- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was a victim of his own success when it came to winning Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
Tressel never claimed the award despite dominating the league during most of his Buckeyes tenure. If Tressel had a down year midway through his run at Ohio State, only to get the team back to a league title or a BCS bowl the following year, he would have had a better chance.
In many ways, the Big Ten Coach of the Year award is about what happened the previous season or the previous offseason rather than the actual season for which the honor is presented. Recent history also shows first-year coaches who bolster programs have a good chance for the award.
And that's why Ohio State coach Urban Meyer might never win it.
Penn State's Bill O'Brien on Tuesday swept the Big Ten Coach of the Year honors -- the Hayes-Schembechler award (voted by the coaches) and the Dave McClain award (voted by the media). O'Brien guided Penn State to an 8-4 record in his first season.
He beat out another first-year Big Ten coach, Meyer, who went 12-0 in his first season in Columbus, including a road win against O'Brien's Lions. Buckeye fans were hopeful Meyer would be the first Ohio State boss to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors since Meyer's mentor Earle Bruce got it in 1979.
O'Brien's selection stems primarily from the way he kept Penn State afloat after a turbulent summer that brought severe NCAA sanctions on the program, followed by the departures of several key players, including star running back Silas Redd. After an 0-2 start that had many writing off Penn State for the foreseeable future, O'Brien guided Penn State to wins in eight of its final 10 games (6-2 in Big Ten play).
Although Penn State actually won more games in the previous season -- the Lions' nine wins later were vacated -- O'Brien's work under such unusual circumstances made him a deserving candidate.
But it begs the question: Will Meyer ever win the award?
Unless Ohio State takes a surprising step backward during his tenure, probably not.
Let's look at the recent winners of the McClain Award.
Brady Hoke, Michigan, 2011
Backstory: Michigan went 7-6 in 2010 under coach Rich Rodriguez, who was fired following the Gator Bowl after a historically poor three-year run. Hoke came in from San Diego State and guided Michigan to an 11-1 record and a Sugar Bowl championship.
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State, 2010
Backstory: Michigan State tumbled to a 6-7 finish in 2009 and had a highly publicized off-field issue that decimated its roster for the Alamo Bowl. Dantonio guided the Spartans to an 11-1 regular-season mark in 2010.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa, 2009
Backstory: Iowa improved from 9-4 in 2008 to 11-2 in 2009 and won an Orange Bowl championship. The 2009 season truly showed the Hawkeyes had escaped a down stretch from 2005-07.
Joe Paterno, Penn State, 2008
Backstory: Penn State went from 9-4 the previous season to an 11-1 regular-season mark, a Big Ten title and a spot in the Rose Bowl (all wins later were vacated). The Lions were in the national title talk for much of the 2008 campaign.
Ron Zook, Illinois, 2007
Backstory: Illinois went from 2-10 in 2006 (4-19 in Zook's first two seasons) to a Rose Bowl berth in 2007. The Illini knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus.
Bret Bielema, Wisconsin 2006
Backstory: Bielema was in his first year as a head coach and led Wisconsin to an 11-1 record in the regular season (12-1 following a bowl victory).
Joe Paterno, Penn State, 2005
Backstory: The Lions had endured losing seasons in three of the previous four years, and calls for Paterno's retirement had increased. He then shocked everyone by guiding Penn State to a Big Ten championship and an Orange Bowl title (both later vacated).
See the pattern here?
The award either goes to first-year coaches or coaches who have bolstered a team's win total from the previous season.
Meyer did both at Ohio State, which went from 6-7 in 2011 to 12-0 this season. But O'Brien ultimately was judged to have overcome more challenges at Penn State.
Tressel's best chance for the award came in 2002, when Ohio State went from 7-5 in his first season to a 13-0 regular-season mark (and an eventual national title). But Iowa's Kirk Ferentz instead earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors for guiding Iowa to a share of the Big Ten title a year after going 7-5.
Ferentz topping Tressel in 2002 reminds me a lot of O'Brien topping Meyer this season.
Given the trajectory of Ohio State's program under Meyer and the standard set by the 2012 team, it seems unlikely the Buckeyes will take a big step backward -- so Meyer can then bring them forward and win the award -- any time soon.
Meyer has won two national titles and several top coaching honors, including the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year award in 2004. But don't be surprised if like Tressel, he'll go through his Ohio State career without ever being named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
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