This week on the blog we're pitting the Big Ten's two divisions against one another in a series of topics and debating who comes out on top. Next on the list is the offseason coaching changes.
Michigan landed its big fish in Jim Harbaugh this January. Before that, Wisconsin brought back one of its own alumni in Paul Chryst and Nebraska surprised many by hiring Mike Riley in early December. So, which side of the league added more value to its division with the moves it made this winter?
Take 1: Mitch Sherman
If value is measured solely in wins, the addition of Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and Nebraska’s Mike Riley outweighs Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.
Though the Wolverines, with 12 wins over the past two years -- Wisconsin is at 20 and Nebraska 18 over the same span -- can expect a more dramatic rise in the short term, even Harbaugh and Michigan can’t exceed the growth of two major programs over the course of several seasons.
But we all know college football is about more than wins. Value is measured on multiple levels. Ticket sales at Michigan are expected to reach an eight-year high in 2016.
Harbaugh’s Q Rating is through the roof. The Wolverines, a punch line six months ago, suddenly matter again. Just listen to the conversation among typical fans of the game who are disconnected to the Huskers, Badgers and Wolverines; Harbaugh resonates more than Chryst and Riley combined -- and every other new coach nationally.
He interests fans out West, where he coached Stanford and the 49ers, and on the East Coast, where his brother coaches the Ravens. Harbaugh draws attention for his every move. You didn’t see headlines about Chryst’s spring vacation or Riley’s strange breakfast combinations.
The new coaches at Wisconsin and Nebraska, while exceedingly likeable and popular among two fan bases notable on a national level, will likely never move the meter like Harbaugh. The Michigan coaching hire, at the moment, looks brilliant for that reason, which, of course, comes with the potential to succeed or fail in spectacular fashion.
Take 2: Dan Murphy
True, Mitch, Harbaugh was a major addition to the conference. Just sticking on the field, his arrival at Michigan gives that division the potential to the best in college football in the next few years. The West is already behind, but think how much worse it could have been if the two traditional powerhouses on that side of the league didn’t make smart hires.
Neither Chryst nor Riley inherited programs in need of a major overhaul when they took their new jobs this winter. Their new teams combined to win 20 games in 2014 and both remained in the hunt for a conference championship into November. The challenge at those two places (unlike in Michigan) will be earning their players’ trust and preventing a drop-off in production.
Harbaugh did a great job of rallying the troops this spring, but after a disappointing 5-7 season full of distractions they were eager to try anything different. Nebraska and Wisconsin players are used to doing things a certain way, a way that for the most part worked just fine. Convincing them to change with a new staff is tricky. It will take coaches who are good cultural fits at each school, and both places appear to have found that.
Riley is the anti-Pelini. He has a friendly, folksy charm that fits in Nebraska and is stuffed with enough positive energy to plow through any doubt he might face if the team dips below expectations. Chryst is a familiar face for the Badgers. He recruited many of the upperclassmen as an offensive coordinator before leaving for Pitt, and he has lived the majority of his life in Madison.
Both athletic departments positioned themselves well to wriggle out of a potentially ugly setback by making smart choices. That’s why I believe the West Division had a stronger spin on the coaching carousel this offseason, even if it didn’t grab quite as many headlines.