NCF Nation: Thad Matta
It's no coincidence that a historic downturn in Big Ten football has coincided with a historic stretch of instability among the league's coaches.
The Big Ten coaches that year had combined for four national championships, five Rose Bowl titles and seven BCS bowl victories.
Since 2005, the Big Ten has gone through 17 coaching changes (not counting Nebraska's after the 2007 season). Seven teams have made multiple changes, including Penn State, which introduced new coaches earlier this month and in January 2011 after not doing so since February 1966. Last season, Indiana's Kevin Wilson was the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders division. He was hired in December 2010.
As the Big Ten invests more in its coaches, it also must ensure it has the right leaders in place for the long haul.
"If you believe strongly in the person you have," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told ESPN.com, "continuity is invaluable."
Few programs value continuity more than Iowa, which has had two coaches (Kirk Ferentz and Hayden Fry) since the 1978 season. Ferentz, who just completed his 15th year at the school, has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach. He's one of only four FBS coaches to start before the 2000 season (Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Troy's Larry Blakeney are the others).
Iowa awarded Ferentz with contract extensions both in 2009 and 2010, the latter a whopping 10-year deal with a salary of $3,675,000. The Big Ten hasn't set the pace nationally in coach compensation, but Iowa's pledge to Ferentz, often the subject of NFL rumors, jumps out. Ferentz's salary is frequently debated and scrutinized, especially when Iowa struggles like it did in 2012, but Barta's loyalty to him hasn't wavered. Iowa rebounded to win eight games last season.
"Because of that commitment, we made our statement," Barta said. "We're going to fight through this with the person in whom we have great confidence and trust. There's no guarantees in life, but because of Kirk's past performance, because of his long-standing approach at Iowa and his proven success, it was a risk I was willing to take. Knock on wood, so far it has worked out terrific."
Barta sees a similar approach from Big Ten schools like Michigan State, which won Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles in Mark Dantonio's seventh season as coach. Dantonio in 2011 received a contract designed to keep him a "Spartan for life," and his newest deal is expected to more than double his salary from $1.9 million in 2013.
"Continuity breeds success," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said, "and that's the hardest part sometimes on the institutional side, to keep that commitment, keep that contract whether it's an assistant or a head coach. … It requires a high level of confidence and a high level of trust."
“There have been similar long-term commitments at other Big Ten schools. Northwestern awarded coach Pat Fitzgerald a 10-year contract in 2011. When Indiana hired Wilson, it gave him a seven-year contract, longer than the initial deals new coaches typically receive. Athletic director Fred Glass links Indiana's lack of continuity -- the school has had five coaches since 1996 -- with its on-field struggles (only one bowl appearance since 1993) and knows the school needs a more patient approach.
The day of playing musical chairs with coaches, of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right.” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon
"Stability is an important thing in our league," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who applauded recent moves like MSU retaining Dantonio and Penn State hiring James Franklin. "The best example I'll use is men’s basketball where we're having tremendous success, in large part, because of the stability we have in a number of our programs. I think we need to get that in football."
While Big Ten football has struggled in recent years, the league is surging on the hardwood, in large part because of veteran coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo (19th year), Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (13th year) and Ohio State's Thad Matta (10th year). Six of the league's 12 basketball coaches have been in their jobs for at least five seasons.
Continuity doesn't guarantee success, but it often correlates. Barta has tried to create "an environment of longevity and long-term commitment" at Iowa, while also recognizing the pressure to win and, in some cases, the need to part ways with a coach.
"The day of playing musical chairs with coaches," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said, "of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right."
After several years of transition, the Big Ten hopes it has the right men at the top -- and the ability to keep them there.
"We all make the investments necessary in football," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said at the spring meetings.
Smith cited the higher salaries Big Ten programs like Ohio State and Michigan are now paying top assistant coaches, a push that accelerated at Ohio State when head coach Urban Meyer arrived. Still, the Big Ten on average pays assistants less than SEC programs. Many of the nation's highest-paid assistants are also in the ACC and Big 12.
But according to Smith, who oversees 36 varsity sports at Ohio State, money isn't holding back Big Ten football. He instead looks to the league's other major sport, men's basketball, as a road map for greater success on the gridiron.
While Big Ten football took a beating on the field and in public perception last fall, Big Ten basketball enjoyed the label of "nation's best conference" during the 2012-13 season.
"What we need in our football programs is really what we endured this past year in basketball," Smith said. "We had huge stability among our basketball coaches."
Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo just completed his 18th year at the helm in East Lansing, while Wisconsin's Bo Ryan just finished his 12th campaign. Other coaches like Ohio State's Thad Matta, Purdue's Matt Painter, Michigan's John Beilein and Indiana's Tom Crean are no longer newbies at their schools.
Big Ten football, meanwhile, has only one coach -- Iowa's Kirk Ferentz -- who has been in his post longer than six seasons.
The second part of the football equation, according to Smith, is "strategic, high-level recruiting."
It's undeniable that more Big Ten basketball programs consistently recruit at a nationally elite level than Big Ten football programs. In basketball, it's not just the usual suspects -- Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State -- but others (Illinois, Purdue) that can rise up.
"Part of that is recruiting in geographies where, frankly, the people are," Smith said. "We do not enjoy the environment that we had in the '70s and the '80s in Michigan and even some parts of Ohio or Pennsylvania or Illinois. Families aren't there. We've got to go to where they are."
College football and college basketball are different sports with different challenges in recruiting, but comparisons are always made, as Smith did this week. If Big Ten football can regain greater coaching stability and spread out its recruiting reach, more success should come.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Happy Friday to all. Big Ten media days are less than a week away and every team but Purdue opens preseason practice on Aug. 4, so gear up. The season's almost upon us. Here's the daily look around the league:
- College Football Hall of Fame enshrinement awaits Joe Paterno this weekend, and the coach spoke at a benefit dinner Thursday night in Johnstown, Pa. The 81-year-old is already in preseason mode: He's starting to ignore his grandkids, Sam Ross Jr. writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. As for his energy level? "I feel great," he said. "My health is fine. I can't throw the ball 40 yards any more, but I never could."
- Who ends up making those 40-yard throws this fall remains to be seen, but JoePa would prefer having one quarterback lead the offense, Cory Giger writes in The Altoona Mirror.
- Paterno also discussed the head-coaching potential of Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, the man most consider to be Paterno's choice as a successor, Mike Mastovich writes in The Tribune-Democrat.
- Former Minnesota running back Amir Pinnix sees brighter days ahead for the program, Sid Hartman writes in The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. "You have to stay optimistic, always," Pinnix said. "That's why I love coach [Tim] Brewster, because he's so optimistic. He uses motivation, and he can inspire you to go out and make things happen."
- A quick hoops detour: Ohio State has gone Greek again, as center Zisis Sarikopoulos -- say that 10 times fast -- is transferring from UAB, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports. Perhaps Thad Matta knows he won't have B.J. Mullens for long, and a team can never have enough 7-footers, right?
- Mike Barwis mania continues, as CBSsports.com's Dennis Dodd takes a look at Michigan's enterprising new strength coach. Wonder if Barwis' colleagues around the country are getting jealous yet.
- The Lansing State Journal's State of State series continues with a look at ticket prices. Michigan State hasn't raised them in football since 2005, and athletic director Mark Hollis wants to keep it that way, Joe Rexrode writes. But a hike seems inevitable, especially with football season-ticket sales projected to drop by 1,000 this season.
- Student season-ticket sales haven't suffered at MSU. They're at the highest level in 20 years, so the school is expanding the student section at Spartan Stadium by roughly 3,300 seats this season. Last fall, student season-ticket sales were the highest in 20 years. I mistakenly wrote last week that the section is in the southwest corner; it's in the southeast corner.
- Recent struggles aren't turning away Iowa fans. Games against Wisconsin and Iowa State are already sold out. Tickets went on sale Thursday.