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Column: Who will be the next Big Ten coach to leave their school?

The options are limited. 

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten accomplished something subtle and unique this past offseason when the conference as a whole maintained all 14 of its head coaches.

A 2017 metric pegs the average tenure of college football coaches at 3.8 years and my own calculations as of this year suggest an even more depressing 3.7 years. Even more dispiriting, the median figure is just two seasons in the head coaching seat.

The average tenure for a current Big Ten coach is an impressive 6.5 years. Of course, that number is skewed by Kirk Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald, who have been in their positions for 23 and 15 seasons, respectively. (Ferentz is officially the longest-tenured coach in the FBS, while Fitzgerald is fourth on the list.) Impressively, Illinois’ Brett Bielema was the only new coach to join the conference in 2021. Even accounting for these anomalies, the Big Ten collectively boasts a five-season median tenure.

These stats demonstrate a remarkable level of solidity in the Big Ten compared to the FBS at large. For a direct comparison, the median tenure for current SEC coaches matches the national stat at just two seasons.

Of course, someone at some point is bound to leave their post in the Big Ten, so who will it be?

It’s a further mark of the stability of this head coaching cohort that just one coach enters the season truly on the hot seat. Nebraska’s Scott Frost is perhaps the only coach who could reasonably have gotten the ax after his team’s performance last season. The Huskers kept him around on the basis that his team lost a lot of close games, winning any of which would have improved Nebraska’s abysmal record (3-9 overall, 1-8 in the Big Ten).

Even more telling, Nebraska is still riding a six-game losing streak dating to Oct. 9 against Michigan. If Frost doesn’t improve quickly — and he must, given two highly publicized events in the season opener against Northwestern in Ireland and a home game versus Oklahoma — he could find himself without a job midseason.

Regardless, the Nebraska backers obviously love the story of Frost and, similar to how they’ve deluded themselves that their sellout streak is somehow still active, seem to prefer living in an alternative universe where the glory days of the past are still relevant.

Beyond Frost, there’s Maryland’s Mike Locksley, who’s held his head coaching post since 2019 and who’s amassed a 13-23 overall record. While his first two seasons with the Terps were nothing to write home about, Locksley achieved a 7-6 record, including a bowl win, in 2021. Still, Locksley and Maryland are at something of a crossroads as the program has not seemed to build out in the way other Big Ten programs have (i.e., with strong offensive and defensive lines). If that is a winning strategy in the Big Ten or a fireable offense remains to be seen.

After these two is…Paul Chryst of Wisconsin, I suppose? That consideration should be telling in itself of how stable the conference is, as the Badgers finished last season 9-4. Getting rid of Chryst would be akin to firing Bo Pelini — a move that, in retrospect, set Nebraska’s program back significantly. Chryst has received criticism for not winning the Big Ten West since 2019 and for losing to rival Minnesota at the end of the 2021 regular season. Further, Wisconsin simply plays a boring brand of football that can make it challenging to fill stadiums, especially in the cold of a Wisconsin November. By those standards, Wisconsin almost sounds like Ohio State in terms of expectations.

Of course, Chryst’s contract runs through the 2025 season, so it’s probably a moot point for now.

When it comes to the other coaches on the list, retirements and departures for different schools seem far more likely than firings. For instance, Ferentz, whose contract was extended through 2030 in January, will likely be at Iowa until he chooses to retire.

Fitzgerald is in a similar position, with his 10-year extension from 2021 extending through 2030. However, there’s always NFL talk surrounding the Northwestern coach who’s consistently managed to outplay opponents with what he’s got. The rumor about Fitz going to the Chicago Bears was not that far-fetched.

Jim Harbaugh probably falls into this category as well. In many ways, though, he’s got the same vibes as Frost as an alumnus of Michigan who’s had bad times, mediocre times, and that one good time. His win over Ohio State, a Big Ten Championship, and a College Football Playoff berth in 2021 should carry Harbaugh until he eventually decides to retire or go back to the NFL. However, Harbaugh’s five-year contract extension, signed in February, makes a departure less likely in the immediate future.

Then there’s the category of non-legacy coaches who’ve been locked down long-term. In fact, there seemed to be a disproportionate amount of long-term, mid-season renewals in 2021:

  • Mel Tucker (Michigan State) - 10-year, $95-million, signed in November
  • James Franklin (Penn State) - 10-year, $85-million, signed in November
  • PJ Fleck (Minnesota) - seven-year, $35-million, signed in November
  • Tom Allen (Indiana) - restructured seven-year paying $4.9 annually, signed in March 2021

Greg Schiano, similarly, is entering the third year of his eight-year contract. While he would need to demonstrate some improvement to get the kind of upgrades we saw at Michigan State, Penn State and others, he doesn’t seem like much of a flight risk. Ditto for Brett Bielema, who is entering his second season at Illinois.

Of course, any of these coaches could be fired for cause. However, especially with the restructured, long-term contracts, that would be cost-prohibitive for their respective schools. The coaches could also choose to leave on their own volition, though in most of these cases, that also feels unlikely given their contractual guarantees.

Finally, there’s the category of coaches who might actually choose to move on, and who make up the final two coaches in the Big Ten.

Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, who received a seven-year, $36.8-million contract extension this past spring, feels destined for a larger program. He’s 51 and on his second head coaching role after spending three seasons with Western Kentucky. He’s been with the Boilermakers since 2017 and, in that time, has outperformed expectations — including one time we’re not going to speak of here. Whether that move happens sooner or later, especially given his shiny new contract, isn’t clear.

Lastly, there’s Ryan Day. Day also got yet another payday in March, which extended his contract through 2028 with annual pay of $9.5 million, tying him for the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten with Tucker. Like Brohm (and most other coaches in the Big Ten at this point), Day’s contract value makes it extremely risky to leave.

There are not many places to go in the college ranks that could match Ohio State in prestige. However, Day was a rising star coaching NFL quarterbacks when Urban Meyer plucked him for the Ohio State coaching staff, and a long-term NFL career doesn’t feel out of the question. The rumors surrounding Day’s move to the Bears last season were more substantial than those around Fitzgerald. Of course, Day has already proven himself in many ways as the coach of the future for Ohio State, and the Buckeyes will do what they need to in order to keep him around.

Given the pandemonium of the coaching carousel last season, it’s a breath of fresh air to see the remarkable consistency of the Big Ten. Even more telling was their commitment to their coaches with major, often mid-season, contracts, which also alleviated transfer portal questions and aided recruiting. Perhaps even Chip Kelly and Lincoln Riley will be grateful for increased job security in a few seasons. Who’s the next to leave remains to be seen, but perhaps we’ll still have our same group of 14 head coaches this time next year.