It’s been a while since there’s been a new face prowling the sidelines at Spartan Stadium.
For 13 seasons, Mark Dantonio led Michigan State’s football program, and in the process, he took the Spartans to a level of success it hadn’t seen in decades. Along the way, he became the program’s winningest coach, won three Big Ten championships, took the Spartans back to the Rose Bowl after a quarter-century absence and saw his run reach its peak in 2015 with a berth in the College Football Playoff.
There was only one regular season that ended with a losing record (3-9 in 2016) and only one other time were the Spartans sub-.500, finishing 6-7 after losing the Alamo Bowl in 2009. It was an unprecedented run.
Where did it start, though?
In 2007, Dantonio took over a program that had been flailing in the wind under John L. Smith and, before him, Bobby Williams. Michigan State went 7-6 that year, losing some tight games before taking on Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl.
It was the start of an amazing run, one that leads to the question of what is to be expected from Mel Tucker, Dantonio’s replacement? A head coach with only one season at Colorado, Tucker has a wealth of experience at the NFL level and with some of college football’s best programs.
But, he faces his share of challenges at Michigan State. The roster needs work — the quarterback position is up in the air and the defense has plenty of holes to fill, and Dantonio’s success has raised expectations. Just being good isn’t enough. Michigan State fans expect to play for championships now, a task made tougher considering Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan are on the schedule every season.
Tucker has already created some momentum, scoring some early recruiting victories, even during a pandemic while infusing some energy in the program.
How will he fare in that first season, though? That is tougher to guess. By the end of the season, we’ll know, and we thought it would be a good idea to look at the other 13 coaches in the Big Ten, see how they did in year one and what it became from that point forward.
►Jim Harbaugh, Michigan (First season: 2015, 10-3)
The former Wolverines quarterback was hired to bring his alma mater back to a championship level following seven seasons of mediocrity under Rich Rodriquez and Brady Hoke. The first season provided plenty of hope — even with the last-second loss to MSU and a one-sided loss to Ohio State — but it’s been more of the same since. While the Wolverines have plenty of talent, that championship continues to remain out of reach.
►Ryan Day, Ohio State (First season: 2019, 13-1)
It can’t be easy to replace a national-championship level coach and one of the best in the history of the game, but things couldn’t have gone much better for Day as he took over last season for Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes went undefeated in the regular season, won the Big Ten title game and, if not for a controversial call in the national semifinals, could have been playing for another national title. With recruiting continuing to roll, it doesn’t look like there will be a drop-off anytime soon for Day.
►James Franklin, Penn State (First season: 2014, 7-6)
Franklin’s first season began with the Nittany Lions still under sanction from the NCAA in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but early in the year, the sanctions were lifted. Franklin and his team took advantage by becoming bowl eligible, despite a 2-6 record in conference, and closed with a win in the Pinstripe Bowl. Penn State has gone on to win 11 games three different times and earned a Big Ten championship in 2016.
►Tom Allen, Indiana (First season: 2017, 5-7)
Turning around a program like Indiana’s is no simple task, and doing it in one of the toughest divisions in the nation only adds to the difficulty. Allen had some close calls in year one, losing four games by one possession, and managed to win five games. The Hoosiers repeated that in 2018 before breaking through to become bowl eligible last season, though they still came up short against division foes Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State.
►Mike Locksley, Maryland (First season: 2019, 3-9)
The other first-year coach in the division last season, Locksley had a far tougher job than Day did at Ohio State. He was taking over a program that had endured a tumultuous few years that included the off-season death of player Jordan McNair and plenty of coaching uncertainty as D.J. Durkin was replaced by Matt Canada on an interim basis. Maryland won just three games last season, but he has the Terps recruiting at a higher level than usual and has created optimism around the program heading into his second season.
►Greg Schiano, Rutgers (First season: 2020)
The only other first-year coach in 2020 isn’t exactly a first-year coach considering Schiano led the Scarlet Knights from 2001-2011, taking the team to six bowl games and enduring just one losing season in the final seven. He won only 12 games in his first four seasons during his first stint with the Scarlet Knights and this turnaround project will be just as tough considering Rutgers won only eight games in more than three seasons under Chris Ash.
►Paul Chryst, Wisconsin (First season: 2015, 10-3)
The former Badgers offensive coordinator got his feet wet as a head coach for three seasons at Pittsburgh before returning in 2015 to take over one of the most consistent programs in the country. Chryst won 10 games that first season and has won at least 10 in four of his five seasons for a team that hasn’t finished below .500 since 2001. Since that first year, Chryst has taken the Badgers to three conference title games as well as three New Year’s Six bowl games, including the Cotton, Orange and Rose bowl.
► Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (First season: 1999, 1-10)
It takes a deep dive into the record books to recall the first season for Ferentz, who is about to begin his 22nd season leading the Hawkeyes. He won just one game that season — against Northern Illinois when Northern Illinois wasn’t any good — and followed that with three more wins in 2000. From there, though, there have been few complaints as Iowa has missed a bowl game only twice and finished under .500 just one time — in 2007.
►Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern (First season: 2006, 4-8)
The longest-serving coach in the conference behind Ferentz, Fitzgerald took over the Wildcats at the age of 32 after the sudden death of coach Randy Walker. Fitzgerald had served as linebackers coach the previous four seasons and Northwestern won only four games in his first season at the helm. However, he quickly showed his value, winning six games in 2007 before nine wins in 2008 led to a string of five straight bowl appearances.
► P.J. Fleck, Minnesota (First season: 2017, 5-7)
After taking Western Michigan to 13 wins and a Cotton Bowl berth in 2016, Fleck took over the Golden Gophers after previous coach Tracy Claeys had been let go after supporting a player-led boycott over the suspension of 10 teammates in a sexual assault case. It was no easy task and Fleck won only five games that first season, a four-game drop-off from Claeys’ last season. However, it didn’t take long to turn the tide and Fleck led the Gophers to 11 wins in 2019 and within a game from winning the West.
► Jeff Brohm, Purdue (First season: 2017, 7-6)
After four years of losing under Darrell Hazell, Brohm created plenty of buzz in his first season, taking a team many expected to finish at the bottom of the division standings and leading them to a bowl game. The Boilermakers lost three conference games by a single possession and closed the regular season with back-to-back wins over Iowa and Indiana to become bowl eligible. They defeated Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl, however, they’ve failed to play in a bowl game since.
► Lovie Smith, Illinois (First season: 2016, 3-9)
Smith’s hire in 2016 surprised many considering Smith had spent the bulk of his coaching career in the NFL. But the move was made in hopes of jump-starting a program that has won more than seven games only twice in the last 20 years. There were plenty of roster challenges and the Fighting Illini won only three games in Smith’s first season, following that with only two victories in 2017. But light has started to appear at the end of the tunnel as Illinois became bowl eligible last season for the first time since 2014.
► Scott Frost, Nebraska (First season: 2018, 4-8)
The hiring of the former Cornhuskers quarterback came with as much hype as when Michigan hired Harbaugh. However, the results have been slow to come for the coach that led UCF to a perfect season in 2017. The Huskers lost their first six games in Frost’s first season and managed only five wins last season, even as many were picking them to win the Big Ten West.