There seem to be only a handful of candidates. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer piloted his team to an 11-1 mark, 8-0 Big Ten season and Big Ten East title. Gary Andersen’s Wisconsin Badgers are 10-2 and opposing OSU in the league title game. And Jerry Kill coached Minnesota to an 8-4 mark and within 30 minutes of the West Division crown.
They are three very good coaches – in fact, they might be the Big Ten’s three best.
But there’s only one proper answer for Big Ten Coach of the Year, and it’s Urban Meyer.
This is a point of debate among Ohio State fans mostly because the Buckeyes haven’t seen a coach win that award since Earle Bruce in 1979. It’s ludicrous in some ways, isn’t it? Since 1979, Ohio State has had just two losing seasons, has won the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, has won 13 league titles and has generally been the flag bearer for the league.
Yet John Cooper – who won 111 games in 13 seasons and captured the Rose and Sugar bowl – and Jim Tressel – who basically put the program on “win Big Ten title, play in BCS bowl, repeat” autopilot for a decade – didn’t either.
It’s become a sore spot among Ohio State fans, though I’m not usually won to argue. Laurels like Coach of the Year are good to win, but in the end, they really aren’t worth the pieces of Kirk Ferentz’s contract that they’re printed on.
In the time since an Ohio State coach last won a league coach honor, it has gone to Dennis Green (for going 3-9 at Northwestern!), Mike White, Leon Burnett, John Mackovic, Ron Turner, John L. Smith and Ron Zook. Not exactly a murderer’s row of coaches, though there are some solid ones in there.
That’s because, as most know, many times the honor goes to the coach that most exceeds expectations or has the biggest turnaround. No matter that the concept of expectations revolves around the beliefs of sportswriters, who, as it turns out, cannot predict the future or come particularly close.
At the end of the day, I get it. It’s boring to give the Coach of the Year award to the guy (or the team) that wins every year. What did Tressel do so special in 2009 to make him a better coach than in 2005 or 2008? They won the Big Ten and played in a BCS bowl each year. It was excellence that was so dependable that it was boring. Who wants to vote for that when you have a team that rises up and surprises people?
It’s the same concept when it comes to Coach of the Year awards across sports. Sure, Tressel was a great coach year-in, year-out. But what about that time Zook improved Illinois from 2-10 to 9-4, and beat Ohio State? You could argue he had a better year, even though Tressel went to his second consecutive national title game.
Yes, it’s true that most Coach of the Year honors could be named “Coach Who Oversaw The Most Surprising Performance Based On What They Did The Year Before Or People’s Wrongheaded Preseason Expectations.” And at the end of the day, that’s fine.
But if the battle every year is deciding between the top coach in general and the one who “most exceeded expectations,” or “had the best year,” the award still should go to Meyer.
Kill, who many are pushing as the top candidate next to Meyer, had a fine year. What he’s done with Minnesota in his four-year tenure has been incredibly impressive, and it’s clear he’s a damn fine football coach for that program. But the Golden Gophers were 8-4 last year and 8-4 this year, and the only expectations he bucked were those of people who figured the team would fall apart.
Then there’s Andersen, another coach who has done an excellent job, especially when it comes to righting the ship for a team that was 3-2 at the start of the year. Most people I know who I consider smart say Andersen could be the second best coach in the Big Ten, and I am not going to disagree – he’s in the discussion at the top along with Meyer, Kill and Mark Dantonio (a group James Franklin could join someday once Penn State is back at full strength).
But many people expected Wisconsin to compete for the Big Ten West and likely win it, so it’s not like this was an out of left field situation. The Badgers did a good job replacing Chris Borland and getting over its disaster at quarterback at the start of the season, so good for Andersen.
Meyer’s résumé is just stronger, though. His team lost the entirety of its record-setting running game, basically, when Carlos Hyde and four starting linemen went out the door. They were accompanied by the team’s No. 1 receiver as well as two first-round draft picks on defense.
The personnel losses didn’t stop there. Of course, everyone knows Braxton Miller was injured, only to be replaced by someone whose production outpaced even Miller’s over his first two years. Noah Spence, a first-team All-Big Ten choice, was suspended for the entire season. Dontre Wilson went down, then J.T. Barrett.
And here the Buckeyes are, 11-1 and competing for not just the league title but a spot in the first College Football Playoff.
Meyer is the best coach. He’s had the best year. And he deserves to be the first Ohio State coach since his mentor to have some hardware.