to another level with another two consecutive championships and Rose Bowl games (same as in 1999 and 2000 under Alvarez).
Bielema has 60 wins in his first six seasons and is approaching Urban Meyer's winning percentage, which should make for an interesting battle as both try to remain atop the conference. There is no match for consistency of successful coaches at the top programs.
Bielema will have a huge leg up on the remainder of this list by being the longest-tenured coach in the division for the foreseeable future.
Position Rankings (in order):
Wisconsin (4 points), Ohio State (3 points), Illinois (2 points), Penn State (1 point).
Illinois: Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty
Beckman decided to hire co-coordinators for the offensive side of the team, likely as a result of his expertise on the defensive side.
Gonzales worked with Beckman on Urban Meyer's staff at Bowling Green and then moved with Meyer to Utah and Florida during the national title seasons. Gonzales spent the last two years working with LSU's wide receivers, giving that unit dramatic improvement and another shot at a national championship.
Beatty has spent the last four seasons coaching receivers at Vanderbilt and running backs at West Virginia. Beatty is a recruiting specialist as well as a solid offensive coach, so Beckman will rely on Beatty to bring in the offensive talent he needs to move Illinois forward on that unit.
Ohio State: Tom Herman
Herman has been an offensive coordinator for the last seven years of his 13-year coaching career, including stops at high-octane Rice and Iowa State. Herman found some real success this year with the Cyclones, but the Buckeyes will have far more talent to work with along with much more stingy defenses to face than in the Big 12.
Herman has an IQ rated high enough to join Mensa, and he will need to use all that brainpower to improve what was a completely inept offense in 2011. With Braxton Miller at the helm, Herman should have it fairly easy.
Penn State: Stan Hixon (assistant head coach)
O'Brien turned to another experienced coach with recent years in the NFL by hiring Hixon as an assistant head coach. While O'Brien plans to call the plays in his first season at the helm, Hixon will likely be in the playcalling huddle with 32 years of coaching experience.
Hixon also has no Penn State ties, although he has developed wide receivers at the pro and college level. With no coaching experience in the Big Ten, it may take some time for O'Brien and Hixon to jump on unfamiliar opposing defenses.
Wisconsin: Matt Canada
Matt Canada returns to the Big Ten after one season away back at Northern Illinois. Canada found success back in 2003 and then again last year leading the Huskies to MAC conference championships and bowl games.
Between these two years, Canada served as quarterbacks coach for Indiana. Although the Hoosiers struggled mightily on offense over many of those years, the quarterback play was generally not the problem. Look for Canada to thrive with the pro-style offense Bielema prefers in Madison.
Penn State (4 points), Illinois (3 points), Ohio State (2 points), Wisconsin (1 point)
Illinois: Tim Banks
Tim Banks appears to be a rising star in the defensive coordinator business. Banks spent time at various schools including Maryland before hooking up with Butch Jones at his alma mater Central Michigan five years ago.
At Central Michigan, Banks led a strong defensive unit that shut down opposing running games and consistently ranked at the top of the MAC statistically, as the Chippewas rolled to conference championships. Banks has had similar success under Jones at Cincinnati, turning around the Bearcats defense with a focus on stopping the run again (Cincinnati ranked sixth nationally in rushing defense in 2011).
Ohio State: Luke Fickell and Everett Withers
Fickell returns to the defensive coordinator job he held from 2005-2010 before becoming interim coach in the tumultuous 2011 season. Fickell has consistently fielded a strong defense, ranking in the top 15 nationally in total defense each of the years spanning 2006-2010.
Withers led a similar successful defense from 2008-2010 at North Carolina and also inherited an interim coaching job in 2011 like Fickell. Withers pairs well with Fickell because Withers is an expert at defensive backfield play, while Fickell loves to focus on the defensive front seven. These men know how to handle great talent and develop it to new heights.
Penn State: Ted Roof
Ted Roof is perhaps best remembered recently for his difficult four years at the helm of Duke, but he laid a good foundation for the Blue Devils program that now is coming to fruition. Since he left Duke in 2007, he has served as defensive coordinator for Minnesota in 2008 and for Auburn the past three seasons.
At Minnesota, Roof motivated the Golden Gophers to improve by over 130 yards per game on defense, which led to a six-game improvement in record over 2007. However, Roof's best work came at Auburn as the Tigers shut down many elite opponents such as South Carolina and Oregon on the way to the BCS Championship in 2010. He is a nice addition for O'Brien's staff.
Wisconsin: Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge
Ash moved onto Bret Bielema's staff three years ago after spending much of the last decade coaching defensive backs for Iowa State. Ash proved he still knew how to motivate defensive backs by propelling the Badgers to three all-conference selections in 2011 as co-defensive coordinator.
Partridge also is one of the few holdovers left on Bielema's staff from a season ago as he moved with Ash to the co-coordinator position in 2011. Partridge has been with the Badgers for five seasons and has led defensive line talent like J.J. Watt to new levels. Partridge and Ash are a proven team with solid results.
Ohio State (4 points), Wisconsin (3 points), Illinois (2 points), Penn State (1 point)
Illinois: Chris Beatty
As mentioned previously, Beatty is also working as offensive coordinator in his first season. Beatty has not worked with quarterbacks since his job at Hampton in the FCS a few years ago, so it will be interesting to see if he can actually help Nathan Scheelhaase develop into one of the best quarterbacks in the conference.
Ohio State: Tom Herman
Herman will spend his time with the entire offense, but he will take special delight in working with a talent like Braxton Miller. Herman has risen through the program ranks serving in this same joint role for Texas State, then Rice, then Iowa State, and has caused good quarterback play at each stop in the last six years.
Penn State: Charlie Fisher
Similar to many of the other coaches on O'Brien's staff, Fisher has tons of experience with 31 years of coaching on his resume. Before working at Miami Ohio last year, Fisher spent a decade mentoring quarterbacks at Vanderbilt in the SEC, including now professional QB Jay Cutler.
Wisconsin: Matt Canada
Canada will continue working with quarterbacks in addition to his role as offensive coordinator. Canada led three Indiana quarterbacks to school records in his seven years in Bloomington, and he will hope to work the same magic with Wisconsin, which has had good quarterback play under Bielema.
Penn State (4 points), Ohio State (3 points), Wisconsin (2 points), Illinois (1 point)
Running Backs Coach
Illinois: Tim Salem
Salem has coached for nearly 30 years but has only spent limited time working with running backs, spending most of his time with special teams the past few years at UCF. However, Salem did coach UCF running back Kevin Smith in his ridiculous 2007 campaign with over 2500 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns. Can he rise to the challenge of running backs again?
Ohio State: Stan Drayton
Drayton was forced to leave his position coaching running backs at Florida when Meyer left in 2010 and ended up landing on Luke Fickell's staff to coach wide receivers. Although injuries and suspensions left Drayton an impossible task in 2011, his return to coaching running backs should be a good move for the Buckeyes. Like Meyer, Drayton has two national championships from Florida.
Penn State: Charles London
London stands out as the first Penn State coach on this list to date without a plethora of experience. London coached at Duke for three seasons before moving into offensive assistant roles in the NFL the past few years. If London can translate his youth into good relations with his running backs, then Penn State will continue to succeed in that aspect of the offense.
Wisconsin: Thomas Hammock
Hammock has been coaching about as long as London, but he has truly been a specialist at coaching running backs, serving in that role for Northern Illinois and Minnesota before moving to Wisconsin last season. It was a good time to take over, as Montee Ball and James White make a coach look good. With both of those players back for another run in 2012, Hammock will have it relatively easy again this season.
Wisconsin (4 points), Ohio State (3 points), Penn State (2 points), Illinois (1 point)
Wide Receivers Coach
Illinois: Billy Gonzales
Gonzales coached with Beckman under Meyer at Bowling Green and followed Meyer to Utah and Florida, coaching receivers like Percy Harvin to two national championships. Gonzales spent the last two years at LSU, and his effect on the receivers there was clear despite struggling and inconsistent quarterback play. Gonzales will be happy to not face SEC defenses every weekend anymore.
Ohio State: Zach Smith
Smith served as a graduate assistant working with the offensive players for Urban Meyer for five seasons at Florida. Meyer likes how he worked with Percy Harvin and the other Gators in the spread offense and is now giving him his first big opportunity despite only have two years as a full time coach under his belt. Smith will have a challenge facing him right away with a depleted corps of receivers in Columbus.
Penn State: Stan Hixon
In addition to his duties as assistant head coach, Hixon will serve in a familiar role as a receivers coach in Happy Valley. Hixon has been coaching receivers for most of his 32-year coaching career, including a national championship unit at LSU in 2003.
Wisconsin: Zach Azzanni
Azzani has been coaching receivers for 13 years, with his most recent stops as Central Michigan, Florida (apparently everyone in the division needs a receivers coach from the Meyer era in Gainesville), and Western Kentucky. Azzanni served as an offensive coordinator for the Hilltoppers last season, so he will bring an extra level of experience to this position in Madison.
Penn State (4 points), Illinois (3 points), Wisconsin (2 points), Ohio State (1 point)
Offensive Line Coach
Illinois: Luke Butkus
With the family name Butkus and a legendary uncle named Dick, it should come as no surprise that Luke returns to his alma mater to coach offensive line after spending his first five years of coaching doing the same in the NFL. Butkus has recent experience and a good pedigree, which will catch the attention of his players and perhaps raise their play to the next level.
Ohio State: Ed Warinner
Warinner will actually serve as co-offensive coordinator as well for the Buckeyes, but his expertise comes in coaching offensive lines, which he has done for 15 of the past 20 seasons. This will be Warinner's eighth coaching stop, although his best success has come recently as coordinator at Kansas and offensive line coach at Notre Dame. Warinner is one of the hottest commodities and Meyer snatched him as quickly as he could.
Penn State: Mac McWhorter
McWhorter served with O'Brien on the Georgia Tech staff back in 2000, but since then, he has made a name for himself coaching offensive lines for Mack Brown at Texas. McWhorter was a part of the 2005 Longhorns national championship run and won assistant coach of the year back in 2008. Expect great things from the Nittany Lions offensive line in the future.
Wisconsin: Mike Markuson
Markuson decided to move back closer to his home in Minnesota after coaching offensive lines at Arkansas and Ole Miss for the past 14 seasons. Markuson mentored some great athletes in the SEC including Michael Oher and Jonathan Luigs, and his addition to the Wisconsin staff was an unexpected surprise.
Penn State (4 points), Wisconsin (3 points), Ohio State (2 points), Illinois (1 point)
Defensive Line Coach
Illinois: Keith Gilmore
One of the only holdovers from Ron Zook's coaching staff, Gilmore has been retained by Beckman as a likely result of his great success recently coaching defensive linemen. Gilmore brought a revival of defense at Cincinnati and then mentored great defensive linemen Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus the past two seasons. Beckman hopes the good streak continues for Gilmore.
Ohio State: Mike Vrabel
In order to fill the gap left at linebackers coach last season, Luke Fickell hired recently-retired NFL great and Buckeye alumnus Vrabel to fill that coaching position. Now that Fickell returns to coach linebackers, Vrabel has been retained by Meyer but moved to defensive line coach. Vrabel has a lot to prove as a coach, but his exploits as a player have to grab the attention of these young Buckeye linemen.
Penn State: Larry Johnson
One of the more popular moves O'Brien made was the retention of longtime defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who is the father of NFL great running back Larry Johnson. Johnson has produced seven All-Americans in 17 seasons at State College and will continue to do so as long as O'Brien keeps him aboard.
Wisconsin: Charlie Partridge
Partridge has coached for Bret Bielema for five seasons and has focused on the defensive line that entire time. Wisconsin has seen great defensive line play and the rise of superstars like J.J. Watt under Partridge's watch. Despite having additional duties as assistant head coach, expect Partridge to continue to succeed in Madison.
Penn State (4 points), Illinois (3 points), Wisconsin (2 points), Ohio State (1 point)
Illinois: Mike Ward
Ward spent the last 20 years in northwestern Ohio, spending 17 years at Bowling Green and three years at Toledo under Beckman. Ward's leadership of the Rockets defense and linebackers made that unit a turnover generating machine, ranking among the national leaders in takeaways the past two seasons.
Ohio State: Luke Fickell
Fickell returns to defensive coordinator and linebackers coach after one year away from the duties he carried for the final six years of Jim Tressel's tenure. Without the pressures of being a head coach, Fickell should shine once more, although he does have a bit of an empty cupboard to work with coming into 2012.
Penn State: Ron Vanderlinden
Vanderlinden has become comfortable leading the stars of the Penn State defense over the past 12 seasons, following a head coaching stint at Maryland and a defensive coordinator position at Northwestern in the middle of the 1990's. Vanderlinden has returned the mystique of Linebacker U, which is part of the reason he was another holdover from the Paterno coaching staff kept by O'Brien. The defense was in good hands before, and it will stay that way.
Wisconsin: Andy Buh
Another interesting lateral move that Bielema caused was Buh's move from being a defensive coordinator the past four years at Stanford and Nevada to be the linebackers coach in Madison. Buh will be a good voice to have in the defensive staff meetings as he improved the Cardinal and Wolfpack defenses from poor to solid in just two years.
Penn State (4 points), Ohio State (3 points), Illinois (2 points), Wisconsin (1 point)
Defensive Backs Coach
Illinois: Tim Banks and Steve Clinkscale
Clinkscale has 12 years of coaching experience and only three of those in FBS football as cornerbacks coach under Beckman at Toledo. Considering the improvement of the defensive backfields while at Toledo, Beckman made an easy decision to invite Clinkscale to his first coaching staff at Illinois.
Tim Banks will also help out in addition to his defensive coordinator duties.
Ohio State: TBD
Meyer has lost two coaches he hired for this position already, which is a shock. However, Meyer will find someone to lead the best portion of the Buckeye defense in 2012, and likely another solid coach with a hot track record.
Penn State: John Butler
Butler has mostly coached linebackers and special teams over the past decade for Harvard, Minnesota, and South Carolina. Despite only being on the job in Carolina for one year, Butler could not pass up the opportunity to move back north and coach Penn State, even though secondary is not his primary area of expertise. With solid long time coaches at the other two defensive positions, the pressure will likely not be much on Butler.
Wisconsin: Chris Ash
As mentioned on the defensive coordinator slide previously, Ash is one of the few holdovers from last year's staff and now moves up to new heights. Ash led one of the best secondaries in the Big Ten last year, although two defensive breakdowns late in games against Michigan State and Ohio State will haunt Ash this season.
Illinois (4 points), Wisconsin (3 points), Penn State (2 points), Ohio State (1 point for now)
Final Report Card
Tallying up the totals of arbitrary position rankings brings us to the following final report card:
No. 1: Penn State (30 points)
No. 2: Wisconsin (25 points)
No. 3: Ohio State (23 points)
No. 4: Illinois (22 points)
Surprise! Despite being away with the Patriots for the Super Bowl, O'Brien put together a staff loaded with some longtime coaches that will bring a lot to the table in State College. On paper, the Nittany Lions appear to have a lot more going for them that what one would expect, listening to the heralded coaching staff in Columbus.
Ohio State and Wisconsin are loaded with more up-and-coming talents though, so both coaching staffs could take over this race in a couple of years if these groups are re-evaluated. Illinois is lagging a bit behind.
Of course, judging each position is an arbitrary exercise, but it does show that we should not overlook how much experience Penn State brings to the table on the sideline. Perhaps they should be considered more of a threat to Wisconsin's seeming dominance of the division in 2012 (not including the ineligible Ohio State squad in the mix).
Thanks for reading, and come back Friday for a fun look at building a perfect spring road trip to see Big Ten football, now that Northwestern and Indiana are firing up spring practices this weekend.