Big Ten coach rankings: See where Jim Harbaugh and Mel Tucker rank in the conference

Rainer Sabin
Detroit Free Press

Ryan Day has only been the coach at Ohio State for two full seasons.

But he quickly vaulted to the top of the Free Press’ Big Ten coach rankings after his first season, and he remains there for the second straight year.

Day led the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff title game during a truncated season interrupted by COVID-19 cancellations. But he wasn’t the only one to distinguish himself during a trying fall. Indiana’s Tom Allen took the Hoosiers to new heights, and Greg Schiano resuscitated lifeless Rutgers.

Here's where all 14 Big Ten coaches stand, including Bret Bielema, who is back for a second act in the league where he launched his career.

In his head coaching debut at Maryland, Mike Locksley, center, celebrates with the Terps after they demolished FCS Howard 79-0 Saturday in College Park.

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14. Mike Locksley, Maryland

Record: 8-43 overall; 6-17 at Maryland.

Despite being a head coach for more than six years, Locksley has only won eight games. A disastrous stint at New Mexico was followed by career rehabilitation as an assistant at Alabama. Then it was back to Maryland, where he has deep ties, including a 1-5 stint as interim head coach in 2015. The second Locksley Era in College Park has started slowly, but there were signs of life in 2020. Maryland thumped Penn State for just the third time since 1917 and beat Minnesota. Off the field, Locksley has won some recruiting battles and brought in quality skill-position players. But the Terps and Locksley still have a steep hill to climb to contend in the Big Ten East.

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13. Jeff Brohm, Purdue

Record: 49-35 overall; 19-25 at Purdue.

Purdue went all in on Jeff Brohm in 2019, signing him to a seven-year, $36.8 million contract extension. Since then, the Boilermakers have gone 6-12 and lost 10 of their 15 conference games. Hindsight is 20/20, but the large investment in Brohm appears to have been premature. Brohm has played musical chairs with his defensive coordinators; this fall, he will turn to his third in three seasons. But if the results don’t improve, folks in West Lafayette will start to wonder if the problem may have really been Brohm all along.

12. Scott Frost, Nebraska

Record: 31-27 overall; 12-20 at Nebraska.

When Frost returned to his home state and alma mater in December 2017, fans there hoped he’d turn Nebraska back into the power it once was. But the Huskers stumbled on the field with losing records each of the past three seasons. The excitement surrounding Frost has withered, and there are no signs the future will be much brighter. With a 12-20 record at Nebraska, Frost will have to start producing better results soon or the fans of Big Red are going to get red hot.

Barry Alvarez and Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema speak during a practice on Monday, August 7, 2006.

11. Bret Bielema, Illinois

Record: 97-58 overall; 0-0 at Illinois

Bielema returns to the Big Ten after a failed tour in the SEC and a couple of quiet postings as an NFL assistant. Can Bielema recapture his Wisconsin glory days and turn Illinois into a contender? He’ll have his work cut out for him. The Illini haven’t finished with a winning record since 2011, when Bielema’s Badgers were in the middle of a run that netted three straight conference titles. Since then, Northwestern and Minnesota have ascended, making Bielema’s new challenge that much greater.

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Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker on the field during the spring game Saturday, April 24, 2021 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

10. Mel Tucker, Michigan State

Record: 7-12 overall; 2-5 at Michigan State.

Mel Tucker has yet to post a winning season in his two seasons as an FBS head coach. But he has dealt with unusual circumstances. He bolted Colorado after one year for the job in East Lansing only to have a pandemic grip the nation a month into his tenure. What followed was a season filled with adversity. And yet the Spartans netted two shocking wins, over Michigan and Northwestern. Those victories have given the Spartan faithful hope for a few more surprises with Tucker at the helm. And there may be. An infusion of transfers is part of Tucker’s plan to accelerate his rebuild.

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9. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

Record: 56-41 overall; 26-19 at Minnesota.

There was a ton of hype around Minnesota and Fleck after they rolled — rowed? — to 11 wins in 2019. But then 2020 happened and the Gophers crashed. They dropped four of their seven games, resulting in a sub-.500 winning percentage resembling Fleck's success rate during first two seasons in Minneapolis, when he was 12-13. So who is the real P.J. Fleck, and will he stand up in 2021?

Rutgers Scarlet Knights football coach Greg Schiano, left, shakes hands with Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh before their game at SHI Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

8. Greg Schiano, Rutgers

Record: 71-73 overall; 71-73 at Rutgers.

It didn’t take long for Schiano to make his mark during his second go-around in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights won their 2020 opener against Michigan State, snapping a 21-game conference losing streak. They then notched two more victories — and took Michigan to three overtimes in a loss — during a season that surpassed expectations. Rutgers is way ahead of schedule, and the optimism surrounding the program is real. Just look at the 2022 recruiting class, which is ranked 11th by 247 Sports. Schiano has won at Rutgers before, and he seems capable of doing it again.

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7. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Record: 78-43 overall; 49-22 at Michigan.

This offseason, Harbaugh took a massive pay cut but got an extension. If that seems strange, just look at Michigan football in the aftermath of a 2-4 season last fall. Harbaugh has spent the last six months remodeling his staff and the program’s recruiting department. It’s part of a massive rebuild in Year 7 of Harbaugh’s regime, which has been a huge disappointment. No Big Ten titles. No wins over rival Ohio State. A 2-12 mark against teams in the AP top 10. Then there’s this: Michigan — according to Teamrankings.com — is the only FBS team without an upset victory since 2015, Harbaugh’s first season in Ann Arbor. Yikes.  

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh runs on the field with his players before the win over BYU at Michigan Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015.

6. Tom Allen, Indiana

Record: 24-22 overall; 24-22 at Indiana.

For his stellar work in 2020, Allen was named Coach of the Year by his AFCA peers. All Allen did was lead Indiana to a 6-2 record and a top-10 ranking for multiple weeks. Since he took over at the end of the 2016 season, he has made the people in Bloomington believe Indiana can be a football school. The Hoosiers are no longer a pushover, as evidenced by their dominating win against Michigan last fall, their first victory over the Wolverines since 1987. Now, Allen is assembling a strong recruiting class. He has earned his recognition as a rising star.

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5. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin

Record: 75-38 overall; 56-19 at Wisconsin.

Wisconsin took a step back last season as it struggled to build momentum with three games canceled due to COVID-19. But have faith in Chryst. He led the Badgers to double-digit victories in four of his first five seasons in Madison, with three West division titles. Chryst has achieved that success despite recruiting classes that have ranked no higher than No. 26 in 247Sports' index. Good work is still taking place in Madison.

Paul Chryst, left, head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers, and Mark Dantonio, head coach of the Michigan State Spartans, meet after the game Sept. 24, 2016, in East Lansing.

4. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

Record: 168-106 overall; 168-106 at Iowa.

Ferentz hasn’t guided Iowa to a Big Ten title in the past 17 seasons. But the Hawkeyes always seem to be in the conversation. Even last year, when Iowa opened with an 0-2 start, the Hawkeyes rebounded to win their final six games and finish in the middle of the polls. Iowa may not have the highest ceiling. But it also doesn’t have a low floor. That’s because of Ferentz, a consistent winner in corn country.

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3. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

Record: 106-81 overall; 106-81 at Northwestern.

Fitzgerald is everything Nebraska fans hoped Frost would become. The loyal Wildcat has made his alma mater into a solid program capable of competing for championships. Fitzgerald has led Northwestern to West division titles in two of the past three years and bowl games in five of the past six seasons. Those are hefty accomplishments in Evanston. No Big Ten coach is more secure in his post than Fitzgerald; he can remain at Northwestern for as long as he wants.

Penn State coach James Franklin during the Cotton Bowl Classic against Memphis on Dec. 28, 2019.

2. James Franklin, Penn State

Record: 84-43 overall; 60-28 at Penn State.

After Penn State lost its first five games, Franklin acknowledged 2020 was a Terrible, Horrible, No good, Very bad year for the Nittany Lions. But he also said it wouldn’t define them. It also shouldn’t tarnish Franklin’s tenure in Happy Valley. In fact, Franklin and the Nittany Lions should be commended for rallying to win their last four. It was certainly more than a certain team in Ann Arbor could do after its own miserable start. Penn State's turnaround, of course, wasn’t surprising because Franklin is a good coach. He has led the Nittany Lions to 11 victories three times and has won a Big Ten title despite Ohio State's dominance.

1. Ryan Day, Ohio State

1. Ryan Day, Ohio State

Record: 23-2 overall; 23-2 at Ohio State.

The transition from Urban Meyer to Day has been seamless. Yes, all is well in Columbus, where the Buckeyes look as fearsome as ever. In his second full season, Day led the Buckeyes to the national title game despite a reduced schedule. So far, he has won 23 of his 25 games with both losses coming in the CFP. He has also crushed it on the recruiting trail. The Buckeyes’ 2021 class finished second in 247Sports’ rankings and their 2022 class tops the list. With two Big Ten trophies on his mantel, Day has his sights set on college football’s biggest prize, and it only seems a matter of time before he gets it.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter