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Better coaching helping the Big Ten bounce back

Clockwise from top right: Jim Harbaugh, Mark Dantonio, Kirk Ferentz, and Urban Meyer.
photos from wikimedia and wikipedia
Clockwise from top right: Jim Harbaugh, Mark Dantonio, Kirk Ferentz, and Urban Meyer.

Two years ago, the Southeastern Conference was dominant, while the Big Ten looked like a doormat. Experts cited the Midwest economy, and the migration to the South and West. But during opening weekend, the Big Ten teams lost only two games, while the SEC lost 7. The difference is not demographics, but coaching.

The Big Ten was the first major college conferences, created in 1895. For decades it was the best in football, and, lest we forget, research and academics. And you Ivy League snobs can hold your horses: your league didn’t start until 1954 – a surprising fact that can win you bar bets.

Through 1970, Big Ten teams won 39 national titles, more than one every other year. No other conference came close. It helped that, back then, the Rust Belt wasn’t rusty. The factories surrounding the Great Lake States were called the Arsenal of Democracy, and attracted people and investment from all over the nation and the world. Some of that money fueled the Big Ten’s state universities, which doubled and tripled in size. More people and more money meant more titles.

Since 1970, however, the Midwest has been losing people and money to the South and the West. During the past 46 years, the Big Ten has won exactly three national titles, or about one every 15 years.

Two years ago, in the season’s second week, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all went down. While the all-powerful Southeastern Conference still had eight undefeated teams, the Big Ten could claim only two, Penn State and Nebraska, which squeaked by McNeese State, for cryin’ out loud.  

No, I didn't know McNeese State had a football team, either.

Two years ago, I argued that the Midwest losing people and money were just excuses. You don’t need a million people to field a football team, just 100. And, thanks to the Big Ten Network, every Big Ten team gets more TV revenue than every team that’s not in the Big Ten, including Notre Dame. It’s not even close. The problem, I said, was simply a lack of stable, high-quality coaches.

Since then, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer won the national title in 2015, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio earned a final four berth last year, and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh has pushed the Wolverines back into the top ten. 

During this season’s opening weekend, the Southestern Conference, which won eight of the last ten national titles, lost seven games – something they haven’t done since 1992. Meanwhile, the Big Ten, rather amazingly, won 12 of its 14 games, including unranked Wisconsin beating SEC powerhouse Louisiana State.

It’s only one weekend, and it could all change on Saturday. But if the results were flipped, you can be sure we’d be reading more stories about the SEC’s dominance, and the Big Ten’s demise. Well, not this year.

Three of the nation's top five coaches now work in the Big Ten, and I'd bet five of these current coaches get to the Hall of Fame.

What changed?

The Big Ten added some great new coaches, including Harbaugh, Maryland’s D.J. Durkin, and, apparently, Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz got his mojo back, while Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio have now put in 15 years between them at their current schools. Three of the nation’s top five coaches now work in the Big Ten, and I’d bet five of these current coaches get to the Hall of Fame.

So you can save your economics, your demographics, and your whining about the SEC. Leadership counts, and right now, the Big Ten has it.

John U. Bacon  is the author of four New York Times bestsellers.  His most recent book, "Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football," is on the list now. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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