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Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the Conference Head Coaches

David Fitzgerald IICorrespondent IDecember 9, 2012

Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the Conference Head Coaches

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    With the 2012 season coming to a close, the major conference and national awards have now been handed out across the college football landscape. One of these awards always goes to the Coach of the Year, both nationally and in the Big Ten. Bill O'Brien took home the conference version of this award, but the word is still out on the national award.

    O'Brien and Urban Meyer are both in the list of 10 finalists for that national award following great seasons for Ohio State and Penn State despite NCAA sanctions and postseason bans. However, one great season does not necessarily mean either of these coaches is the best in the Big Ten conference. It simply means they both did a fine job in the 2012 season.

    But which of the current head coaches ranks best overall, and over the period of years in which they have served as a head coach? Even in the midst of the "silly season" of hiring and firing coaches, let's take a look at how the coaches rank at the end of 2012 in the power rankings.

Incomplete: Unnamed Wisconsin Head Coach

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    The silly season brought one highly unexpected departure, as Bret Bielema became only the fourth conference coach in the last two decades to willingly leave for another job. It takes a special opportunity, like the LSU job for Nick Saban, to lure away a Big Ten coach, but Bielema believes he found that in the SEC and Arkansas.

    Only time will tell if he will be able to improve on his 68-24 record he had in Madison, but the pressing concern is who Wisconsin will hire to replace Bielema. Athletic director Barry Alvarez, who has three Rose Bowl wins of his own already, will lead the team in the 2013 Rose Bowl. But that is a temporary solution, so we won't rank this position as if Alvarez were taking over permanently.

    Thus, this is nothing more than an unknown and an incomplete. Sorry Wisconsin, but we cannot rank a head coach who has not been identified yet.

    (For the record, Bielema would have ranked in the top four of this list if he remained, but that's academic now.)

11. Tim Beckman, Illinois

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    Beckman has a career coaching record of 23-26, although that mark did not fall under .500 until this first season at Illinois. Beckman has a long road to traverse in order to get Illinois back to respectable, a place that was becoming harder and harder to achieve under Ron Zook.

    The new coaching staff did not enamor themselves to the rest of the conference by starting with active recruiting on the Penn State campus following the announcement of the NCAA sanctions. That type of move makes it too easy to get rid of a coaching staff if things do not turn around quickly.

    Usually with new coaches, a team will struggle and begin to adjust around the end of the first season. Those adjustments were never apparently made, as Illinois continued to get stomped through the end of the season. (The narrow Purdue loss doesn't count because Purdue had its own significant problems.)

    Until he proves otherwise, Beckman is at the bottom of the power rankings, just like his team.

10. Kevin Wilson, Indiana

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    Indiana decided to let Bill Lynch go following four seasons filled with mediocrity, and Kevin Wilson came in from Oklahoma to revitalize the program. Unfortunately, Wilson found the cupboard relatively bare and has struggled in his first two seasons, putting up a 5-19 record this far.

    This is Wilson's first head coaching stop, so the pressure is high considering he has to learn the ropes in one of the top conferences in the country (cough, 2012 excluded, cough). Wilson does have Indiana rolling on offense once again despite struggling to keep a healthy quarterback on the field in the 2012 season.

    But the ugly underside is the defense, and Wilson has not yet been able to improve that longtime problem for the Hoosiers. Until he and his defensive staff prove they can win games with defense, Indiana will struggle to be more than a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten.

    It's still early, though, as Wilson has very little resume to work on.

9. Darrell Hazell, Purdue

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    Sometimes coaches shoot themselves in the foot, like when Danny Hope opined that 2012 was the best team of talent he had in during his tenure in West Lafayette. When that talent panned out to a 3-6 start and barely making a bowl game, Hope had to be let go.

    Then Purdue went out and hit what many consider to be a home run by hiring Darrell Hazell away from Kent State. Hazell had served as assistant head coach under Jim Tressel in his last six seasons before heading to Kent State, and he quickly made the Golden Flashes a contender in just two years. Kent State had not had a winning record in over a decade, but Hazell got it done in year two with a division championship.

    Overall, Hazell brings a 16-9 record with him to West Lafayette, but his reputation and ties to Ohio may be key in leading him to success in the Big Ten. His achievements put him slightly ahead of Wilson and Beckman, but these coaches will be able to settle it on the field as each builds a program for the future in the Leaders Division.

8. Jerry Kill, Minnesota

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    Jerry Kill put the Northern Illinois football program back on track quickly after taking over in 2008, and that allowed him to make a similar move to what Hazell is making now at Purdue into the Big Ten. Also, like Hazell, Kill has proven he knows what it takes to succeed in the Big Ten despite not having the talent to really compete quite yet.

    Kill stands with a career record of 32-31, but that record includes two seasons where Kill was taking over a team with three or fewer wins from the season before. Minnesota is back in a bowl game and has a bright young talent at quarterback, Philip Nelson, who got plenty of experience in 2012 to prepare him for years ahead.

    Kill has won with tough defense at both his head coaching stops, and that appears to be working if Minnesota can stay competitive enough to make bowl games. Whether Kill can take this program to an elite level in a tough Legends Division has yet to be seen. However, the signs are great so far, and perhaps ahead of schedule for what many expected when he took over.

7. Brady Hoke, Michigan

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    At this point, the power rankings become very difficult thanks to most of the remaining coaches having a lot of good wins and accomplishments on the resume. However, Brady Hoke slips into this spot at the bottom of the top tier of coaches because his career record (66-56) is not that impressive and he has not proven he can win the big games in the Big Ten yet.

    We will know a lot more about Hoke next year as most of his players begin to take over and run the pro style offense and tough-nosed defense he wants to bring back to Michigan. He and his offensive staff looked completely lost at times working with the unique talent that was Denard Robinson, but then they also failed to make quick adjustments when Robinson went down earlier this season.

    Struggles against Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State were just too significant to be ignored as well. Michigan would not have hired Hoke, a coach with a career losing record when he arrived in Ann Arbor, if it wasn't sure of his credentials. He's recruiting very well, but that only goes so far if the team cannot make the right plays in the biggest games of the season.

    Hoke needs to win a division title and hopefully a conference title soon, or else the calls of Hoke vs. Meyer becoming the next Woody vs. Bo are largely overstated.

6. Bill O'Brien, Penn State

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    Just like Hoke, Bill O'Brien finished 8-4 in 2012 with his team, but the circumstances were incredibly different in Happy Valley. O'Brien knew that he could be walking into a hornet's nest after Joe Paterno was fired amidst the Sandusky scandal, but nobody could predict the action that the NCAA would take. Just when O'Brien was beginning fall practices, he had to worry about players departing for greener pastures.

    As it turns out, the grass is not always greener on the other side, as Penn State ended up with a better record than many of the teams players departed to, including USC. O'Brien worked his magic with senior quarterback Matthew McGloin, making his struggles go away quickly in a relatively simple but effective passing attack.

    If not for a bad break with a struggling kicker in Virginia, Penn State would have ended up 9-3 this season when most pundits, including me, were calling for a losing record. O'Brien has proven he can make great quarterbacks, which will be all he needs to compete at the highest levels in college football.

    This year was a great start, and O'Brien deserves all the national awards he may receive. However, he needs to continue to succeed and not run to the money of the NFL in order to match the accomplishments of others ahead of him on this list. For a university that had not hired a football coach in 50 years, Penn State certainly did a wonderful job with this hire, as long as it can keep him.

5. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

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    The second-longest tenured coach in the conference is also one of the youngest, as Pat Fitzgerald has already been at Northwestern for seven seasons. Following some struggles in his first two seasons, Northwestern has achieved five consecutive bowl appearances, which nearly doubles the six total appearances the program had before his arrival.

    Fitzgerald has made Northwestern relevant in the Big Ten, just like when he was a star player in the mid-1990s. About the only thing Fitzgerald has not achieved (beyond a conference championship) is a bowl game win, although the Wildcats have another decent shot at it this year with a struggling Mississippi State on the docket in the Gator Bowl. Fitzgerald is 49-39 in his seven seasons.

    It is definitely important that Northwestern broke a trend of falling victories this year after going from nine wins in 2008 to eight, then seven, then six a year ago. This year, the nine victories could have been so much more, as the Wildcats just could not hang on late against Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan. But that's no slight to a great coach who has proven himself over time.

    The fact that this program, with all the inherent disadvantages of being tough academically and a private school in a public school league, is competing in the Big Ten speaks volumes. Fitzgerald is doing something great in Evanston, and that makes the Big Ten better as a whole.

4. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

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    Thanks to all the recent departures of Big Ten head coaches, Kirk Ferentz is the only one left who was coaching back in the 1990s at his Big Ten program. Ferentz has double the tenure of Fitzgerald at 14 years in Iowa City, and he has compiled a record of 100-74 in that time.

    Of course, Ferentz ranks highly on this list because he has taken Iowa to heights not often seen in Iowa City, and he has maintained the excellent program that was built by Hayden Fry. This season was the first time Ferentz has really struggled though since he first took over, and the single double-digit win season since 2004 has fans growing a bit anxious if there are long term struggles ahead.

    However, Ferentz won shares of Big Ten championships when Ohio State was dominant before, and Iowa can still reach the major bowls even without going to the Rose. Just because the Big Ten looks tougher than ever does not mean that Ferentz cannot bring the Hawkeyes back to the top. But this potential Hall of Fame coach has some major work to do to go out with a great reputation like Fry did.

    If nothing else, Ferentz has run a clean program for a decade and a half. That seems to be exceedingly hard to do, so hopefully, he gets back to winning when the bad fate lets up on the running backs and a better quarterback emerges.

3. Bo Pelini, Nebraska

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    Bo Pelini has a sparkling record as a head coach, clocking in at 49-19 in five seasons at Nebraska. After being passed over for the job back in 2003, Nebraska made the right decision by inviting him back following the bad Bill Callahan era in Lincoln.

    That being said, Nebraska has finished 9-4 or 10-4 every single season under Pelini, and could be headed there again following a shocking blowout loss to Wisconsin to drop to 10-3 with a tough bowl game against Georgia ahead. Nebraska has not been able to win conference championships, despite winning three division titles in five years.

    In addition, a loss in the bowl game this season could be three straight blowout bowl losses for Pelini and his staff. That would raise questions about whether Nebraska will ever rebuild the Blackshirts defense to the level necessary to win conference and national titles. This team has been consistently good but never great, and the defensive lapses have to be maddening for a defensive-minded coach like Pelini.

    Still, there are a lot of guys on the list below him that would kill to go to three conference championship games in four seasons. Pelini has earned his place among the elite coaches, but he now needs to win some bigger games to move up the ladder.

2. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

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    Michigan State earned a reputation for not ever being able to capitalize on well-played games and good teams during the coaching tenures of Bobby Williams and John L. Smith. Mark Dantonio has come in and brought a toughness that he learned under other great coaches like Jim Tressel. That coaching tree has grown into multiple programs in the Big Ten, and each of them has turned out better for it.

    Dantonio has a 68-45 record in his career, which includes three years building Cincinnati to a nationally-relevant program before coming to East Lansing. Although the Spartans have had a couple of big speed bump seasons in 2009 and this year, he has made Michigan State be respected as a contender in the Legends Division, and even split a conference title back in 2010.

    Michigan State has also been to a bowl every season under Dantonio, even when everything goes horribly awry, like this year. By finally getting a bowl win last year, Dantonio has brought everything but a Rose Bowl to this program. His tough defense and excellent recruiting on that side of the ball will keep him in the mix for league titles as long as he is in East Lansing.

    It speaks volumes to the current state of coaching in the Big Ten that two men who have not quite jumped the hurdle to elite status hold two of the top three spots in the power rankings, but there are only two BCS bowl wins for any coaches in the conference at their current schools (Kirk Ferentz in the 2009 Orange Bowl and Brady Hoke in the 2012 Sugar Bowl), not counting...

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

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    Urban Meyer brought more winning experience on the biggest stage than anybody else has combined in the Big Ten, having won two national championships at Florida (one at the expense of the Buckeyes, ironically enough) and another BCS bowl in an undefeated season at Utah. That undefeated season was his only one until this year, when the 6-7 Buckeyes turned it around for a perfect 12-0 season.

    Although the NCAA sanctions may have held Ohio State out of the BCS Championship this season, there's little doubt this team will be right in the mix in the future for national titles if Meyer can win with this group of players. Meyer holds an astounding 116-23 overall record as a head coach, and those are numbers that compare favorably to Jim Tressel, who dominated this league in the last decade.

    Meyer has assembled a team of all-star assistant coaches from all appearances, and he will need to continue to hire well and recruit well to stay on the top of his game. If Meyer improves or stays consistent with his 7-1 bowl record, then the Big Ten is in for another few years of Scarlet and Gray dominance. It seems the only thing that can stop Meyer is his health, so hopefully, this man driven to win has learned how to balance himself going forward.

    There you have it...a list that was incredibly hard to put together and will likely lead to tons of disagreement in the comments. How would you rank these coaches differently? I look forward to seeing the discussion progress in the comments.

    Thanks for reading! Please keep the conversation going below, and feel free to follow me on Twitter.

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