Bowl season didn’t go as planned for the Big Ten.
Despite a magnificent regular season, the league went just 3-7 in the postseason, losing three of its record four New Year’s Six bowl games. Ohio State got shut out 31-0 in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson.
It reminded many of 2006, the last year the Big Ten could truly say it was on top of the college football world. That regular season, by coincidence, also culminated with an epic and enormous Ohio State-Michigan clash before the conference flopped in its bowl performances. The league then went through a fallow period for nearly a decade.
But the similarities between 2006 and 2016 pretty much end there. Despite the disappointing postseason, the Big Ten looks robust and ready to be a major force again next year and beyond. It will be hard to repeat this past season’s success, when four teams finished in the playoff committee’s top eight and were in the playoff mix until the final weekend, but don’t expect another major downturn.
“The conference is as strong as it has been in a long time,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said.
That’s true for a lot of reasons, namely these:
Head coaches: The roster of head coaches in the Big Ten right now is as impressive as any league in the country.
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh are the rock stars. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst and Penn State’s James Franklin were both finalists for numerous national coach of the year awards. Michigan State had an awful 2016, but Mark Dantonio is rightly considered one of the very best coaches around.
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald are two of the longest-tenured head coaches in college football. Nebraska’s Mike Riley is highly respected throughout the profession. Illinois hired longtime NFL coach Lovie Smith last year, and Purdue and Minnesota made splashes in landing two of the hottest, young, non-Power 5 coaches in Jeff Brohm and P.J. Fleck, respectively, this offseason.
“It starts and ends with great head coaches,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said.
It’s one thing to hire a big name. Big Ten schools have done a great job lately in finding good fits for their programs. That includes guys who graduated from their current schools such as Harbaugh, Chryst and Fitzgerald and those who grew up in the same state rooting for their current programs such as Meyer, Franklin and Indiana’s Tom Allen.
There’s no guarantee of stability in the coaching profession, but many of the current Big Ten head coaches have what look like destination jobs.
“That’s huge, because the right fit is very, very important,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. “As in Paul’s case, I didn’t have to talk to him about our plan here and our formula for success. He knew it already. He knew the high school coaches in the state and that the walk-on program would be key to our success. And everybody in the state knew him already.”
Financial muscle: It’s a good time to be someone who writes checks at a Big Ten school these days.
The cash spigot that is the Big Ten Network continues to pay huge dividends, especially since Rutgers and Maryland joined the league. In the fiscal year that ended in June 2015, according to USA Today, the Big Ten distributed $32.4 million to member schools that had full shares (Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland did not). The money is about to go up, up, up.
The league’s new TV deal kicks in later this year, a reported $2.6 billion package over six years. The Cedar Rapids-Gazette reported that per-school payouts are conservatively estimated to top $43 million in 2017-18 and could top out at $54 million per school at the end of the contract.
The SEC is the only other league in that stratosphere, and the Big Ten is expected to outpace everyone in total revenue.
“That’s the engine that drives every athletic department,” Phillips said of the rising tide of TV money.
Big Ten schools have committed to using those dollars to improve their football programs, greatly increasing the pay for head coaches and building brand new facilities. Two of the three highest-paid coaches in the country are Harbaugh (No. 1 at $9 million) and Meyer (No. 3 at $6 million). The Big Ten had five of the 14 highest-paid coaches in the FBS in 2016, according to USA Today.
It’s not just the schools at the top shelling out dough for top coaches anymore. Purdue, which had long scrimped and saved, stepped up with a six-year, $20 million contract for Brohm and $3.5 million pool for his staff. Cincinnati tried to hire Brohm, too, but simply couldn’t match the Boilermakers' resources, a source told ESPN.com. Minnesota gave Fleck a reported five-year, $18.5 million deal.
You can’t just throw money at problems, but the Big Ten is investing its windfall where it matters most.
“The revenue the conference has generated helps each school put more money into recruiting, into facilities and into attracting good staffs,” Gene Smith said.
Recruiting: The Big Ten is never going to have as much access to top talent as other leagues because of geography and demographics. But conference coaches are aggressively pursuing players across the country.
Remember that little tizzy when Meyer first joined the league and ruffled some feathers with his recruiting style? That talk about “gentleman’s agreements?” Yeah, those days are over. There was a clear winner in that debate, and other schools could either follow or be left in the dust.
“Urban really upped the ante in recruiting,” Alvarez said. “So if you wanted to stay in the game, you’d better have an answer to that and recruit as well.
“Be more aggressive. Look into more areas. Put more emphasis on it. You’d better hustle.”
Penn State hired Franklin, who’s a great recruiter in his own right. Harbaugh changed the game again with his satellite camp adventures, sleepovers, tweet storms and viral voraciousness.
“He’s creative, he thinks outside of the box and he gets after it,” Gene Smith said. “You may not always agree with his tactics and strategies, but they’re very successful for where he is, which is very important.”
Ohio State and Michigan rank third and fourth, respectively, in ESPN.com’s 2017 class rankings. Penn State’s resurgence this year is impressing future recruits; as of last week, the Nittany Lions had more ESPN 300 commitments in the Class of 2018 (seven) than any other school.
Michigan State’s recruiting has been on an uptick of late, and Nebraska is making a major push to improve its visibility and reach on the trail.
“We’ve talked about building a roster,” Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst told reporters in late December. “The acquisition of talent is really, really important.”
These factors didn’t help the Big Ten win as many bowl games as it would like, but it wasn’t like the league was getting blown out routinely. Michigan fell by a single point in the Capital One Orange Bowl without Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers, while Penn State lost on a last-second field goal in the Rose Bowl.
But the scoreboard is the scoreboard. The ACC reigned supreme when all the postseason games wrapped up. Still, the regular season -- in which the Big Ten had four top 10 teams for the first time since 1960 -- can’t be ignored, either.
“We didn’t perform the way maybe we wanted to in bowl games,” Phillips said. “Some of the matchups were not in our favor. But I think the true testament comes through the entire year, the entire schedule and some of the teams we beat in the nonconference. It was a prideful year for us.”
It was a year the Big Ten can build on, if not outright repeat. The league might not have four playoff contenders in late November again, but it does have all the pieces in place to get back to the top.
“I look around and see a lot of young talent on the field, and the coaches aren’t leaving,” Alvarez said. “So I expect that we’ll continue to be strong.”