Big Ten Football Coach Rankings Following Illinois’ Hiring Of Lovie Smith

    The Big Ten head football coach rankings have shifted dramatically in the wake of Illinois hiring Lovie Smith as the program's new head man.

    September 24, 2016

    When ranking the best Big Ten head football coaches, where does new Illinois head man Lovie Smith fall on the pecking list?

    So what did Illinois just do?

    Nothing against Bill Cubit – a likable guy and a solid football coach – but bringing in Lovie Smith is more than just an upgrade, it’s a total gamechanger for a nothing of a football program nationally, while changing up the Big Ten landscape of coaches.

    Start with the basics – Lovie Smith, as a football coach, is already one of the best in the Big Ten.

    If Smith didn’t take this job, no one would’ve blinked if this time next year he was named the new head coach of the San Diego Chargers or Tennessee Titans. He’s a talented professional football head coach who got pushed out of Tampa Bay just when things were on the upswing. Now Illinois has a head coach who, arguably, is better than several current NFL head men, and not to mention far more accomplished.

    Does hiring Smith mean Illinois is playing for the Big Ten championship in 2016? Almost certainly not. What it does mean is that the program is immediately more attractive in terms of recruiting, attention, and being competitive on the field each and every week.

    With that in mind, if you had a draft of all the Big Ten head coaches right now, with the idea of who you’d want for the next five years, and maybe longer, who would you take? Where does Lovie fall in the mix of the other head men, even though he’s new to the college football head coaching game?

    Drafting all the B1G head coaches …

    1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

    Consider this: he’s only going to be 52 years old at the start of the season.

    As others have recently proven, not just anyone can win at a high level at Florida. And even though Ohio State all but runs itself, going 50-4 over four seasons with three Big Ten title appearances and a national title is a better start than any Buckeye fan could’ve reasonably have asked for.

    When 12-1 and a Fiesta Bowl win is a massive disappointment of a season, you’re doing something right.

    For all the big things Jim Harbaugh has done since taking over at Michigan, Ohio State is still recruiting as well or better, and still owns the upper hand. So while it’s a forgone conclusion that Michigan will win Big Ten titles and probably a national championship if Harbaugh continues to be Harbaugh, it hasn’t happened yet.

    As long as Meyer remains motivated and interested, Ohio State is going to be one of the few programs that can enter each and every season thinking national title-or-bust.

    2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

    You could make the case that he’d be the No. 1 overall draft pick of Coaches You’d Want To Build Around in any conference or any league – including the NFL – however he doesn’t have the national championships of Urban Meyer.

    As great as he was at Stanford, Harbaugh didn’t win the Pac-12 title – including his phenomenal 12-1, Orange Bowl-winning 2010 season – nor did he didn’t win the Big Ten title in his first year. Pioneer championships with San Diego are nice, but the college resume isn’t yet there when compared to Meyer’s.

    But, unlike Meyer, Harbaugh produced in the big leagues, coming within a broken up pass of winning a Super Bowl. Three consecutive NFC Championship appearances doesn’t trump three national titles, but it beats just about everything else.

    And, of course, there’s all Harbaugh brings to the table as a master recruiter, pitchman, and figurehead for Michigan – it’s the IT program right now because of all he’s doing.

    But he’s still in the same division as Urban and …

    3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

    In terms of talent and success, there’s no question that Dantonio is among the elite of the college football elite. His two Big Ten championships in the last three seasons, and three in the last six, prove as much. He might not be as flashy as Jim Harbaugh, and he might not have the high-end resume of Urban Meyer, but his 105-50 career record is tremendous. Michigan State’s success over the last six seasons – with 11 wins or more in five of them – has been nothing short of impressive.

    Dantonio will be 60 years old when the season starts, meaning he still has plenty of big years left. Even in the same division as Urban and Harbaugh, Michigan State isn’t going anywhere for the time being.

    4. James Franklin, Penn State

    Franklin is easily the toughest call on the list. On the one hand, he succeeded at Vanderbilt; on the other, he’s been underwhelming at Penn State. Even so, he was thrown into a nasty situation – remember, Penn State was still under major sanctions and couldn’t go bowling when he first started – but he inherited an NFL quarterback and a killer defense and only went 7-6 over each of his first two seasons. However, he’s only 44, and boasts all the energy in the world. Franklin is a phenomenal recruiter, has the perfect personality for the job, and no matter how mediocre his 38-27 career record may look, he’s still 5-for-5 in taking his teams to bowls.

    5. Lovie Smith, Illinois

    This will be fun to watch in terms of schemes and what Smith can bring on a weekly basis. Can he tweak his defense just a bit? Can he relate to kids instead of grown men? Absolutely – but he must prove that he can master all the intricate details of running a college program that breed success.

    And then there’s the problem no one’s really talking about in the afterglow of the amazing hire – does he still want another shot in the NFL?

    Turning 58 this May, Smith still young enough to carve out a legacy at Illinois over the next several years, but he’s just old enough to know that if he wants back in The Show, he’ll only get one more chance. Illinois fans won’t care – to a point – if he takes off after three successful years should he point the program in the right direction. If he rocks in Champaign, he’ll be on every short list the next time a pro gig opens up.

    6. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

    WHAT?! The guy who just took Iowa to the Rose Bowl is this far down in the Big Ten Coaches Draft?! Yeah, mainly because he’s going to turn 61 this year – remember, part of the idea behind this draft is taking the coach who can grow your program – but he’s still as good as ever.

    Of course there’s no denying Ferentz’s legacy with Iowa, but he’s also had 17 years with the program – it might have topped out with the inability to stop Michigan State on that one final drive. He’s one of the most talented head coaches in college football, but he also comes with a price tag of over $4 million a year.

    7. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

    The guy has gone 70-56 at Northwestern and, unlike Gary Barnett and Randy Walker, he won a bowl game.

    He might not be the superstar prospect many considered him to be a few years ago, but, again – 70-56 at Northwestern over his 10 years with two 10-win seasons in the last four is nothing to sneeze at. While he bleeds purple for his alma mater, a big question remains – what could the guy with his talent and his energy do if he didn’t have all the barriers associated with being at Northwestern? What if he could recruit to a bigger area and base? Only 41, he has a long, long coaching life ahead of him.

    8. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin

    It was sort of dismissed, but Wisconsin came up with a 10-3 season in Chryst’s first year – with one loss coming to Alabama and the other two in total turnover-filled gags against Iowa and Northwestern. If the Badgers hadn’t given the ball away late around the goal line against the Hawkeyes, they would’ve played Michigan State for the Big Ten title.

    Chryst only went 19-19 at Pitt, but he’s a top-shelf offensive coach who’s at the exact right job. Would he be the ideal head coach for some other Big Ten school? Probably not, but the former UW quarterback should keep the success going in Madison.

    9. D.J. Durkin, Maryland

    Flip a coin between Durkin and Chris Ash for this spot. Durkin is a little younger than Ash – for good and bad – just turning 38 in January, but Maryland is buying into the stock early. He turned into a high-riser while working as the Florida defensive coordinator for a few years, and even leading the way to a bowl win in 2014 after Will Muschamp was let go. Durkin had his one year guiding the Michigan defense under Jim Harbaugh, and now he’s primed to make Maryland a defensive monster.

    10. Tracy Claeys, Minnesota

    Sort of like Jerry Kill, Claeys has been known in the circles as the coach’s coach who just needed a chance. Kill was a tremendous head man, but Claeys was a massive part of the success at Northern Illinois and was put in a tough situation at Minnesota once Kill’s health became an issue. A defensive coach by nature, he knows how to take average talents and get the most out of them – but now he has to prove he can get the job done. Don’t get into a twist over the 2-4 record to start after taking over the full-time gig – the Gophers lost to Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State and, most painfully, Michigan.

    11. Chris Ash, Rutgers

    A star on the rise, he’s an elite defensive coach who has the chance to make the Rutgers program all his. His defenses are fantastic against the run and now he should give the program more of an identity. Then again, he’s still an unknown as a head coach. Just 42 when the season starts, he’ll get more than a few chances and at least one whole recruiting cycle.

    12. Kevin Wilson, Indiana

    This might not seem all that fair considering he just took Indiana to a bowl game and has been able to make an impossible situation competitive, but he’s going into his sixth year with a 20-41 record. Could he rock at another program that doesn’t have the lack of history like Indiana? Maybe, but in today’s day and age, getting five years to make a program work is incredibly fortunate. Indiana is set with the course, though, giving Wilson an extension going through 2021.

    13. Mike Riley, Nebraska

    This might be a case of ageism if it wasn’t for his record over the last several years. Riley is turning a youthful 63 this summer, and he has some good pieces in place this year, but is he the head coach you want to build around for the next five years? Here’s the bigger issue – he has just two winning seasons in his last six years.

    Among the most likeable of coaches, his team never quit on him last year and came up big in the bowl game. But, again, this is about who you’d hire for the future of the program, and there are better options in the Big Ten.

    14. Darrell Hazell, Purdue

    A fantastic assistant coach who paid his dues, Hazell had one amazing season at Kent State that hasn’t translated into any sort of success at Purdue. It’s a nearly impossible situation with little to no recruiting base to work with, but he’s just 6-30 in his three seasons with just two Big Ten wins. Three of the six victories came against FCS teams. It would be interesting to see what he could do in a better situation with a real chance to recruit, but it’s been three years. He needs a huge Year Four.

    MORE: Lovie Smith Hire Makes Illinois Football Matter


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