Colleague Bruce Feldman recently took a look at which coaches in the past 25 years have done the best job of elevating their programs to new heights.
We're not talking about going from five wins to seven wins once or twice. Most of the 10 coaches on Feldman's list orchestrated true transformations. They took so-so programs and made them BCS bowl contenders. They took historical failures and made them respectable.
Two former Big Ten coaches made Feldman's list:
3. Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin: The former Nebraska linebacker, who had spent years on the Iowa and Notre Dame staffs, inherited a listless Badgers program. They went 1-10 in his debut season in 1990, but he sparked them to a Rose Bowl and a top-five finish in his fourth season. He would take the Badgers to two more Rose Bowls and step down after a 10-win season in 2005. Now, with Alvarez as the AD, his protégé Bret Bielema has gone 49-16 and been in the top 25 in four of his five seasons.
9. Gary Barnett, Northwestern: The former Missouri Tigers wide receiver's first college head coaching job was taking over a dismal NU program that hadn't been to a bowl game in almost 50 years, and had long been at the bottom of the Big Ten. The Wildcats won eight games in his first three seasons before Barnett produced a shocking 10-2 season (8-0 in Big Ten play), leading the Cats on a storybook ride to Pasadena. Barnett followed that up with a tie for the league title and another top-15 finish. After two mediocre seasons, Barnett left for Colorado, and since then NU has gone on to have better success than the coach did in Big 12 country. Under Randy Walker, Northwestern won a share of the Big Ten title in 2000, and in recent years, former Wildcats star Pat Fitzgerald has taken his team to bowl games in three straight seasons.
Two excellent choices here.
Alvarez is the reason Wisconsin football can be called nationally relevant. He elevated the program to historic heights in the 1990s, and while Wisconsin went 11 years without a Big Ten title until winning one last season, the Badgers still were one of the more consistent teams in college football between 2000-09. I really think Wisconsin has an opportunity to become a true national powerhouse, especially if Ohio State backslides after its scandal. While Bielema deserves a lot of credit for Wisconsin's surge the past two seasons, he inherited a program on very solid footing from Alvarez.
Barnett's breakthrough at Northwestern in 1995 was one of the biggest and most surprising stories in recent college football history. He took the worst of the worst and elevated it all the way to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance. After decades of futility, Northwestern won back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1995 and 1996. Although the program dipped late in Barnett's tenure, Walker stabilized things and Fitzgerald has taken the team up a notch during his five years as coach.
Another good choice for Feldman's list would be former Purdue coach Joe Tiller. Purdue had just one winning season and no bowl appearances from 1984-96, before Tiller led the Boilers to bowls in 10 of his first 11 seasons as coach. He guided Purdue to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance in 2000, and his teams qualified for 10 of the 15 bowl games in team history. Tiller also helped make Purdue a destination for NFL-caliber quarterbacks.