A coaching change can be crippling. It also can be transformative.
Three Big Ten teams reached coaching crossroads in recent weeks, two by choice -- although most would agree Michigan had no choice but to part ways with Brady Hoke -- and one by surprise. Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin all faced key choices but ones which they had some degree of control, which cannot be understated.
There are so many elements where Big Ten teams lack control. They can't move their campuses to areas with higher concentrations of elite recruits. They can't, or more accurately, won't scrap a philosophy where multiple sports matter. They won't plummet academic standards for prospective athletes.
We're in the middle of the Big Ten's meat grinder bowl lineup, filled with virtual road games and Top 25 opponents. That isn't changing, either.
But Big Ten teams still control who they hire to lead their programs. Perhaps more important, they control how they go about pursuing new coaches: How aggressive they are, how much money they invest, how high they aim, whether or not they settle for candidates.
Big Ten fans have answers to these questions, and they should be pleased with the outcomes.
Michigan hit a grand slam in hiring Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines, striking out on the field but always possessing the ability to swing for the fences, boldly pursued and ultimately landed their top prize. Harbaugh is a proven winner at both the college and pro levels who galvanizes both recruits and fans. There are no sure things in college football -- Michigan's 11-year Big Ten title drought is living proof of that -- but Harbaugh is the right man at the right time to get the Wolverines on track again. He's an immediate upgrade.
Mike Riley and Paul Chryst aren't regarded as grand slams, at least not yet. But both are the types of hires to move their respective programs forward.
Riley has two primary qualities that should serve him well as Bo Pelini's replacement at Nebraska. First, there are no conduct concerns with him. Conduct matters to Nebraskans, and rightfully so. Pelini's post-firing rant to players made it clear that a toxic relationship with administrators played a bigger role than his team's big-game flops against Wisconsin, Ohio State and others. Riley gets along with everyone. There's no baggage.
Riley and his assistants also bring experience that should serve them well in Lincoln. Pelini's penchant for hiring or promoting younger coaches sparked criticism during his tenure. The grumbling didn't abate when Nebraska repeatedly allowed touchdowns on its opponents' first possession or made curious calls, like ditching Ameer Abdullah on the final two plays of a promising fourth-quarter drive in Saturday's National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC. Nebraska's shortcomings aren't all on the staff, but Riley provides a foundation of consistency and player development that should work at a program that has underachieved in the Big Ten.
Chryst didn't light it up in three years at Pittsburgh (19-19), but he brings several traits that Wisconsin sorely needs, chiefly a knack for developing quarterbacks. Everyone remembers what Russell Wilson did in 2011, Chryst's final year as Wisconsin's offensive coordinator. But Chryst's work with Wilson's predecessor, Scott Tolzien, stands out more. Unlike Wilson, Tolzien was nowhere near the finished product when he arrived at Wisconsin. Tolzien ended his career as an All-Big Ten selection.
If Chryst fosters similar improvement with veteran Joel Stave or another Wisconsin quarterback, the Badgers will be in great shape to defend their Big Ten West Division crown in 2015.
Chryst's deep roots at Wisconsin also serve the program well. He understands the academic standards, which are some of the most rigorous in the Big Ten and which played a significant role in driving Gary Andersen to Oregon State. He knows how the Badgers must recruit and play to reach their peak. And unlike Andersen and Bret Bielema, Chryst won't be lured away easily. A program shouldn't hire a coach simply because he sees it as a destination, but Wisconsin is too good to keep having coaches leave. In Chryst, Wisconsin lands a strong coach who can address the program's primary weakness and wants to stick around for a while.
As written here earlier this month, the Big Ten must effectively control the controllable elements -- in this case, the coaching carousel -- to upgrade its overall product. At first blush, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin have done so. Nebraska and Wisconsin acted quickly and decisively, while Michigan pulled off the biggest coaching coup in recent Big Ten history by plucking Harbaugh from a San Francisco 49ers organization that he restored to excellence.
The remaining Big Ten postseason performances, particularly Ohio State's in a Playoff semifinal against Alabama, ultimately will determine whether the league succeeded or failed in 2014.
But the Big Ten already has notched a huge win. Its coaching ranks are better than they were when December began.
The new leading men should help the Big Ten in its ultimate pursuit: reclaiming control of the national discussion.