Big Ten: Barry Alavarez

We're a 24/7/365 football blog around here, but it's impossible to not get caught up in the excitement of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

But while football will have its own, smaller version of March Madness with the College Football Playoff this season, we don't want to wait that long. Why let the basketball guys have all the fun when we can hold our own tournament?

In past years, we did this with the top players and championship teams of the past 15 years. This time around, we're going to pit the best coaches in Big Ten history against one another in a winner-take-all bracket.

The Big Ten has an incredible roster of accomplished coaches in its lore. (And, yes, we're including all current Big Ten member schools, regardless of how long they've been in the league. We're inclusive here. Deal with it.). Narrowing the field to our customary eight was difficult, if not downright unthinkable. So we've expanded the bracket to 12 this time, with the top four seeds getting byes and the others trying to play their way in. Be on standby, Dayton.

We're looking for coaches who have won Big Ten titles and national championships, those who stuck around long enough to pile up Hall of Fame résumés and build unmistakable legacies. No current coaches are involved, as we'll let them finish their careers before we start stacking them up against the all-timers.

The tournament will kick off Thursday with the first couple of matchups. But first, here is a look at the entire field, in alphabetical order:
  • Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin: Alvarez revived the Badgers program during his 16 years at the helm in Madison, compiling 118 wins. He also earned three Rose Bowl victories and is the only league coach to ever win back-to-back Rose Bowls. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
  • Bernie Bierman, Minnesota: The Gophers claimed five national titles under Bierman (1934, 1935, 1936, 1940 and 1941) and won seven Big Ten championships from 1932-41. He went 93-35-6 at Minnesota and also won a national title as a player with the Gophers.
  • Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State: Daugherty coached the Spartans from 1954 to 1972 and led them to back-to-back national titles in 1965 and 1966. The rest of his tenure didn't go as well, but Daugherty is tied for the sixth-most Big Ten wins ever.
  • Hayden Fry, Iowa: The Hawkeyes hadn't had a winning season in 17 years before Fry arrived before the 1979 season. He proceeded to go 143-89-6 in Iowa City, claiming three Big Ten titles. His 98 Big Ten wins are fourth-most ever.
  • Woody Hayes, Ohio State: Few coaches are as synonymous with a school as Hayes is with Ohio State. He won 205 games, the most of any coach while a member of the Big Ten, and a record 152 league games. Hayes also won 13 Big Ten championships, tying him for the most all time, and five national titles (1954, 1957, 1961, 1968 and 1970).
  • Tom Osborne, Nebraska: There aren't many coaches more beloved and universally respected than Osborne, who went 255-49-3 while leading the Huskers to three national titles in a four-year span (1994, 1995 and 1997). How about this: His teams never won fewer than nine games in a season, and this was before 12-, 13- and even 14-game seasons became the norm.
  • Joe Paterno, Penn State: JoePa won a record 409 games, plus two national championships (1982, 1986) and four other undefeated seasons. He won all four major bowl games -- the Rose, Orange, Fiesta and Sugar -- and was the AFCA national coach of the year five times. His career ended in scandal and a huge chunk of his wins were vacated by the NCAA.
  • Bo Schembechler, Michigan: Bo and Woody. Woody and Bo. Two coaches really defined the Big Ten for decades, and Schembechler was one of them. He is tied with Hayes for the most Big Ten titles ever (13) and his 143 Big Ten victories are the second-most all time. Schembechler has the highest conference winning percentage (.850) of any coach who competed in the Big Ten for at least 10 years. But he never won a national title.
  • Amos Alonzo Stagg, Chicago: Listen up, youngsters. The University of Chicago was a charter member of the Big Ten, and Stagg was its sports titan. He won 199 games, including 116 Big Ten victories, as well as two national championships (1905, 1913). Stagg is credited with innovating many plays and formations used in modern football, and he was also named to the Basketball Hall of Fame for his contributions to that sport.
  • Jim Tressel, Ohio State: Tressel coached exactly 10 years in the Big Ten before he was forced to resign, but what a decade it was. He has the second-highest winning percentage both overall and in league play for coaches who spent at least 10 years inside the conference, and he won or shared seven league titles (though the 2010 co-championship was later vacated). Tressel is the last Big Ten coach to win a national title, in 2002.
  • Fielding Yost, Michigan: The Wolverines won six national titles under Yost (1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1918 and 1923) and his 10 Big Ten titles trails only Hayes and Schembechler. His career winning percentage of .888 while a Big Ten head coach is the best all time among those who coached at least a decade in the league.
  • Bob Zuppke, Illinois: He was the Illini head coach from 1913 to 1941 and won four national titles (1914, 1919, 1923, and 1927). Zuppke is credited for inventing the huddle, which is kind of a big deal, and he also coached the legendary Red Grange. He is tied with Daugherty for the sixth-most Big Ten wins of all time, and he captured seven Big Ten titles.

As you can see, this is an impressive field. We couldn't even include all the amazing coaches from history, including Michigan's Fritz Crisler, Nebraska's Bob Devaney or Minnesota's Henry Williams, to name just a few. (Sorry, Huskers fans, but while Osborne has a tenuous connection to the Big Ten as the athletic director who ushered the school into the league, Devaney's great career had no Big Ten ties. Don't worry. You can simply throw all your considerable voting power behind Osborne if you desire.)

Stay tuned for the opening matchups. "The ball is tipped ..."
Colleague Bruce Feldman recently took a look at which coaches in the past 25 years have done the best job of elevating their programs to new heights.

We're not talking about going from five wins to seven wins once or twice. Most of the 10 coaches on Feldman's list orchestrated true transformations. They took so-so programs and made them BCS bowl contenders. They took historical failures and made them respectable.

Two former Big Ten coaches made Feldman's list:
3. Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin: The former Nebraska linebacker, who had spent years on the Iowa and Notre Dame staffs, inherited a listless Badgers program. They went 1-10 in his debut season in 1990, but he sparked them to a Rose Bowl and a top-five finish in his fourth season. He would take the Badgers to two more Rose Bowls and step down after a 10-win season in 2005. Now, with Alvarez as the AD, his protégé Bret Bielema has gone 49-16 and been in the top 25 in four of his five seasons.
9. Gary Barnett, Northwestern: The former Missouri Tigers wide receiver's first college head coaching job was taking over a dismal NU program that hadn't been to a bowl game in almost 50 years, and had long been at the bottom of the Big Ten. The Wildcats won eight games in his first three seasons before Barnett produced a shocking 10-2 season (8-0 in Big Ten play), leading the Cats on a storybook ride to Pasadena. Barnett followed that up with a tie for the league title and another top-15 finish. After two mediocre seasons, Barnett left for Colorado, and since then NU has gone on to have better success than the coach did in Big 12 country. Under Randy Walker, Northwestern won a share of the Big Ten title in 2000, and in recent years, former Wildcats star Pat Fitzgerald has taken his team to bowl games in three straight seasons.

Two excellent choices here.

Alvarez is the reason Wisconsin football can be called nationally relevant. He elevated the program to historic heights in the 1990s, and while Wisconsin went 11 years without a Big Ten title until winning one last season, the Badgers still were one of the more consistent teams in college football between 2000-09. I really think Wisconsin has an opportunity to become a true national powerhouse, especially if Ohio State backslides after its scandal. While Bielema deserves a lot of credit for Wisconsin's surge the past two seasons, he inherited a program on very solid footing from Alvarez.

Barnett's breakthrough at Northwestern in 1995 was one of the biggest and most surprising stories in recent college football history. He took the worst of the worst and elevated it all the way to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance. After decades of futility, Northwestern won back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1995 and 1996. Although the program dipped late in Barnett's tenure, Walker stabilized things and Fitzgerald has taken the team up a notch during his five years as coach.

Another good choice for Feldman's list would be former Purdue coach Joe Tiller. Purdue had just one winning season and no bowl appearances from 1984-96, before Tiller led the Boilers to bowls in 10 of his first 11 seasons as coach. He guided Purdue to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance in 2000, and his teams qualified for 10 of the 15 bowl games in team history. Tiller also helped make Purdue a destination for NFL-caliber quarterbacks.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema often says he'd rather deal with high expectations than low expectations or, even worse, no expectations. 

 
  AP Photo/David Banks
  Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema is OK with high expectations.
After Bielema's wins total has dropped in each of the last two seasons -- from 12 to 9 to 7 -- the coach knows the demand for improvement around the Badgers program is growing louder. 

"The good news is, at Wisconsin, 7-6 is a disappointment," he said Tuesday.

Just a year removed from back-to-back January bowl appearances, Bielema has been mentioned by some as a coach on the hot seat. Now let me be clear: I don't think Bielema is in danger of losing his job. He hasn't had a losing season like Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, Virginia's Al Groh or even Michigan's Rich Rodriguez, who also will get time to build his program.

And as disappointing as Wisconsin looked last fall, the Badgers were three plays away from winning three more games (Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State). 

"You can't change people's opinions," said Bielema, whose contract runs through Jan 31, 2014. "The only thing you can do is change what the results are. As a head coach, to have a 12-1 and a 9-4 and a 7-6 record, you're going to a bowl game every year, but you also understand that because you're at Wisconsin, our standards are at the highest level possible. That's where I want them to be.

"I don't feel anything from the outside world. I just know what I want to accomplish, and sometimes that's better."

Bielema also knows exactly what his boss expects. Unlike some head coaches and athletic directors, who essentially operate in different worlds, Bielema and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez have walked the same path.

Alvarez tabbed Bielema as his successor when he retired from coaching the Badgers, and the two remain very close. They talk daily and take a walk together every Thursday during the season, discussing everything from football to current events.

"He lets you do your job," Bielema said. "He'll give you critique and analysis and give input to things that he sees, but he doesn't necessarily say, 'Hey, do this.' It's more of, 'Here's something I see. Food for thought.'

"A lot of times I'll go to him for advice, proactively, probably 95 percent of the time. Very seldom do we have reactive conversations. It's a little bit unique to the world of college football."  

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