Discover more from Econ Soapbox
The Big Ten Time Capsule
What a difference 15 years makes
Times are changing in college football. The age of conference realignment, NIL deals, and the free transfer portal is upon us. The Big Ten conference, which hasn’t had ten teams since 1989, is soon to be a mammoth conference with 18 teams. That will be the subject of a future post. For now, let’s go back in time to the mid-2000s. A simpler time. The Big Ten had eleven teams, with the most addition being Penn State in 1990. Ohio State had won the national championship in 2002 and was runner-up in 2006. The Big Ten had the first conference-specific TV channel, named the Big Ten Network. Heady days.
To promote the fledgling TV station, the Big Ten came out with the below commercial in 2008. It’s a great ad. The premise is that the viewer is a highly regarded high school football player, and each Big Ten football coach is giving them the pitch to come to their respective school. There’s a silly innocentness about the ad I love (“Look, our helmets got wings!”). Give it a watch:
Looking back a decade and a half later, it’s like a miniature time capsule into the mid-2000s Big Ten. All but one of the coaches in the video have moved on from their position in this video, and many of their legacies are not exactly great. Scandal of epic proportions has followed some of these coaches, to the point that I think the Big Ten would be happy if this video disappeared forever. Running through the list in alphabetical order:
Illinois - Ron Zook: When this commercial was filmed in 2008, he had just taken Illinois to the Rose Bowl and looked like a genius. Unfortunately, that was the high-water mark of the Zooker's career. After several mediocre seasons, in 2011 the Illini became the only college football team in history to begin a season 6-0 and finish 6-6. Zook was then fired. Illinois fans have regretted the move ever since, as the program has had one winning season in the last 12 years. After Illinois Zook bounced around the NFL, NCAA, and (currently) XFL as an assistant coach.
Indiana - Bill Lynch: Similar to Illinois, when this commercial was filmed Indiana looked to be on the way up. Lynch coached his team to a 7-6 season in 2007, the first winning season for Indiana in 15 years. That would also be Lynch’s only winning campaign. He was fired in 2010 after failing to win more than one conference game three years in a row. He later was head coach at DePauw and is now retired.
Iowa - Kirk Ferentz. The only coach in the video who remains. Ferentz has coached Iowa since 1999 and is one of the winningest coaches in all of college football over the last twenty years. Despite this success, his inability to win “the big one” has left some fans frustrated. These fans are crazy, and should be happy with 14 winning seasons in the last 15 years. I sure would be.
Michigan - Rich Rodriguez. Ah Rich Rod. After a very successful stint at West Virginia, Michigan fans were thrilled to welcome the coach that would return them to the national championship conversation. Instead, Rodriguez put together a 15-22 record over three years, the worst stretch of Michigan football in memory. He was fired by Michigan and hired by the University of Arizona, who would also fire him after he had an extramarital affair with an administrative assistant. He currently is doing quite well as the head coach of the FBS school Jacksonville State.
Michigan State - Mark Dantonio. In 2008 Dantonio was a bit of an unknown. He had done fairly well as the head coach of Cincinnati, but did not seem to be the coach that could eclipse the University of Michigan as the state’s best football program. He would do just that, however, winning three conference titles in 15 years and retiring with a 114-57 school record in 2020. This year, Michigan State is in the midst of yet another scandal, and Mark Dantonio has come out of retirement to work as an advisor to the football team while the current head coach has been relieved from his duties and will likely be fired for cause shortly.
Minnesota - Tim Brewster. It’s hard to believe this program has seven national championships. The most recent was in 1960, so I guess the move away from leather helmets doomed the program. Brewster was hired after the halfway-decent Glen Mason was dismissed following the 2006 season. Unfortunately Brewster, like so many other coaches, was unable to bring the Gophers back to the promised land. He was fired following a 1-6 start to the 2010 season. Afterward, he stayed in college football at the assistant coach level and is currently the tight ends coach for Colorado.
Northwestern - Pat Fitzgerald. Ohhh boy. Just last year, Pat Fitzgerald stood next to Kirk Ferentz at Iowa as the only two long-standing Big Ten coaches. Deservedly so, as Fitzgerald had put together an impressive record at Northwestern, a school with strict academic standards and not great sports. Although Fitzgerald never won the Big Ten, he had several great seasons and consistently won since he took the helm of the Wildcats program in 2006. Then, just before the 2023 season, he was fired for implicitly supporting a widespread culture of hazing that included bizarre sexual rituals for underperforming players. He will likely (hopefully) never work in football again.
Ohio State - Jim Tressel. Another doozy. In 2008 coach Tressel was viewed as one of the best coaches in all of college football. He won the national championship with Ohio State in 2002 and was the runner-up in both the 2006 and 2007 seasons. His winning ways would continue right until he was forced to resign following NCAA rules violations. For years, players had been selling their memorabilia in exchange for tattoos and other compensation and Tressel helped cover it up. He later became the president of Youngstown State and retired in 2023.
Penn State - Joe Paterno. The man, the myth, and the tarnished legacy. Joe Paterno became the head coach of Penn State in 1966. Still at the helm in 2008, he had won two national championships and was a living legend in Pennsylvania. Then, amid the 2011 season, Paterno’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested for 52 counts of child abuse, some of which occurred on campus. How much Paterno knew and what she should have done is still hotly debated. He was fired the week of Sandusky’s arrest and would die of lung cancer at the age of 85 less than three months later.
Econ Soapbox is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Purdue - Joe Tiller. Purdue was the ultimate Big Ten cellar dweller. When Tiller was hired in 1997, the program had one winning season to its name in the past decade. Tiller’s innovative spread offense changed college football forever, and while he never put together a 10-win season, Tiller made Purdue into a competitive program overnight. The 2008 season would be his last, and he retired after a disappointing 4-8 campaign. Beloved by the Purdue faithful, Tiller passed away at his home in Wyoming in 2017.
Wisconsin - Bret Bielema. Bielema was a bit of an unknown going into the 2008 season. He was hired in 2006 following the retirement of the legendary Barry Alvarez. After compiling a 12-1 record in 2006 followed by a 9-4 record in 2007, the jury was out on whether he could win with players he recruited. 2008 would prove to be his worst year, as he won the Big Ten conference title three years in a row from 2010-2012. He then suddenly resigned from Wisconsin to coach at Arkansas, which many saw as a lateral move. Unable to replicate his success in the SEC, after five mediocre years at Arkansas he was fired. He currently is the head coach of Illinois and has done a good job thus far.
So there you have it. Of the 11 Big Ten coaches of 2008, the legacy is not exactly sterling. Four were fired for on-field performance, three for off-field scandals, two retired, one moved to a different school, and one is still coaching in the same position. None won national championships or became head coaches at better universities. As of today, two have passed away, three are retired, three are working as assistant coaches (including the temporary Mark Dantonio) and three are currently head coaches.
Hopefully the 2023 crop of coaches will look a bit better in 2038.