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Despite coaching moves, stability still breeds success in new-age Big Ten

Last week, in the aftermath of the annual post-signing day movement that sent Wisconsin out to find a secondary coach and Nebraska in search of a defensive line coach, I considered it safe to take stock of the altered Big Ten landscape.

The results were nothing short of seismic, with six of seven programs in both the East Division and the West set to field coaching lineups this spring different than at last glance in the 2015 season.

It wasn’t over, though. Before the ink dried on your screen last week, Purdue assistant Taver Johnson was under consideration to coach the secondary at Texas. The position ultimately went to Clay Jennings from Arkansas.

Jennings, by the way, replaced Johnson two years ago with the Razorbacks. Sound like an odd coincidence? Really, it’s not in this era of coaching transiency.

This week, sure enough, brought another move, with the reported hiring of Michigan secondary coach Greg Jackson by the Dallas Cowboys. The Wolverines, while overcome by Harbaugh-mania and basking in the glow of a top recruiting class, lost their third coach since December.

It’s understandable, of course, because of the money and opportunities available.

D.J. Durkin left Michigan to take over at Maryland. John Baxter returned to his comfort zone at USC, and the Cowboys provide a chance for Jackson to get back to the NFL after his four seasons with Harbaugh in San Francisco.

But is it good for college football? Probably not.

Just look at the three most stable programs in the Big Ten, starting with Northwestern. Coach Pat Fitzgerald hasn’t hired an assistant coach since 2011, unmatched nationally. Four new coaches have worked for Fitzgerald since his 2006 promotion to head coach after the untimely death of Randy Walker.

“It’s critically important,” Fitzgerald said of the Wildcats’ stability. “Critically important. We’re always working our tails off to quality-control everything we do -- and to find a way to do it better the next time, no matter what it is. And we’re all on the same page. I don’t have to spend the time to teach new coaches what it’s like every year to be here.

“For us, we’re in a unique place. Early in my head coaching career, we had some turnover. That inconsistency makes it very different on the players. It makes it very different on recruiting.”

Northwestern equaled a school record with 10 wins in 2015.

At Michigan State, coach Mark Dantonio dealt with no change among the ranks this year -- just as he likes it. Despite replacing Pat Narduzzi a year ago, MSU is the model of stability in the Big Ten East. Coordinators Harlon Barnett and Dave Warner have worked for Dantonio since he got to East Lansing in 2007.

The Spartans won 12 games and a Big Ten title in 2015.

At Iowa, coach Kirk Ferentz enters his 18th spring practice next month. The Hawkeyes lost Jim Reid to Boston College -- a product of the Maryland-Michigan dominoes -- but promoted from within. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker, defensive line coach Reese Morgan and strength coach Chris Doyle combine for 50 years of experience under Ferentz in Iowa City.

Iowa won a school-record 12 games and earned a trip to its first Rose Bowl under Ferentz in 2015.

Continuity among their coaching staffs doesn’t win games for Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa. But in a league once known for its stability, the old way to construct a staff still has its merits.

The Big Ten coaching environment has changed dramatically since Fitzgerald and Dantonio came on board. The era of Brady Hoke at Michigan, Bo Pelini at Nebraska and Bill O’Brien at Penn State warped the lens through which coaches are viewed.

Nebraska coach Mike Riley, as of his 15th month on the job, still has not moved out of a hotel in downtown Lincoln. His decision to fire Hank Hughes after just one season with the Cornhuskers -- and it wasn’t a bad year for the defensive line -- illustrates the pressure today to constantly keep a staff finely tuned.

Conversely, Fitzgerald said he’s relieved to avoid the routine of having to introduce coaches to the human resources department or ensuring that new hires understand how to arrange a campus tour.

“If you’ve gotta make a change,” Fitzgerald said, “you’ve gotta make a change. I just feel so strongly in what we do and how we do things -- and always working to control -- that I think we’re always striving to get better. We’re doing it together and we're doing it better.”

That balancing act in the Big Ten has never posed a greater challenge.