April 7, 2009

Whispers: Ranking the Big Ten coaches

RIVALS RADIO: Dienhart on Big Ten coach rankings

The Big Ten is loaded with plenty of veteran coaching talent, but most of it hasn't been in place at the respective schools for long.

Seven of the coaches have been on the job three years or less: Purdue's Danny Hope is in his first year, Michigan's Rich Rodriguez begins his second and Minnesota's Tim Brewster, Indiana's Bill Lynch and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio enter their third seasons.

Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald will be starting their fourth years. Illinois' Ron Zook is embarking on his fifth season. The real veterans are Ohio State's Jim Tressel (ninth season), Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (11th season) and Penn State's Joe Paterno (44th season).

Ranking the Big Ten coaches:

1. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
The true measure of a man is how he responds to adversity. Ferentz has passed the test, pulling the Hawkeyes from a three-year slump to a 9-4 mark in 2008. Even better, Ferentz appears to have Iowa poised for another glorious run after leading the school to two Big Ten crowns from 2002-04. And Ferentz has done all of this with less-than-blue-chip talent.

2. Rich Rodriguez, Michigan
Think round peg in a square hole. That's the best way to describe Rich Rod's dubious and dreadful debut. We all know he's better than that. Witness the national power he built at West Virginia, where he went 60-26 with four Big East titles. It was painfully obvious the offensive personnel Rodriguez inherited in Ann Arbor were ill-suited to run his spread-option offense. That slowly will change as he fills the roster with his players. Then, look out.

3. Jim Tressel, Ohio State
Let's go ahead and bronze his sweater vest. He has won five Big Ten crowns and the 2002 BCS championship, and he played for two other BCS titles. And he hasn't even been on the job for 10 seasons, posting an 83-19 record. Not bad for a former Football Championship Subdivision (i.e., Division I-AA) coach.

4. Joe Paterno, Penn State
His recent success seemingly renders moot any notion JoePa should retire. He obviously still has it, coming off his second Big Ten title in four seasons. In fact, JoePa appears energized and healthy, primed to pad his lead as the all-time leader in Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) victories (383).

5. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
This all must seem so delicious for Dantonio. He followed a 7-6 debut with a sterling 9-4 record that had Sparty in Big Ten title contention late in the season. Dantonio's secret to success is simple: smart, tough, disciplined football built around defense. As long as he's in East Lansing, Michigan State will be an upper-division Big Ten challenger. And a conference title drought that stretches to 1990 figures to end soon.

6. Ron Zook, Illinois
He answered the critics who say he can't coach by leading the Fighting Illini to the Rose Bowl after the 2007 season. Zook is an unmatched recruiter who has built a strong staff, leading to a renaissance in facilities and attitudes in Champaign. Energy, enthusiasm and an ability to connect with players fuel Zook's success.

7. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin
There are rumblings about how Wisconsin's record has gotten worse each season under Bielema: 12-1 to 9-4 to 7-6. Give the intense Bielema credit in that he has altered his offseason approach, looking to connect better with the players and enhance their development. More than anything, Bielema would be helped by the emergence of a quarterback in what shapes up a critical season in his career. Don't bet against the smart, hard-working Bielema getting the Badgers back on track.

8. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Cut him, and "Fitz" bleeds purple. And Fitzgerald's coaching ability quickly is catching up to his energy and enthusiasm for his alma mater. At age 34, the best is still yet to come for Fitzgerald. Each season in Evanston, Fitzgerald has improved the Wildcats' record, from 4-8 to 6-6 to last season's 9-4. The key question: Can Northwestern keep Fitzgerald?

9. Danny Hope, Purdue
No one will outhustle Hope, who is one of the most positive and enthusiastic people you'll meet. Those traits help make him one of America's most underrated recruiters. Hope was 35-22 in six seasons as coach at Eastern Kentucky. Watch his star rise.

10. Tim Brewster, Minnesota
Brewster has been a 1,000-watt charge of energy into a program that was growing stale. And from all indications, Brewster's recruiting hustle has improved the talent base. His cause is further buoyed by the christening of a new stadium. Brewster's Gophers teams have featured strong offenses. But it will be his ability to craft a decent defense that will determine his fortunes in the Twin Cities.

11. Bill Lynch, Indiana
He has one of the most extensive résumés in the Big Ten, having also been head coach at Ball State and DePauw. The problem? Lynch hasn't had much success, save for an 8-2 mark in 2004 at DePauw. Lynch went 37-53 at Ball State (1995-2002) and is 10-15 in two seasons in Bloomington. He failed to build on the momentum of a bowl trip following the 2007 season, going 3-9 last season. And things could be tough this fall, too.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.


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