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Column: Maybe the Big Ten isn’t the model of stability we thought

Or maybe we shouldn’t panic just yet. 

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Welp, I was apparently very wrong about the Big Ten’s relative stability heading into the 2022 football season. I maintain that some powerful factors remain in place, including:

  • The addition of USC and UCLA
  • New media rights deal
  • Strength at the top of the conference

However, given that the crux of my argument was centered on the fact that the Big Ten was the only Power Five conference without a head coaching change in the offseason, I feel I must revise my account of the situation,

That’s because two Big Ten programs, just five weeks into the season, have given pink slips to their head coaches. It’s an upsetting circumstance as there are five Power Five coaching vacancies currently. Outside the Big Ten, only Arizona State, Colorado and Georgia Tech have fired their coaches thus far this season.

Heading into this season, we saw which head coaches for the most part were doomed for the chopping block. Scott Frost was a longshot to finish out the season with Nebraska and his offseason antics and rough early start sealed the deal for the powers that be in Lincoln. Given what happened in 2021 with the restructuring of his coaching staff and contract, Frost was hanging on by a thread when the Huskers traveled to Ireland to open the season.

Paul Chryst, despite being in a clear hotseat, didn’t seem destined for unemployment at this stage, though. Wisconsin owes him a lot of dough now which will further limit the pool of candidates they’ll be able to pick from — although, let’s be frank, they’re probably going to land on former defensive coordinator and current interim head coach Jim Leonhard, who brings all the warm-fuzzies of an alumnus hire an AD could hope for.

Further, while Ohio State did smack Wisconsin around to a much higher degree than anyone perhaps anticipated, it was no surprise that the Buckeyes outmaneuvered the Badgers and it seems strange that Chryst didn’t get more grace for that loss. Admittedly, losing by 24 to Illinois and former Badger coach Brett Bielema did not win Chryst any friends.

Realistically, during the spring, Nebraska and Wisconsin were simply kicking the can down the road by waiting until mid-season to fire their coaches. It was clear heading into this year that 2022 would be make-or-break in Lincoln and Madison. In other words, athletic directors aren’t deciding on a whim to get rid of their head coaches. So why didn’t they just do it in the offseason?

It’s hard to get onboard with the mid-season coaching change. While Frost’s firing was probably overdue (especially given some of his antics may have contributed to an unsafe culture for his team. Yes, I’m still stuck on his statements about offensive linemen vomiting during practice.), it doesn’t inspire confidence in the program at large for players who can’t leave the program as easily. While the transfer portal allows greater flexibility, student athletes can’t readily join a new roster, learn new schemes and earn a starting role mid-season.

Further, it’s damaging to recruiting, especially with the changes coming so early in the season. Both Nebraska and Wisconsin will lose recruits who don’t want to go to a program with uncertainty in the head coaching role. Coordinators and assistants are losing months of capacity with head coaches with an interim tag.

Sure, we recognize the motivation from the athletic department’s perspective. Firing a coach early gives the program plenty of time to signal the opening and identify candidates, though, if they’re looking for an upgrade, they’ll probably have to wait until the end of the season regardless.

These midseason changes are a bad look for the Big Ten. Unfortunately, even with Ohio State and Michigan at the top and with a surging Penn State, the conference still seems to be down overall. Expansion and media rights are still a few years away. Coaching changes midseason have only undermined a mediocre performance nationally. The wind in the sails of the 14-program unit has abated somewhat.

Fortunately, there don’t seem to be any additional imminent coaching changes in the conference. Mike Locksley of Maryland, the final coach I’d thought was on the hotseat, has surprisingly navigated the Terps through the non-conference and, while almost-wins don’t count (just ask Scott Frost), his squad had an impressive showing against Michigan. They also notched an impressive win over a down Michigan State squad. While there’s still more season to go, the Terps are just a hop, skip and jump from bowl eligibility and perhaps Locksley will keep his post for another season.

More likely, someone like Jeff Brohm (or, dare I say, Ryan Day) will move to a different program or even the NFL after this season. Most of the other coaches in the conference recently signed massive, decade-long contracts and are stuck in their current posts for the foreseeable future.

Hopefully, even if there are changes on the horizon, anyone else looking to move on will wait until the end of the season.