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B1G Thoughts: Ranking the B1G Coaches

In college football very little is more important than a dynamic head coach! With that in mind, Jordan ranks the Big Ten coaches entering the 2023 season.

Oregon State v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Every week after the Big Ten games, I will bring you some B1G thoughts on everything that happened! This will include analysis, stats, key players, big moments, and more! With USC and UCLA joining the conference in 2024, I’ll be getting a head start on the 16-team conference by including them through the 2023 season. Check out the I-70 Football Show in the Land-Grant Holy Land podcast feed for more in-depth analysis and to preview the next week of B1G games.

It’s July 4th weekend, which means the offseason has officially switched over to the 2023 football season. All 2023 recruits are on campus for the summer session, the July recruiting dead period has started, and after a quick family vacation coaches will be locked into the 2023 season for the rest of the calendar year.

Having a good head coach is one of the biggest indicators of success, which in my opinion has led to some of the lack of success in the Big Ten. Heading into the 2023 season, Nebraska and Wisconsin have hired new coaches, and in 2024 USC and UCLA enter the conference. Each school bringing a successful head coach. So let’s rank the Big Ten head coaches entering the 2023 season, including USC and UCLA.

2023 Big Ten Coaches Ranking

Ranking Coach School Overall Record Team Record NFL Record
Ranking Coach School Overall Record Team Record NFL Record
1 Jim Harbaugh Michigan 181-74-1 (71%) 74-25 (74%) 49-22-1 (68%)
2 Ryan Day Ohio State 45-6 (88%) 45-6 (88%) N/A
3 Luke Fickell Wisconsin 63-25 (72%) 0-0 N/A
4 Lincoln Riley USC 66-13 (84%) 11-3 (79%) N/A
5 James Franklin Penn State 102-51 (66%) 78-36 (68%) N/A
6 Chip Kelly UCLA 100-170 58% 27-29 (48%) 28-35
7 Bret Bielema Illinois 110-70 (61%) 13-12 (52%) N/A
8 Kirk Ferentz Iowa 198-136 (59%) 186-115 (62%) N/A
9 Matt Rhule Nebraska 47-43 (52%) 0-0 11-27
10 P.J. Fleck Minnesota 74-49 (60%) 44-27 (62%) N/A
11 Pat Fitzgerald Northwestern 110-101 (52%) 110-101 (52%) N/A
12 Greg Schiano Rutgers 91-110 (45%) 80-89 (47%) 11-21
13 Mel Tucker Michigan State 25-24 (51%) 18-14 (56%) 2-3
14 Mike Locksley Maryland 23-54 (30%) 21-28 (43%) N/A
15 Tom Allen Indiana 30-40 (43%) 30-40 (43%) N/A
NR Ryan Walters Purdue 0-0 0-0 N/A

1. Jim Harbaugh - Michigan

While it pains me to admit this, Jim Harbaugh is unequivocally the best coach in the Big Ten. Besides Nick Saban, he may be the best coach in all of college football. I know that will run counter to what’s going on at Georgia or the history of Michigan before the past two seasons, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

Jim Harbaughs biggest flaw is he’s stubborn — which you could argue makes him a lesser coach than some — but he is also one of three coaches ever to be successful in the NFL and college football along with Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll. Don’t think that’s impressive? Just ask Matt Rhule, Chip Kelly, and Urban Meyer how hard it is to succeed in the NFL.

Jim Harbaugh may never reach the highest heights of some of the other coaches on this list. He’s a perennial loser in big games, but he will also always have a team at the top of the sport. He’s been successful with Stanford, the 49ers, and Michigan. All that’s left is for him to finally win a championship.

2. Ryan Day - Ohio State

Depending on if you’re an Ohio State fan or not, you either think Ryan Day is one of the best coaches in the country or an absolute scrub who should be fired. After taking over from Urban Meyer, Day is 45-6 with three college football playoff appearances. Starting with his time as offensive coordinator, his last three starting quarterbacks have all been Heisman finalists and first-round picks in the NFL Draft.

Despite his success, he became the first Ohio State coach in 20-plus years to lose back-to-back games to Michigan and hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2019. He is one of the best recruiters in the country and the best quarterback developer in college football. It’s only a matter of time before he wins a national championship. The only question is can he beat Michigan and regain control of the Big Ten?

3. Luke Fickell - Wisconsin

Luke Fickell was a homerun hire for Wisconsin, and should have the Badgers in the 12-team playoff hunt more years than not. After his first season in Cincinnati, Fickell won at least nine games every season, including back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2018 and 2019 and a 13-1 season in 2021, with their only loss being to the eventual champion Georgia Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff.

Fickell gets this nod over USC head coach Lincoln Riley because I don’t believe Riley could recreate the same level of success at Cincinnati. Honestly, I wouldn’t be mad at anyone who switches Fickell and Riley here, but ultimately I think Riley is a one-sided coach and his pure ignorance of the defensive side of the ball has dropped him a couple of spots in the coaching rankings.

4. Lincoln Riley - USC

Lincoln Riley comes in a little lower than expected, but still pretty high. He is one of the best quarterback developers in college football, but has benefitted from getting transfer quarterbacks as one-year rentals. After failing to develop Spencer Rattler, he’s turned Caleb Willams into one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

Riley has three Heisman winners to his name, but as previously mentioned he’s a one-sided coach. His affinity for the offense has led to a defense that can’t keep up with the big dogs of the sport or physically and mentally tough teams like Utah. To be successful in the Big Ten, Riley will need to recruit better on the lines and fire defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, but his offense and QB development will always give him a chance. USC will be much better with Riley at the helm, but it’s yet to be seen if he is a championship-caliber coach.

5. James Franklin - Penn State

James Franklin comes in at No. 5 in large part to his being the only coach to win at Vanderbilt and his ability to bring Penn State out of the dumpster they were in when he was hired. Franklin’s biggest problem area is his lack of success against Ohio State and Michigan, but someone has to lose the games in the East, and Penn State is the biggest benefactor of the 12-team playoff and the division-less Big Ten.

If Penn State were in the West, I believe they would’ve had an Ohio State-level dominance in that division. I expect Franklin to keep Penn State as a top 10 team nationally, and while I think the reports that Penn State could win the Big Ten in 2023 are a bit early, if Drew Allar is legit his 2024 team could be a legitimate title contender.

6. Chip Kelly - UCLA

Chip Kelly is hard to rank. He’s only 27-29 at UCLA, but has gotten better each year and just stole Dante Moore, a five-star quarterback, away from his former employer Oregon. Despite his measly record at UCLA, Chip Kelly is an innovator, creating one of the most dominant offenses in college football, and his protégé Ryan Day has used some of those tenants to have the best offense year over year.

Chip has failed to relive his Oregon glory in the NFL or at UCLA, but he is a very good coach and if anyone can turn UCLA around it would be Chip. He’s bringing one of his best quarterbacks into the Big Ten. Only time will tell how this ends for Chip and the Bruins.

7. Bret Bielema - Illinois

Bret Bielema gets the nod over Kirk Ferentz because we’ve seen what happened when they played yearly. While at Wisconsin, Bielema is 3-2 over Iowa and played in the Big Ten Championship game in 2010 and 2011. Bielema is currently working to improve Illinois, and honestly should’ve won the West last season but suffered some tough losses in the back half of the schedule.

In 2022, Illinois beat Wisconsin and Iowa by playing their own game just better, with Bielema reminding them that he is one of the godfathers of the three-yard and a cloud of dust style that they all use, winning games with a stout defense and a dominant running game. It gets harder from here for Illinois, but I expect them to be a perennial bowl team and that alone might make Bielema the best coach in Illinois history whenever he hangs up the whistle.

8. Kirk Ferentz - Iowa

Kirk Ferentz’s time has come. He is a relic of the past and shouldn’t be allowed to continue running this program due to the racial discrimination scandal levied against his program and his unwillingness to change. His hiring and subsequent retaining of his son as offensive coordinator has hurt the team, the university, and the fanbase, but despite all of that he keeps winning games.

Iowa hasn’t missed a bowl game since 2012, and besides the Covid season where they only played eight games they’ve won eight or more contests every season since 2014. Ferentz is objectively a good coach — even if not a great person. It will be interesting to see how Ferentz and Iowa do when they no longer get to feast on the weaker west division and have to play more games against Ohio State, Michigan, and USC.

9. Matt Rhule - Nebraska

Matt Rhule is a winner. You may have forgotten that due to his miserable tenure in the NFL, but coaching in the NFL is hard. At the college level, Rhule has won everywhere he’s been, winning 10 games in back-to-back seasons at Temple and winning the conference in 2016. He then won a conference championship at Baylor after they were hit by a scandal that rocked college football.

At Temple and Baylor it only took three seasons to win 10+ games, and he won championships in year three and four respectively. I don’t expect Rhule to win the Big Ten, but he has a chance to get Nebraska into an occasional 12-team playoff and they should be much better than they were under Scott Frost. Nebraska is an easy win no longer.

10. P.J. Fleck - Minnesota

Similar to Matt Rhule, P.J. Fleck is a winner. Fleck won eight games his second year at Western Michigan and led them to a 13-1 season in 2016 before taking the Minnesota job. Fleck made a bowl game in his second season at Minnesota and four out of six in total. He’s also 4-0 in those games.

You could make the case that Fleck should be higher on this list, but his teams consistently lose at least one game per year they shouldn’t, which is why he hasn’t made an appearance in a Big Ten Championship game and many of the coaches higher than him have won their conference or made the playoffs. Life will be much harder for Fleck without Mo Ibrahim. With college football changing, it’s up to him to prove he can continue to succeed in the new landscape.

11. Pat Fitzgerald - Northwestern

Pat Fitzgerald is very high on my coaches who should be fired list. He comes in at No. 11 because, unlike the coaches below him, he has had some success winning the Big Ten West in 2018 and 2020 and developing lower-rated recruits into high draft picks, including first-round picks Rashawn Slater, Greg Newsome II, and Peter Skoronski.

Since 2020, Fitzgerald has won four total games and his program is going downhill. He is a program legend, arguably the best linebacker in program history, and probably their best coach as well. Regardless, the past is the past. It’s time to build the stature, move him into an administrative role if he wants to stay, and hire a new head coach.

Northwestern’s success came in the two-division format by bullying the Big Ten West with their dominant defense. The defensive coordinator responsible for that has retired and the Big Ten has gotten rid of divisions. Unless they want to be the worst team in the conference for the next 10 years, it’s time to move on.

12. Greg Schiano - Rutgers

Greg Schiano is arguably the best coach in Rutgers history, which is why they doubled back and hired him again in 2020. So far Schiano has failed to relieve his glory days. It’s not as easy to win in the Big Ten as it was in the ACC in the early 2000s.

Schiano has the best chance of anyone to keep New Jersey talent in the state, but it’s unlikely that Rutgers becomes much better than a six or seven-win team. Rutgers should benefit from the division-less structure though, getting more chances to play some of the dregs in the West and fewer games against Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan could increase their Bowl chances.

Ultimately, Schiano is a lower-rated coach in the conference, and if Rutgers ever decides to take football seriously, they will need to replace him.

13. Mel Tucker - Michigan State

Many people are high on Mel Tucker because he went 11-2 in 2021, but I think we have enough evidence to prove that 2021 was a fluke. Mel Tucker got lucky by getting an NFL-caliber running back in Kenneth Walker III and was smart enough to build his whole offense around him. Without a game-changing running back, Tucker is 12-19 as a head coach and hasn’t shown much to be excited about in the future.

Despite being a former defensive back and a DB coach at Alabama, Ohio State, and the Cleveland Browns, the Spartans under Tucker have had one of the worst secondaries in the country. Michigan State gave him a 10-year contract, so firing him is not an option, but if he doesn’t find a way to become a better coach this is going to be one of the worst coaching hires in Michigan State history, and the decision to extend him after one season will be talked about for years to come.

14. Mike Locksley - Maryland

Like Mel Tucker, Mike Locksley got his head coaching job based on his relation to Nick Saban. Locksley served as Bama’s offensive coordinator for two seasons and then brought Taulia Tagovailoa with him to be his starting quarterback. Under Locksley, Maryland has been largely unimpressive. It’s not easy to win in the Big Ten East, and he has improved in winning bowl games in the last two seasons, but overall he has five losing seasons in seven years, he can’t keep five-star talent in Maryland, and after 2023 he will have to live life without Tualia under center.

If he can get to three-straight bowl games he might move up this list, but for now he is still one of the worst coaches in the conference, and has a lot to prove in the ever-changing Big Ten.

15. Tom Allen - Indiana

There is no reason to hide what we all know is true — Tom Allen is a bad head coach. He is a great guy, it seems like his players really love him and he puts all his energy into his players. If being a good guy was a pre-requisite to being a good coach, he’d be one of the best, but it’s not and he’s not.

The longer Allen is at Indiana the worse it’s going to be for the Hoosiers. I’ve said it before, but they need to rip off the bandaid and hire Kane Wommack — their former defensive coordinator and head coach of South Alabama. Former offensive coordinator Kalen Deboer is having a lot of success at Washington, and Kane could be next. The issue is Indiana gave him a new contract and a ridiculous buyout due to almost winning the Big Ten in 2020. The problem with betting on Allen is that 2019 and 2020 were his only good seasons, and it was because of Deboer and Wommack, who are no longer a part of the staff.

NR - Ryan Walters - Purdue

For this exercise Ryan Walters is unranked. He is a first-time head coach, and we will not know anything about him or his coaching acumen for a few years.