MAC-to-Big Ten coaching pipeline remains viable, despite changing landscape

Ohio State will host coach P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan on Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Junfu Han/MLive Media Group/Kalamazoo Gazette/AP Images

P.J. Fleck, the 34-year-old coach in his third season at Western Michigan, faces a task this week that allows for no alternative to brutal honesty.

"We needed another money game," Fleck said Monday, turning his attention to Ohio State on the heels of a win against Murray State.

The Buckeyes host WMU Saturday at Ohio Stadium, a week after fellow Mid-American Conference member Northern Illinois threw a scare into the nation's No. 1-ranked team.

Not only is Western Michigan likely to face an extra-motivated Ohio State, but Fleck's team already swallowed its 2015 dose of a Big Ten powerhouse, losing 37-24 to Michigan State in Week 1.

Problem is, the opener was played in Kalamazoo, not East Lansing, so it provided only a small check for the Broncos.

"At the end of the day," Fleck said, "if that's we need to do, we need to go do it."

No team in the Big Ten West plays the Buckeyes and the Spartans this year. But Western Michigan does -- and in the third season of a rebuilding project, no less, after the Broncos went from 1-11 in Fleck's first year to 8-5 in 2014.

Such is life in the MAC, a reality so different from the Big Ten in this era of autonomy and the College Football Playoff, with the chasm growing between the Power 5 and Group of 5, that the smaller league's coaching pipeline to the big time appears in danger of closing.

The Big Ten and MAC complete their 12-game schedule with five matchups Saturday. In addition to the aforementioned Western Michigan challenge, Central Michigan plays at Michigan State, Ball State visits Northwestern, Minnesota hosts Ohio and Bowling Green visits Purdue.

The Big Ten, 6-1 this year against the MAC, has experienced varied success in tapping the league for head coaches. There is, of course, Urban Meyer, formerly of Bowling Green, who came to Ohio State as coaching royalty after stops at Florida and Utah.

More relevant are recent Big Ten hires from the MAC -- Jerry Kill at Minnesota in 2011, recently fired Tim Beckman at Illinois in 2012 and Darrell Hazell at Purdue in 2013.

Since, the Big Ten has turned elsewhere, looking to the SEC for James Franklin at Penn State in 2014, the NFL for Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, the ACC for Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and the Pac-12 for Mike Riley at Nebraska.

Is the Big Ten moving away from using the MAC as a training ground for its coaches? Yes. Should it? That answer is more murky.

In addition to the Big Ten's four MAC coaching alums, a list that includes Illinois' interim coach, Bill Cubit, the careers of Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, Nick Saban at Alabama, Gary Pinkel at Missouri, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Al Golden at Miami, Steve Addazio at Boston College, Dave Doeren at NC State, Dave Clawson at Wake Forest and New Mexico State's Doug Martin are rooted in the MAC.

Impressive, and it speaks to the league's continued relevancy, even as the sport's rich get richer.

To ignore the current crop of MAC coaches is likely an error.

"Everybody's got the mindset [that] we're willing to take on bigger, better-resourced programs," Ball State coach Pete Lembo said, "go anywhere and play anybody, anytime. It's a proving ground, and it's a great opportunity for us."

The Illinois job is already open after this season. At least one more vacancy in the Big Ten is likely, with three as a reasonable expectation.

Kent State coach Paul Haynes, a former assistant at Ohio State and Michigan, said he believes a jump to the Big Ten has grown more difficult with the league's development and expansion.

Because of Beckman's flameout in Champaign and the general movement of the sport, administrations may overlook MAC candidates.

They'd be wise to consider a few. Atop the list sit Dino Babers, 54, of Bowling Green and Rod Carey, 44, of NIU. Youngsters Fleck and Matt Campbell, 35, of Toledo, are also rising in the ranks.

Fleck, as he readies to visit the Horseshoe, said he recognizes the disadvantages of the Western Michigan schedule.

"But it's opportunistic, he said, "if you continue to build this thing the right way and build it to sustain over the long haul."

For the Big Ten and MAC, opportunity still knocks both ways.