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Big Ten coaches battle to scale ladder of success

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Big Ten coaches cling to the ladder of job security based on the rungs of success.

By appearance and by plain fact, Big Ten football has gotten bigger (thanks, expansion) and better (check head-to-head performances, nationally).

It has also become a less merciful place to coach.

The men of the Southeastern Conference know all about cannibalism and Pyrrhic wars and bloodying each other each autumn in something of a mutually destructive exercise. The punishment comes in a bid to win their SEC divisions, maybe make it to a national championship game, and, simultaneously, stave off firings in a conference where — math is stubborn here — not everyone can win.

Welcome, Big Ten, to the circular firing squad.

Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, and Mark Dantonio are safe and secure with upper-crust programs and teams built to withstand just about any Big Ten season’s cavalcade of variables, beginning with injury.

J.T. Barrett’s Buckeyes will never lower their expectations

Kirk Ferentz, Paul Chryst, and Pat Fitzgerald are in something of a similar situation based on past performances, immediate prospects, and — not to be dismissed — contracts that are appropriately friendly.

Other coaches who could soar to smoother air are James Franklin at Penn State, Lovie Smith at Illinois, and, everyone’s new bet to win, place, or show, D.J. Durkin at Maryland.

That leaves others with challenges and perils in a conference that won’t be charitable to rosters that can’t match the big boys’ muscle, or to programs (hello, Mike Riley) that expect more, perhaps, than a school realistically can deliver.

That latter point is key.

For every case that can be made for what Tracy Claeys might do as Jerry Kill’s follow-up act at Minnesota, or for the admirably tough stuff brandished by Indiana and its newly renewed commander, Kevin Wilson, there are dark thoughts about Darrell Hazell and his future at Purdue, and just as many questions about what a new man as well-regarded as Chris Ash can possibly accomplish at Rutgers.

It’s rugged terrain in 2016, the Big Ten football landscape, and that couldn’t always be said about a conference in previous decades. Not with respect to so many of the fattened Big Ten’s 14 teams.

“I think part of what we’re seeing, for the first time in a long time, is that Big Ten schools and administrations are doing their best to maximize resources,” said Gerry DiNardo, the Big Ten Network analyst who was a past head coach at Indiana, LSU, and Vanderbilt.

“I noticed where Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State have not been ranked this high since 1975. There was a day when it was hard for all three of those teams to be good. We’re in a day and age when they are.”

Kirk Ferentz is approaching his 18th season as Iowa coach and has a contract through 2020 with another extension reportedly in the works.

Reasonable, rational mediators could look at the Big Ten and suggest the trick here is the same as it is in the SEC or anywhere that the highest of high-caliber football is played.

Schedule smart. Ensure a winning season and bowl invitation as best you can. Manage to win a fair share of conference games, realizing that last point will always be subject to loud and dangerous debate.

And then prepare for truth and justice to keep you employed and your program on track for something approaching sustained quality and competitiveness.

But, of course, it doesn’t always work that way. You could ask a couple of men named Frank Solich and Bo Pelini, each axed after nine-victory seasons at Nebraska, how fair and big-picture focused were their employers and fan bases when they were dismissed and, not coincidentally, tougher times soon arrived at Lincoln.

Big Ten programs and coaches can be semi-safely segmented to reflect current elevations and 2016 prospects. And as always, any pecking order begins with the conference’s top troika.

Meyer, Harbaugh, Dantonio – shouldn’t we move one of these guys to another division?

Ohio State and Michigan could and perhaps should be the two best teams in the Big Ten East, this year and beyond. That is, if you put stock in returning talent, incoming freshmen, and the often-helpful but sometimes distorted index known as four- and five-star recruits.

Meyer has been getting thoroughbred talent in greater supply than any other conference team in the five years he has been in Columbus. Michigan is at least matching the Buckeyes now that Harbaugh is in control and rosters soon will be co-equally monstrous, if they aren’t in fact in rough approximation now.

Lovie Smith arrives at Illinois with an NFL pedigree, having been head coach with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And then there’s Michigan State, which is talented and deep, and which like the Buckeyes and Wolverines, benefits from a head coach who knows how to assemble personnel and — ta da — coach it.

As a man with DiNardo’s perspective can particularly appreciate, no school in the conference is quite matching the Buckeyes, Wolverines, and Spartans in bolting together bodies and output to match Meyer, Harbaugh, and Dantonio. Left unsaid is what happens to Michigan State when Dantonio departs (retirement is probably inevitable — Dantonio gets tired, and he also wants to remain married). But until Dantonio and his golden touch depart, MSU will remain in the same long-term sphere as OSU and Michigan are destined to share with Meyer and Harbaugh at the controls.

Remember something about Meyer and Harbaugh, lest there be doubts, particularly when OSU or MSU fans appraise Harbaugh and suggest he’s being oversold.

Both men have done it before — have won big — at different stops: Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida. Harbaugh at San Diego, Stanford, and the NFL 49ers.

They are simply practicing today exceptional football stewardship at two schools where, as history would indicate, resources mean you pretty much have to mess up to avoid winning on a grand national scale.

Meyer and Harbaugh are here to stay. And so is Dantonio, at least as long as he remains part of a coaching trio that at the moment is pretty much transcendent. And, perversely, obliged to compete in the same Big Ten division.

Pondering this year’s bust-out team and coach, and, by extension, who will rule the West Division

James Franklin is a popular pick in the Who Will Join Meyer, Harbaugh, and Dantonio sweepstakes. He has spent a couple of years at hard labor and seemingly has Penn State ripe for a breakthrough season. Seemingly, anyway.

But this is still a program dealing with bruises from the Jerry Sandusky crisis. This, moreover, is a team that went 7-6 the past two years. This is a team that had the bad fate to be seated in the East alongside three schools and rosters that remain superior to anything Franklin and predecessor Bill O’Brien have together been able to construct.

So, to assume this might be a happier autumn in Happy Valley is perhaps premature.

Progress, in the form of another victory or two, would probably do the trick for Franklin, at least in terms of reassuring his base. But that can’t be assumed. Pitt, at Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State — the lineup’s heavy and Franklin is still scrambling to make this significantly more than a break-even team.

Beat writers break down Big Ten East

Ferentz, at Iowa, has a different mission from Franklin. He’s had enough good fortune in 17 years at Iowa to avoid basic questions about competency and ability to win. He also came within one play of winning last year’s Big Ten championship. That was helpful given that some were wondering if he was worth the long and expensive contract he signed in 2010, which was to extend into 2020.

That contract is now being reworked and lengthened, his boss, Gary Barta, said last month. So much for past thoughts Ferentz might be cashiered.

Paul Chryst is less entrenched, but he is in similar straits at Wisconsin. Chryst’s first-year Badgers were 10-3, which is about what one expects from a team and program that begot a splendid makeover a quarter century ago under Barry Alvarez.

Chryst has one potential hang-up in letting the good times roll at Madison in 2016. It’s known as the schedule.

Take a gander at these assault artists waiting in the initial weeks for the Badgers:

LSU, followed by two cupcakes, after which Chryst and Wisconsin are treated to, in order: at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State, at Iowa, Nebraska, at Northwestern.

The good news for Chryst is: Win a bunch of those games and you’re on your way to a most pleasing 2016. But take a whipping, which could happen in the brunt of those duels, and Badger fans will, let’s say, be high-decibel about their feelings.

Chryst is a fine coach. We think. It’s simply that he probably doesn’t deserve to be measured by 2016 and its crucible.

Jim Harbaugh’s arrival at Michigan from the NFL San Francisco 49ers has returned the interstate rivalry with Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes to the national stage.

Down the road from Madison, across a state border, and among fields and woods that eventually give way to Chicago’s northern suburbs and to a lakeside campus known as Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald is scraping together bodies, and willpower, and laboring to make a private school with deep pockets and shallow reasons to believe it can match the big boys, once again a relevant Big Ten contender.

Chop, dice, and blend the above ingredients and you end up with Fitzgerald concocting a 70-56 record in 10 seasons at Evanston. That’s pretty good, especially when one descends into some past Northwestern football archives and sees the carnage that once upon a time was an annual event here.

That’s why Fitzgerald’s teams are considered solid. Dangerous. And potentially a wild card in that oh-so-inviting Big Ten West Division.

Speaking of wild cards and wild-child personas, at least in terms of how team personalities rank: Nebraska can be fairly manic.

We’re not talking about the administration, per se. Although we certainly could. When you sack Solich and Pelini in  9-3 seasons you’re inviting some necessary questions about hierarchical sanity.

Of course, college administrations, when it comes to athletics, are absolute extensions of fan galaxies. And it’s fair to wonder if Nebraska’s realm is being terribly realistic about football in 2016.

DiNardo makes perfect sense when he talks about Nebraska’s past and how former deities like Tom Osborne were able to recruit on a colossal scale. Part of it was a coach’s personal skill and radius. Another part had to do with old and generous scholarship limits, aided by waves of walk-ons who were financed by local Rotary clubs, etc.

The simple truth is, new rules, satellite camps, early commitments, and Nebraska’s distant geographical locale, can make it all but impossible in 2016 to amass those old mile-high, mile-wide talent stockpiles that fueled the Cornhuskers’ long, and almost crazy-good, run.

Just how Mike Riley, now 63, is supposed to reintroduce to Lincoln seasons with double-digit victories is a question he might or might not care to answer. But it will not, definitely will not, be easily reassembled, that Nebraska past, which led to a sense the Cornhuskers were entitled to annual national championship runs.

Riley has a good team in 2016. But good enough to appease Cornhuskers' disciples?

Probably — make that certainly — not.

Getting a handle on some newcomers with hot names and not-so-hot rosters.

Lovie Smith. You know him. Longtime NFL coach of the Bears, and then the Buccaneers, at least until the latter team treated him with the same indignation Nebraska has tended to reserve for its recent coaches.

He is being asked to straighten out Illinois. And that’s a noble task on Smith’s part.

It’s not that you can’t win at Illinois. You can. But so much must go right, beginning with making sure your in-state talent doesn’t get overly poached by enemy coaches and their recruiting incursions.

Smith fundamentally must score there. And probably can, given his skill set and past billboard credentials as Bears coach.

But give him a while. Because, even in that Welcome Wagon known as the Big Ten West, life can be rugged, and Smith, as he returns to college coaching for the first time since 1995, deserves time in re-crafting a program that can and should be better.

Beat writers break down Big Ten East

Durkin’s mission at Maryland is different from Smith’s, even if Durkin, like Lovie, is a Big Ten rookie head coach. The Terrapins are still new to Big Ten football. They have no ginormous legacy as a football school.

And so they hired a guy who figures to raise their profile as well as the fans’ temperature at College Park.

D.J. Durkin is a hellcat. Everyone who knew him before he arrived in Ann Arbor as Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator testified to it. Durkin then confirmed scouting reports as he whipped up a foam-mouthed unit that helped restore Michigan’s luster and, as a result, made Durkin prime-time stock when Maryland wanted a new football architect.

He has made improvements recruiting, not that the bar was terribly high. And now everyone will get at least an initial gander into his style and capacity as a head coach.

But as with most reconstruction programs, this doesn’t figure to be a project completed any time soon. Even if Durkin is all he’s billed to be, which is some billing, indeed.

Not quite as intriguing, but certainly interesting, is how Tracy Claeys might fare at Minnesota now that he can dig fully into the Gophers after having absorbed duties when Jerry Kill was obliged to resign (health issues) last October.

Claeys was fine. The Gophers finished 2-4 but that included what should have been an upset of Michigan as well as courageous work in close games against Iowa and Wisconsin.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has returned the Spartans to national prominence in nine years at the helm

Minnesota and Claeys have one potential, even colossal, edge in 2016. It’s the schedule, which has more to do with a satisfying season than just about any of college football’s variables. You could see the Gophers at 6-3 or 7-2 nine games into their 2016 calendar.

Claeys has enough returning roster heft to make this another solid bowl season. And given their seat in the Big Ten West, you never know. Did anyone a year ago see Iowa winning the West?

A different range of thoughts and expectations is in place at Rutgers. You know, that school from New Jersey that somehow found itself branded as a Big Ten member, even if it seemed the Scarlet Knights had as much proximity to France or England.

Face it: Rutgers is here because of television sets. And it’s on TV sets that teams are most often and most heavily viewed. And that hasn’t always been a favor to Rutgers.

So, once again, they have hired a new coach with the premise that someone can make Rutgers a valiant foe in that Valley of the Giants, the Big Ten East.

Chris Ash has the assignment. And great choice by Rutgers, at least in theory. Ash has past stripes as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator. He coached at Wisconsin, and at Arkansas, among assorted stops, and if anyone can begin crafting something at the Big Ten’s New Jersey outpost, it’s very possibly Ash.

But, again: Not everyone can win in a conference as cruel as the Big Ten has become. Until the component parts of a serious Big Ten contender begin in the form of recruiting classes that make a difference, Ash and Rutgers are banking on something mystical carrying this team.

Take it away, Coach.

Can we just get this over with, Purdue? And can we have a moment of inspired prayer for the job Kevin Wilson has done?

It’s easy to forget, overlook — whatever word best describes treating Indiana football as an afterthought — how well 2015 worked out for the Hoosiers and Wilson.

They won their first four games. Then lost their next six, but recall some of those six put-downs: seven-point loss to Ohio State; a 48-41, double-overtime crusher to Michigan; 55-52 to Rutgers; and 35-27 to West champ Iowa.

Now consider that six-victory season and a bowl invitation — Indiana’s second since 1994 — and another overtime gut-punch by a very good Duke team.

Add the above torture to another reality: Indiana must play in the Big Ten East.

DiNardo has particularly keen insight on Indiana, given his history, which includes a stint as Hoosiers head coach.

“I think Kevin is doing a wonderful job,” said DiNardo, who wishes Indiana hadn’t waited to renew his contract, which DiNardo believes cost Indiana a couple of heavy recruits. “When the conference was competitively balanced, everyone had a chance to be upwardly mobile.

“But once it was divided this way, it made it very difficult for Eastern schools like Indiana. If everyone in the East is maximizing resources, Ohio State has an edge. If Indiana is rocking and rolling, for them to be upwardly mobile, some of the better programs have to be doing poorly.”

DiNardo, though, likes the fact Indiana has done what Purdue, for example, hasn’t — stuck money into new football facilities. The Hoosiers also had the cash to hire a steel-belted defensive coordinator in Tom Allen, an Indiana man who was lured from the same job at South Florida.

Beat writers break down Big Ten West

This team likely will be a replica of that 2015 gang, which treated opponents galore to frazzled Saturdays.

Then, of course, up the Indiana pavement, is Purdue and Hazell.

You can look at two numbers (6-30) and understand why Hazell is closer to being spelled Hazard in 2016. That 6-30 welt is the Boilermakers’ record in their past three seasons.

No school, particularly in the Big Ten, allows that to continue, which is why Hazell needs something inspiring to happen in 2016.

You wonder about Purdue. And you wonder why life hasn’t been better.

The Boilermakers won 50 years ago when Jack Mollenkopf was there. They won when Jim Young came aboard and decided the plodding Big Ten could be had by a team that threw the football.

They won when Joe Tiller rode into town with a spread offense and with Drew Brees throwing darts.

So, it’s not as if it can be done. But it’s fair to ask, as DiNardo does, if the university fully understood where it was, and what it wasn’t doing, ahead of 2016.

Purdue finally authorized last March a $60-million upgrade in its football digs. But this was long after virtually every other Big Ten school had added lustrous and necessary new quarters to their complexes. And it was well after basketball had gotten help in sprucing up an aging venue.

“If you’ve got state-of-the-art basketball and not football,” DiNardo said, “you’re better off from a football point of view having neither. That’s what opponents are saying to recruits. And that’s what families are deciding when they see you care about one sport more than the other.”

That’s one snippet from a broad discussion about what might be the most significant, and certainly the most debate-prone sport in America: college football.

No game has complexities, issues, and passion points — not even in the NFL — to match college football’s labyrinth of elements and facets.

All of which end up at some point in the lap of a man known as head coach.

Enjoy 2016, folks. You’ll enjoy it more than some coaches whose lives and fates rest in a job that, ironically, can so often exist beyond their control.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/Lynn_Henning