Big Ten Top Returning Coaches

Big Ten Top Returning Coaches

The Southeastern Conference has set the standard for college football during the last 50 years. The SEC claims outright or a share of 21 of the last 50 national championships awarded in college football. Looking to the next 50 years, one conference seems to have the footing to compete and challenge the SEC for college football supremacy: the Big Ten. A new media rights deal, the additions of USC and UCLA, and a strong group of returning coaches have set the conference up well. Of the three, it is the rise in the level of coaching that has set the conference up to compete with the SEC. We previously looked at the best returning Big XII coaches. Now we turn to the Big Ten.

Urban Meyer can be credited with bringing about the change when he was hired by Ohio State in 2012. He set a new standard for recruiting and winning in the conference. Without Meyer, Michigan doesn’t hire Jim Harbaugh. Ryan Day also probably isn’t on the hot seat despite being 45-6 with two Big Ten Championships and qualifying for the College Football Playoff three times. Meyer is the standard by which the Big Ten Top Returning Coaches were measured.

This standard becomes even more difficult in 2024. Matt Rhule (Nebraska) and Luke Fickell (Wisconsin) are proven winners in college football and are both going to programs that have a tradition of winning and the resources to make it happen. Lincoln Riley (USC) is a Heisman quarterback whisper and has led his teams three times to the College Football Playoff. Chip Kelly (UCLA) rocked the college football world with “The Blur” at Oregon. His ground-and-pound run game now at UCLA will fit right in with Iowa and Wisconsin. Just missing the cut, after careful consideration, is PJ Fleck (Minnesota) and Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern). It would be no surprise if either man has his team in Indianapolis this season representing the Big Ten West. Here are the five men that made the list.

Big Ten Top Returning Coaches

#5 James Franklin: Penn State

There is always plenty of sizzle surrounding James Franklin, but one is left wondering most seasons, where is the steak?  Franklin is entering his tenth season as the head coach of the Nittany Lions in 2023. He has an overall record of 78-36 and one Big Ten Championship in 2016. He has four 11-win seasons, three 7-6 seasons, and only one losing season in 2020. His record against his two biggest rivals leaves a lot to be desired. Franklin is 1-8 against Ohio State and 3-6 against Michigan. Franklin has been good but has lacked being consistently great for Penn State. He and the Nittany Lions stand to benefit from an expanded College Football Playoff field and that may be enough to get him over the hump.

#4 Kirk Ferentz: Iowa

Thirteen. That is not the average number of points scored by the Iowa Hawkeye offense in 2022 but instead is the number of first-round picks that Kirk Frerentz has had in his tenure at Iowa. The Hawkeyes consistently have had multiple players taken in the draft and only once, in 2016, have they had a single Hawkeye drafted. Ferentz’s first 24 years in Iowa City have been a mark of consistency. Iowa has only four losing seasons in his tenure. The Hawkeyes have also won two Big Ten Championships and two more Big Ten West Division championships.  Year 25 will be a bit different with fans and media focusing on a new number: 325. Iowa has to score at least 325 points on the season so that Kirk’s son (and Iowa’s offensive coordinator) Brian can keep his job.

#3 Brett Bielema: Illinois

There are few coaches in college football that give us better soundbites than Brett Bielema. Bielema has spent nine of his 14 seasons as a head coach in the Big Ten. He spent his first seven at Wisconsin where he won 9.7 games a year and won three conference titles. After five years at Arkansas and a few years in the NFL, Bielema returned to Illinois in 2021. The Illini had nine straight losing seasons before Bielema arrived. After a 5-7 record in his first season, Bielema led the Illini to an 8-5 record and they finished 2nd in the Big Ten West in 2022.  Some have tabbed Bielema as the heir-apparent when Ferentz’s tenure is over at Iowa. Regardless of his location, Bielema’s teams are borderline erotic on the field and continue to punch above their weight.

#2 Ryan Day: Ohio State

Ryan Day is a victim of the standard set by Meyer. He has two separate Big Ten winning streaks of 16 and 23 games respectively, but it is his current two-game losing streak that has drawn most of Buckeye Nation’s hostility. Ohio State has failed to beat Michigan and Jim Harbaugh in each of the last two seasons. Michigan had not beaten the Buckeyes in back-to-back seasons since the 1999 and 2000 seasons. Since that time, Ohio State had won 17 of the 19 matchups. Ohio State shook off the loss in 2022 and took Georgia to the wire. A missed game-winning field is likely all that kept Day from winning his first national championship at Ohio State. Still, the losing streak weighs heavy and keeps the seat warm in Columbus, thanks Urban.

#1 Jim Harbaugh: Michigan

Who’s got it better than us? Harbaugh announced his presence with authority to the angst of many outside of Ann Arbor when he was by Michigan in 2015. He spoke a lot, took his shirt off, and brought a lot of eyes to his Michigan program. What was largely missing were key wins. Heading into the 2021 season, Harbaugh’s actions on the field did not measure up to the talk and hype surrounding the Wolverines.

  • He won 10 games in three of his first six seasons, winning eight, nine, and two in the other three seasons.
  • His highest finish was third (3x) in the Big Ten East and added a fourth- and fifth-place finish.
  • Michigan was 1–4 in bowl games.

Both Michigan and Harbaugh seemed to be finding a way to make an exit. Instead, Harbaugh bet on himself, taking a big pay cut, and refocused the Wolverines on a new trajectory. Michigan is 25-3 in the last two seasons, with two wins against Ohio State, two Big Ten Championships, and two appearances in the College Football Playoff. Harbaugh has finally shown NOBODY (in the Big Ten) has it any better.


Big Ten Top Returning Coaches

Photo courtesy:  Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports