Michigan Wolverines: Gary Barta

As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. We wrap up the series today with a look at the importance of coaching continuity in the Big Ten going forward.

It's no coincidence that a historic downturn in Big Ten football has coincided with a historic stretch of instability among the league's coaches.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesIowa's Kirk Ferentz has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach.
Think back to 2005, a season that ended with two BCS bowl wins and teams ranked No. 3 (Penn State) and No. 4 (Ohio State) in the final polls. Seven of the league's 11 coaches had been at their schools for six or more seasons. Ohio State's Jim Tressel, three years removed from a national title, logged his fifth season in Columbus. Three coaches -- Penn State's Joe Paterno, Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and Michigan's Lloyd Carr -- all had held their jobs for more than a decade (in Paterno's case, four decades).

The Big Ten coaches that year had combined for four national championships, five Rose Bowl titles and seven BCS bowl victories.

Since 2005, the Big Ten has gone through 17 coaching changes (not counting Nebraska's after the 2007 season). Seven teams have made multiple changes, including Penn State, which introduced new coaches earlier this month and in January 2011 after not doing so since February 1966. Last season, Indiana's Kevin Wilson was the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders division. He was hired in December 2010.

As the Big Ten invests more in its coaches, it also must ensure it has the right leaders in place for the long haul.

"If you believe strongly in the person you have," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told ESPN.com, "continuity is invaluable."

Few programs value continuity more than Iowa, which has had two coaches (Kirk Ferentz and Hayden Fry) since the 1978 season. Ferentz, who just completed his 15th year at the school, has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach. He's one of only four FBS coaches to start before the 2000 season (Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Troy's Larry Blakeney are the others).

Iowa awarded Ferentz with contract extensions both in 2009 and 2010, the latter a whopping 10-year deal with a salary of $3,675,000. The Big Ten hasn't set the pace nationally in coach compensation, but Iowa's pledge to Ferentz, often the subject of NFL rumors, jumps out. Ferentz's salary is frequently debated and scrutinized, especially when Iowa struggles like it did in 2012, but Barta's loyalty to him hasn't wavered. Iowa rebounded to win eight games last season.

"Because of that commitment, we made our statement," Barta said. "We're going to fight through this with the person in whom we have great confidence and trust. There's no guarantees in life, but because of Kirk's past performance, because of his long-standing approach at Iowa and his proven success, it was a risk I was willing to take. Knock on wood, so far it has worked out terrific."

Barta sees a similar approach from Big Ten schools like Michigan State, which won Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles in Mark Dantonio's seventh season as coach. Dantonio in 2011 received a contract designed to keep him a "Spartan for life," and his newest deal is expected to more than double his salary from $1.9 million in 2013.

"Continuity breeds success," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said, "and that's the hardest part sometimes on the institutional side, to keep that commitment, keep that contract whether it's an assistant or a head coach. … It requires a high level of confidence and a high level of trust."

The day of playing musical chairs with coaches, of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right.

Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon
There have been similar long-term commitments at other Big Ten schools. Northwestern awarded coach Pat Fitzgerald a 10-year contract in 2011. When Indiana hired Wilson, it gave him a seven-year contract, longer than the initial deals new coaches typically receive. Athletic director Fred Glass links Indiana's lack of continuity -- the school has had five coaches since 1996 -- with its on-field struggles (only one bowl appearance since 1993) and knows the school needs a more patient approach.

"Stability is an important thing in our league," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who applauded recent moves like MSU retaining Dantonio and Penn State hiring James Franklin. "The best example I'll use is men’s basketball where we're having tremendous success, in large part, because of the stability we have in a number of our programs. I think we need to get that in football."

While Big Ten football has struggled in recent years, the league is surging on the hardwood, in large part because of veteran coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo (19th year), Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (13th year) and Ohio State's Thad Matta (10th year). Six of the league's 12 basketball coaches have been in their jobs for at least five seasons.

Continuity doesn't guarantee success, but it often correlates. Barta has tried to create "an environment of longevity and long-term commitment" at Iowa, while also recognizing the pressure to win and, in some cases, the need to part ways with a coach.

"The day of playing musical chairs with coaches," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said, "of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right."

After several years of transition, the Big Ten hopes it has the right men at the top -- and the ability to keep them there.
As we've written for the past several days, Big Ten athletic directors have a whole host of decisions to make over the next few months, including how many league games they should play, how to align the divisions, the next bowl lineup and even what to call the divisions.

"We've got some heavy lifting to do here for the next few months," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.

But what if all that huffing and puffing turns out to be a Sisyphean task? There's one thing that could send conference leaders scrambling back to the drawing board: more expansion.

The decisions the athletic directors will make for the 2014 season and beyond will be based on the new 14-team format with Maryland and Rutgers joining. Many people suspect the Big Ten is not done adding members and could soon grow to 16 or even to 20 members. Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee recently informed us that conference expansion talks are "ongoing."

The athletic directors are well aware of the possibility that more teams could be coming at just about any time.

“Based on the last three years I’ve been in this business, you’d be crazy not to think about it," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said. "But it’s hard to model anything because you don’t know what to model. The minute you get yourself convinced that you’re going to go from 14 to 16, for all you know you’re going to 18, and a lot of people think the ultimate landing place is 20. Who knows?"

For now, all the decisions they make will be based on a 14-team model only.

"You make your decision based on today," Iowa's Gary Barta said. "And today, we have that many teams. We can’t worry about something that’s not established yet. I don’t know if and when there will be more teams. Right now, we’re going to make decisions based on the additions of Rutgers and Maryland, and we’re going to make them with the information we have, consistent with our principles."

"It’s hard to predict the future," added Northwestern's Jim Phillips. "No one would have predicted we’d be at this place we’re at right now. I don’t think you can get polarized by the what-ifs or the potential of what might be and lose sight of where you’re at."

The league's ADs will do their best to come up with the best framework for a 14-team league. If future expansion arrives in time for the 2014 season or shortly after it, at least the conference has gained lots of recent experience in how to deal with it.

"When you get into the discussion of things like 10 [conference games], you say, 'Wow, if we had a couple more teams, it would be easier,'" Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "That's a natural. But it's not something that motivates you to say, 'We've got to position this in case we have another team, or two more teams.' We don't do that."

"What I've liked about our league is, when we added Nebraska, we felt like we needed to settle and watch the landscape. We thought the East Coast was important, and we got two good pickups relative to that principal. So I think we deal with what we have now, sit, monitor the landscape, and if something emerges down the road, we're positioned to be able to absorb."
Earlier today, I wrote a story about the construction craze gripping college sports, including the Big Ten.

Even in a long story, I didn't have room for all the good notes and quotes from the reporting process. Luckily, that's why we have this blog.

Iowa is an interesting case study. The Hawkeyes, one could easily argue, have been doing just fine in the Big Ten under Kirk Ferentz. Yet outside of their recent improvements to Kirk Ferentz, their football facilities were lacking. Now the school is completing a $56 million upgrade that includes a new practice facility to replace the old bubble and eventually new offices. Will that make a difference competitively for Iowa, which has been cranking out NFL players under Ferentz?

Hawkeyes athletic director Gary Barta said the practice bubble was built in the early 1980s and had a life expectancy of 10-to-15 years.

"Was it a disadvantage for us?" Barta told ESPN.com "I don't know. I do know that the facility had outlived its lifespan, and it was time for a new one.

"My goal, first and foremost, is to hire and retain the best people. Then you have to make sure to give those people the tools to be successful."

Several athletic directors who were interviewed said having new and state-of-the-art facilities are critical in recruiting.

"When you have 17-to-18 year-olds who are being toured around the country to decide where they want to take their talents and perform, they are looking with a critical eye at facilities," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said. "They know these are the places where they're going to spend a disproportionate amount of their time. And it's the right thing to do; if you're going to ask world-class athletes to come to your institution, you want to provide them with the very best you can in terms of the facilities they're going to be operating in."

"Kids are smart," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. "We can say all we want to about our commitment to the program, but [they're thinking], 'Let's see how that manifests itself.' The perception is so important. When kids come in, when fans come in, when parents come in, they can see there's an institutional commitment to the sport."

While Glass noted in the story that Big Ten television revenue has had a huge impact on his program, others said they still rely mostly on donations to fund major facility improvement projects. At Michigan, for example, Brandon said the TV money might help get a project finished sooner but doesn't pay for the whole thing.

"The extra TV revenue has been terrific," Barta said. "I don't want to oversell it or undersell it. But without the contributions of our donors, we wouldn't be able to do it either. So it's a combination of support and contributions."

Schools have to decide on their priorities when undertaking construction projects. Things like new or expanded stadiums can help increase revenue, while the recent big push for better training and operations centers enhance the quality of the athletes' experience but don't add any dollars to the bottom line.

"You have a student-athlete focus, and you have a fan focus, and you have to make decisions accordingly," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said. "We’re trying to be extremely aggressive within the resources we have available at Michigan State to provide the best for both of those segments of our population. It becomes a challenge. You have to have a global perspective, and you have to have a long-range perspective and make sure that you can generate the funds necessary for the debt capacity that you’re building."

All of the ADs I interviewed for the story said they don't get caught up in the arms race, though each admitted they pay attention to what other schools are doing when it comes to facilities. The unanswered question is whether building craze will ever slow down.

"I'd like to say cooler heads will prevail and stop the escalation, but I'm not sure they will," Indiana's Glass said. "It's a marketplace, and at some level if athletic departments are generating the money, I'm not sure I see the downside of reinvesting it in their athletic programs. If it leads to the academic side subsidizing the athletic side, then think it's gone too far and hopefully the market will reorient itself."


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