It Might Be Time for Ohio State's First Big Ten Coach of the Year Award Since 1979

By Vico on August 26, 2016 at 10:10 am
Urban Meyer prior to the Big Ten Championship Game in 2013

Ohio State has not had a Big Ten coach of the year since 1979. This season could change that.

Eleven Warriors' Ohio State Football 2016 Season Preview

Key returners on a team with an otherwise major roster overhaul from last year will compete for some major individual accolades. J.T. Barrett is a Davey O'Brien Award watchlister and a fringe preseason Heisman candidate. Pat Elflein is a preseason favorite for a Rimington Trophy that Ohio State hasn't won since 2001. These are just the more prominent cases.

The head coach might actually be a more interesting award candidate. Ohio State replaces 16 starters from last year and is somehow a credible preseason pick for the playoff. By any reasonable rubric, a Big Ten championship or playoff berth after that kind attrition would make Urban Meyer a national coach of the year and the Big Ten Coach of the Year at the least.

That would be an important milestone for Ohio State's football program, which has not won a Big Ten Coach of the Year award since 1979. Jim Tressel won the Bear Bryant, Bobby Dodd, and Eddie Robinson coach of the year awards in 2002, but failed to beat Kirk Ferentz for conference honors. He never won coach of the year honors in a conference he dominated for a decade. Urban Meyer, guiding a rebuilt roster to a Big Ten championship and playoff berth, could conceivably end that dry spell.

A look at the list of Dave McClain/Hayes–Schembechler winners since an Ohio State coach last won one sheds light on why Ohio State coaches are uniquely disadvantaged in efforts to win coach of the year. Big Ten coaches of the year are routinely 1) coaches in programs that had a major and positive reversal of fortunes in the year, 2) coaches from smaller programs (i.e. not Ohio State or Michigan), and/or 3) upstarts within their first few years at a program. Ohio State, a name-brand program that reliably wins at least nine games a year without a lot of turnover at head coach, does not fit any of those criteria.

Year Coach(es)
Big Ten Coaches of the Year (1980-2015)
1980 Bo Schembechler (Michigan)
1981 Hayden Fry (Iowa)
1982 Dennis Green (Northwestern, media), Bo Schembechler (Michigan, coaches)
1983 Mike White (Illinois)
1984 Leon Burtnett (Purdue)
1985 Bo Schembechler (Michigan)
1986 Bill Mallory (Indiana)
1987 Bill Mallory (Indiana)
1988 John Mackovic (Illinois)
1989 John Mackovic (Illinois)
1990 Hayden Fry (Iowa)
1991 Gary Moeller (Michigan, media), Hayden Fry (Iowa, coaches)
1992 Gary Moeller (Michigan)
1993 Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin)
1994 Joe Paterno (Penn State)
1995 Gary Barnett (Northwestern)
1996 Gary Barnett (Northwestern)
1997 Joe Tiller (Purdue)
1998 Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin)
1999 Glen Mason (Minnesota)
2000 Randy Walker (Northwestern)
2001 Ron Turner (Illinois)
2002 Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)
2003 John L. Smith (Michigan State)
2004 Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)
2005 Joe Paterno (Penn State)
2006 Bret Bielema (Wisconsin)
2007 Ron Zook (Illinois)
2008 Joe Paterno (Penn State)
2009 Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)
2010 Mark Dantonio (Michigan State)
2011 Brady Hoke (Michigan)
2012 Bill O'Brien (Penn State)
2013 Mark Dantonio (Michigan State)
2014 Jerry Kill (Minnesota)
2015 Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)

There are a handful of years that Ohio State could conceivably have won the Big Ten coach of the year. However, the three factors outlined above can account for why Big Ten Coach of the Year went to someone other than an Ohio State coach.

Consider 1984, a year in which Earle Bruce could conceivably have won Big Ten Coach of the Year. His Buckeyes, a preseason Big Ten favorite, beat preseason top-ten Iowa by 19 points and beat Big Ten champion Illinois in a thriller. It also won the Big Ten outright, albeit with two losses in a down year for the league. Leon Burtnett's Purdue Boilermakers were responsible for one of those two losses. Purdue upset then-No. 2 Ohio State in West Lafayette en route to a 7-4 regular season. Big Ten Coach of the Year went to Burtnett and not Bruce.

The 1993 season may have been Ohio State's next best chance to secure a Big Ten coach of the year honor. It was the first year in which John Cooper found his bearings as Ohio State's football coach. He guided the Buckeyes to its first conference championship since 1986 and easily its best season since he started in 1988. However, fans may remember that we better note 1993 as the rise of Wisconsin, a historic cellar-dweller to that point. Barry Alvarez, in his fourth year in Madison, guided Wisconsin to its first conference championship since 1962. He took home coach of the year honors, not John Cooper.

Ohio State's last great chance to win coach of the year honors came in 2002, in which Jim Tressel won the national coach of the year accolades but failed to win the Big Ten coach of the year. The selectors at the time were more impressed with Kirk Ferentz' turnaround in his fourth year in Iowa City, a nontraditional power, than they were with Tressel's turnaround in his second year in Columbus. Since the two programs did not meet in 2002, the selectors deferred to the coach who had been in the league longer and who operated with lesser resources.

These are just some of the conspicuous years in which an Ohio State coach was well-positioned for coach of the year honors in the Big Ten but failed to win it. Other seasons conform well to the general trend outlined above. Big Ten coaches of the year are coaches in programs that had a major and positive reversal of fortunes from previous years (e.g. Jerry Kill in 2014 or Ron Zook in 2007), coaches from smaller programs (e.g. Gary Barnett at Northwestern in 1995-96), or upstarts within their first few years at a program (e.g. Brady Hoke at Michigan in 2011). This is why Bret Bielema win Big Ten Coach of the Year for going 11-1 and playing in the Capital One Bowl the same season Jim Tressel guides Ohio State to an undefeated regular season and national championship berth.

Urban Meyer could change this if the Buckeyes win the Big Ten. He will have navigated a rebuilt roster through the Big Ten East and possibly into the playoff. Few other programs could match that kind of story in the Big Ten.

As a result, few coaches could challenge for coach of the year honors. Ohio State as Big Ten champion should eliminate Jim Harbaugh or Mark Dantonio from consideration. Meyer's only other competition would be from an upstart like Chris Ash, D.J. Durkin, or Lovie Smith. If any of those three coaches guide their teams to seven wins, their candidacy for coach of the year would be hard to ignore given how selectors usually go on these decisions.

However, it might finally be time for Ohio State to win coach of the year honors in a conference it has outright dominated this century. Every other Big Ten program, excluding the three new additions, has won at least two Big Ten Coach of the Year honors since Ohio State last won in 1979. Ohio State had no shortage of seasons in which its coach was arguably the best in the conference, but it lacked a compelling story to offset the inclination of the selectors to award coach of the year to upstarts, smaller programs, and coaches who had just turn around their fortunes a few years into their tenure.

Ohio State as Big Ten champion and playoff participant after replacing as many as starters it did should be enough justification to end its coach of the year dry spell.

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