The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, November 24, 2021 1:00 am

Coaches in Big Ten given more leeway

STEVE MEGARGEE | Associated Press

Minnesota's P.J. Fleck sees the rampant coaching turnover going on this season and feels grateful about his relative security.

“There are a lot of things going on around the country, coaches who had great years last year that don't have jobs now a year later,” said Fleck, who owns a 33-23 record in five seasons coaching the Gophers.

Coaches across the Big Ten have reason to feel thankful on this holiday week.

The Big Ten is the only Power Five conference that hasn't had at least one head coaching change this season. That follows an offseason in which only one Big Ten school fired a coach, with Illinois hiring Bret Bielema after Lovie Smith went 17-39 in five seasons.

Penn State coach James Franklin agreed to a new 10-year contract Tuesday that will guarantee him at least $75 million through 2031.

Franklin and Penn State's Board of Trustees agreed to the terms, which include a yearly base salary of $7 million, retention bonuses of $500,000 each year and a $1 million annual loan for life insurance.

Franklin is 67-32 at Penn State with seven bowl appearances in his eight seasons. The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten championship in 2016.

A Pennsylvania native who called the Penn State gig his “dream job” when he was hired away from Vanderbilt in 2014 will coach his 100th game at Penn State when the Nittany Lions visit No. 12 Michigan State on Saturday.

“I think there's a little bit of an old-school mentality from the administration at a lot of these universities,” ESPN analyst and former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit said. “I think that they pride themselves on prioritizing the importance of athletics. And they're obviously very, very important, but people can roll their eyes all they want, but how a guy runs his program, is he graduating his players, are they good citizens, those things add up.”

Only three of the 14 Big Ten coaches (Bielema, Rutgers' Greg Schiano and Michigan State's Mel Tucker) are in their first or second season on the job. Rutgers fired Chris Ash four games into the 2019 season, and Mark Dantonio retired at Michigan State in February.

“I just think that the intensity of social media, especially in that middle tier of the Big Ten, I just don't think it's as rabid as you might find in some other regions,” Herbstreit said. “Most notably the SEC, where it's win a championship today. Win every game.”

Ten of the 14 Southeastern Conference members have interim coaches, lame-duck coaches or coaches in their first or second seasons running their teams.

LSU announced last month that Ed Orgeron wouldn't be back next year, even though he led the Tigers to a national championship two seasons ago. Dan Mullen, who coached Florida to an SEC East title in 2020, was fired Sunday after losing six of his last nine games.

By contrast, Nebraska's Scott Frost has produced a losing record each of his four seasons but will be back next year, though he took a pay cut and fired four assistants.

In the Pac-12, three of the 14 member schools have fired their coaches since the start of this season (Clay Helton at Southern California, Nick Rolovich at Washington State, Jimmy Lake at Washington).

Other Power Five programs to change coaches during the season include TCU, Texas Tech and Virginia Tech.

Nebraska essentially put Frost on notice even while keeping him. Nebraska is hoping it can match the success of Michigan, which brought back Jim Harbaugh on a new five-year deal after a 2-4 season in 2020. Michigan now is 10-1 and ranked sixth in the Associated Press Top 25.

Frost and Harbaugh are former quarterbacks coaching their alma maters, which may help explain why both schools were patient with them.

DiNardo notes that the lack of recent coaching changes in the Big Ten also is cyclical to a certain extent because many of the coaches with the league's tougher jobs haven't been there quite long enough to be evaluated fully.

Fleck understands what's expected of him.

“I'm sure at some point you don't win enough games at some point, people get fired,” Fleck said. “I'm no different than that. I'm not exempt to that. But I think when you look back on it, at the end of the day, I've always said: 'Did we make it better? Was it better when we left it than when we found it?' Somehow, some way.”

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