- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. Today, we take a look at how recent coaching hires in the league have reversed the SEC brain drain.
When Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in December 2012, it sent shock waves throughout the Big Ten.
Why would a guy who had led his program to three straight Rose Bowls and Big Ten titles, one who was a Midwesterner through and through, decide to bolt for a mid-level SEC program? And if the Big Ten couldn't keep a guy like that from heading south, did it have any hope of keeping its best coaches around?
Bielema's exit wasn't the only example of coaching talent bred in the Midwest flocking to the SEC, after all. Nick Saban famously left Michigan State for LSU back in the day. Michigan man Les Miles coaches LSU. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is a Purdue grad. Tennessee's Butch Jones is a Michigan native, while Georgia's Mark Richt was born in Omaha, Neb.
But offseason hires in the Big Ten this winter should alleviate fears that the league will always suffer from an SEC brain drain. Conference teams looked south to fill several high-profile openings:
Penn State hired James Franklin (and just about all of his staff) away from Vanderbilt. Sure, Vandy is no powerhouse program, but the Commodores reportedly offered him a 10-year, $50 million contract to stay in Nashville.
Michigan lured Doug Nussmeier away from Saban and Alabama and hired him as the Wolverines' new offensive coordinator. While there were some rumblings that Saban wasn't exactly sorry to see Nussmeier go, the Tide did average 38.2 points per game last season.
In a bit of sweet irony, Ohio State swiped Bielema's Arkansas defensive coordinator, Chris Ash, naming him the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach.
It makes sense that Big Ten schools with important vacancies would turn their attention to the SEC. If you can't beat 'em, become 'em, after all. But those in charge of the hiring say that poaching the SEC wasn't really at the forefront of their minds.
"We were trying to get the very best person who fit within how Penn State is and what we do who was available," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "It just so happens that this great coach had a great experience in the SEC. If you just look at the football piece of it, having the success that he had in the SEC -- obviously the most successful conference over the past eight or nine years perhaps if you look at national championships -- that was a very strong positive."
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon noted that Nussmeier was born in Oregon and has coached at Washington and Michigan State, while only spending the past two years in the SEC with Saban.
"To me, it’s more coincidental than anything that’s more strategic," Brandon said of the recent Big Ten hires. "You're going to see Big Ten coaches moving around and the same for coaches from other conferences. I don’t think where they're from is as relevant as how we view their talent and experience and how well prepared they are to come in and help us at Michigan."
Still, it's good for the league and its image that high-profile coaches are willing to leave the bright lights of the SEC and take their talents to the Midwest for essentially the same positions. Ash accepted a small pay cut to abandon Bielema's ship, going from a sole coordinator's role to a job where he is officially, at least, sharing coordinator duties. Ash, tellingly, was born in Iowa and spent most of his career coaching in that state and Wisconsin before going to Dixie.
"He's kind of a Midwest guy," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "He has Midwest values. He's coming home, in my opinion."
And maybe that's the best selling point and best hope for the future of the Big Ten. With so many coaches having deep ties to the region, perhaps the league can bring some of them back home. It sure worked for Ohio State when native son Urban Meyer became available. Penn State scooped up self-described "Pennsylvania boy" Franklin. Both were considered stars in the SEC.
"If you’re not competing for great coaching talent, it’s going to be very hard to win the Big Ten title, it’s going to be very hard to appear in Rose Bowls, and it’s going to be very hard to compete for national championships," Brandon said.
Big Ten teams can do all of those things by first making sure they clot the Midwest brain drain.
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