Leaving in the lurch: Big Ten coaches

May, 23, 2012
5/23/12
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Most Big Ten coaches label their jobs with a capital D for destination. When a head coach arrives on a Big Ten campus, he usually isn't looking for his next stop. Big Ten fans take pride in this.

The league has been largely immune from the wandering-eye coaches who leave programs at inopportune times for the next big thing. Even the Big Ten programs that could be classified as stepping stones haven't been left in the lurch very often in recent years. While it's not shocking that a Big Ten coach hasn't jumped to a different college job, it's a bit of a surprise that the NFL hasn't plucked one away.

[+] EnlargeTressel
Icon SMIJim Tressel resigned after his involvement in the Ohio State tattoo/memorabilia scandal.
The last Big Ten coach to voluntarily leave his team at a less-than ideal time was Nick Saban, who ditched Michigan State for LSU on Nov. 30, 1999. Saban had led the Spartans to a 9-2 record, a No. 10 national ranking and berth in the Florida Citrus Bowl. Although then-Michigan State athletic director Clarence Underwood praised Saban for putting the program "back on solid ground," Saban's departure put the school in a tough situation. Less than a week after Saban's departure, Michigan State promoted longtime assistant Bobby Williams to head coach, a decision that didn't turn out well.

After flirting with several bigger-name programs during his time at Northwestern, Gary Barnett finally left to take the Colorado job on Jan. 20, 1999, just weeks before national signing day. Although Northwestern immediately named Barnett's replacement, Randy Walker, the drawn-out saga wasn't much fun, given what Barnett had meant to the school.

But since Saban and Barnett, the Big Ten hasn't had any coaches voluntarily leave at bad times. There have been some midseason firings (Tim Brewster at Minnesota, Williams at Michigan State) and some late firings (Rich Rodriguez at Michigan, Glen Mason at Minnesota), but in those cases the schools, not the coaches, made decisions that put themselves in tough situations.

The most recent instances of coaches leaving Big Ten programs in tough spots involved two men who certainly didn't walk away on their own terms.

After months of scrutiny stemming from the tattoo/memorabilia scandal and his attempted cover-up, Jim Tressel resigned his post as Ohio State's coach on Memorial Day of 2011. Tressel stepped down just three months before the season and with spring practice all wrapped up. Ohio State knew it would be without Tressel for the first five games of the 2011 season, but his resignation under pressure left the program scrambling.

The school named 37-year-old assistant Luke Fickell, who had never been a head coach before, to the top job. After six consecutive seasons of Big Ten titles (won or shared), Ohio State went 6-7 under Fickell last fall, its first losing season since 1988 and its first seven-loss season since 1897. Ouch.

But the ugliest and most untimely departure was yet to come. Five days after former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child sex abuse charges, Penn State's board of trustees voted to fire longtime coach Joe Paterno. The date: Nov. 9. Penn State was 8-1 at the time, and 11 days earlier Paterno had recorded his 409th coaching victory, moving him past Eddie Robinson for the most wins in college football history. Hours before the board's decision, Paterno had announced he would retire following the season, his 46th as head coach. Instead, he was informed via telephone that his tenure was over, which triggered a backlash from Penn State students and fans.

The school promoted longtime assistant Tom Bradley to interim head coach. Bradley led the team during a hellish eight weeks that featured, among other things: a 1-3 record that knocked Penn State out of the Big Ten race; snubs by several bowl games who didn't want to deal with a p.r. nightmare; the announcement that Paterno had been diagnosed with lung cancer; a locker-room fight that left starting quarterback Matthew McGloin concussed and unable to play in the bowl; and a seemingly rudderless coaching search that took too long and put Bradley in an awkward situation.

In six months, two iconic Big Ten programs lost incredibly successful coaches under extremely messy circumstances.

A Big Ten coach bolting for an NFL job suddenly doesn't sound so bad.

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