The success of any college football program ultimately begins with finding the right head coach. Those men who have won the most generally share an ability to lead, strategize and recruit better than their contemporaries, and they are remembered long after their time in charge is complete.
This week on the Big Ten blog, we're taking a look at the top five coaches over the years for each program. Some are more widely recognized than others, but all had a positive impact on the fortunes of their respective programs.
We begin with Illinois:
1. Bob Zuppke, 131-81-12 (1913-1941): The Fighting Illini claim five national titles, and Zuppke led four of those teams (1914, 1919, 1923 and 1927). He won seven Big Ten titles, coached the legendary Red Grange and has been credited for inventing the huddle and the flea flicker. Not too shabby, eh? Zuppke was a man of many talents, as he wrote a newspaper column and cartoon and painted Western landscapes. (Can you imagine, say, Jim Harbaugh writing a weekly column in the Detroit Free Press and painting on the side? How amazing would that be?) The Illini dipped into mediocrity in Zuppke's last decade, but there's little doubt he is the most accomplished coach in school history. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
2. Ray Eliot, 83-73-11 (1942-1959): Nicknamed "Mr. Illini" because of his long association with the school, Eliot led the football team to three Big Ten titles and two Rose Bowl crowns. The 1951 team finished 9-0-1 and claimed a national title (somewhat dubiously, sure, but most from that time period are). Like many Illinois coaches, he had difficulty maintaining consistent success. But he also coached the baseball team and was the school's interim athletic director in 1979.
3. Arthur Hall, 36-12-4 (1904, 1907-1912): Hall's tenure was relatively brief, including a 9-2-1 season in 1904 followed by a two-year hiatus. But he never had a losing season and guided the 1910 Illini to a 7-0 record and its first conference championship. That team outscored its opponents 89-0 that season. Hall became a probate judge later in life, a track I'm guessing most current Big Ten coaches won't be following.
4. Mike White, 47-41-3 (1980-1987): Illini football had grown stale by the time White arrived in Champaign. He quickly injected a new energy into the program with his wide-open passing attack, which included Dave Wilson's record-shattering, 621-yard passing performance against Ohio State in White's first season. In Year 3, White led Illinois to its first bowl game since 1963, and the 1983 team won the Big Ten with a perfect 9-0 conference record. It was the first and only time a team had beaten every other Big Ten team in the same season. White justifiably earned national coach of the year honors that year. Four years later, he was fired.
5. John Mackovic, 30-16-1 (1988-91): Mackovic's time with the Illini was short, but he did something no other coach has ever accomplished in Champaign: he took the team to four straight bowl games. That included a 10-2 season in 1989 and a share of the Big Ten title in 1990. He also served as the school's athletic director during his coaching stint before leaving to become head coach at Texas.