Football: From Fickell to Paterno, Big Ten coaches run the gamut

Colin Becht

It kicks in on the first day.

That’s when Pat Fitzgerald said a new head coach feels like the team is his, mainly because the weight of all the team’s questions immediately rests on his shoulders.

“Right away you’ve got to come up with all the answers,” Fitzgerald said.

It’s a common sentiment around the Big Ten this year, as four new coaches have taken over football programs, each with his own unique challenges to address.

There’s Jerry Kill, a longtime head coach getting his first shot with a BCS team at Minnesota; Brady Hoke, the man entrusted with reviving the crumbled Michigan legacy; Kevin Wilson, an offensive guru attempting to rebuild the floundering Indiana program; and Luke Fickell, an assistant suddenly thrust into the head coaching gig amid Ohio State’s turmoil.

The four new coaches, each facing daunting challenges, prove a dream job is anything but a fantasy.

Minnesota makeover

The title of head coach is nothing new for Jerry Kill. It’s the prestige of the conference he’s coaching in that is unique.

Kill has been a collegiate head coach since 1994, working himself up from Division II Saginaw Valley State and Emporia State to the FCS with Southern Illinois to Northern Illinois in the FBS and finally to a BCS conference as leader of the Golden Gophers.

It’s been a long road for Kill, with the only constant of a coaching staff that has stayed mostly the same since 1999 at Emporia State.

“Probably the thing that’s helped us the most is that I’ve had a coaching staff that’s been with me a long time,” Kill said at Big Ten Media Days in July. “When you take a new job over and you’re going into a new place, having people that are familiar with what you’re doing, it helps us get maybe started a little quicker.”

That logic has proved true at both Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, where Kill amassed 55-32 and 23-16 records, respectively.

It’s been a little more difficult, however, at Minnesota, as the Gophers are off to a 1-6 start and Kill has yet to register his first conference win. In fact, Kill has had less success against Big Ten opponents with Minnesota than he did playing Big Ten squads in non-conference matchups at Northern Illinois. Kill went 2-3 against Big Ten teams during his three years with the Huskies, notching wins over Purdue and Minnesota.

However, Kill said it’s a little easier to knock off a single Big Ten opponent, knowing you don’t have to play another on the following Saturday.

“When you’re at a mid-major, you may play two or three,” Kill said. “That’s a huge game when you play them. You’re not playing that competition week in, week out, week in, week out. I think that’s the difference.”

Taking over a program that’s had one winning season in the past five years and hasn’t won a Big Ten championship since 1967, Kill, who received a seven-year contract extension this week, had no expectations of a quick fix.

“Are we going to be able to be exactly like we’d like to be right off the bat? Probably not,” Kill said. “We don’t want to ask kids to do something they can’t do.”

Hoke springs eternal

Trying to renew a more esteemed legacy is Brady Hoke, who replaced Rich Rodriguez at the helm of the Wolverines.

After going 11-2 and 9-4 in the final two years under Lloyd Carr, Michigan failed to finish higher than seventh in three years with Rodriguez and made just one bowl appearance.

Still, with Michigan’s illustrious history as the all-time winningest school in college football history, Hoke insisted the Wolverines never have to rebuild.

“I don’t think we’re rebuilding, period,” Hoke said. “I mean, we’re Michigan.”

Hoke has certainly brought major changes to the Wolverines with offensive coordinator Al Borges switching Michigan from a spread offense to a pro-style offense.

“Our players at this point have done a nice job handling the transition of a new staff,” Hoke said. “New system on defense, new system on offense, and how they’re being coached, what they’re being asked to do.”

Though Borges’ decision to switch to a pro-style offense despite using dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson was initially questioned, the Wolverines have had no trouble putting up points, scoring more than 30 points five times this season.

An added boost to Hoke’s goals of returning the Wolverines to the Big Ten’s elite, Michigan’s name still carries plenty weight in recruiting.

“This might sound arrogant, and if it is, it is. We’re Michigan,” Hoke said. “Those guys out on the road (recruiting), they work it and they do a tremendous job. But first and foremost, it’s Michigan.”

The Wilson way

The luxury of a distinguished legacy does not apply to Indiana’s new head coach, Kevin Wilson, who will have to get the wins first before his program generates any buzz.

“It’s all about the future moving forward and it starts with me,” Wilson said. “I have no issues in complaining or what should have been done or why things have happened in the past. I want our fans to be excited about it, but they’re not going to be until we win games and do the things that winners do. When we get our program in place, that’s when the culture will change.”

Wilson, in his first collegiate head coaching job, has no intention of waiting to change that culture and convinced the Indiana seniors that their final season wouldn’t be a rebuilding year.

“We’re not trying to be good four, five, six years from now,” Wilson said. “The No. 1 job our staff has done and our strength staff has done is recruiting the current Indiana football team, giving these seniors a chance to have a great year.”

Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, that “great year” hasn’t occurred. Indiana is 1-7 on the year, leaving the Hoosiers unable to obtain just their second winning season since 1994.

Still, Wilson’s players have faith that the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator will turn things around in Bloomington, Ind.

“The first thing he said when he got here was that he was going to change the program around. That’s what he’s definitely doing,” senior wide receiver Damarlo Belcher said. “He’s definitely going to change the program around in the next few years.”

The new vest

For Luke Fickell, unlike his fellow new coaches, the task isn’t to turn Ohio State around, but rather to ride out a storm of tumult as unharmed as possible.

Fickell was named head coach in late May after former coach Jim Tressel resigned amid NCAA allegations of wrongdoing.

“Everything happened pretty fast,” Fickell said. “The greatest thing I guess I could say is I had no time to sit and think. I had no time to feel sorry of any sort, to have a whole lot of emotion. The situation arose and obviously I had to stand up.”

The Fickell era has not gone well so far at Ohio State, as the Buckeyes have gone just 4-3 this year after winning or sharing each of the last six Big Ten titles. Ohio State vacated its conference championship as well as all of its wins from last season as part of its punishment for Tressel’s and players’ NCAA rules transgressions.

Luckily for Fickell, like with Michigan, Ohio State’s legacy still symbolizes success with recruits.

“We always, since I’ve been at Ohio State, focused on the history and traditions of what Ohio State has brought,” Fickell said. “It’s bigger than any one person, any one coach or era. I truly believe that Ohio State will always attract top-notch student-athletes around the country no matter what.”

A simpler time

On the opposite end of the spectrum to the Big Ten’s four new coaches is Penn State’s Joe Paterno, who has been the head coach of the Nittany Lions since 1966. When Paterno was first hired after Rip Engle retired, it was a much simpler time for college coaches.

“Engle came in and said to me, ‘I think I’m going to retire and I think you have a goo
d shot at the game,'” Paterno said.

“(Then-athletic director Ernie McCoy) called me in the office and he said, ‘Rip is retiring.’

“I said, ‘Yeah, he told me.’

“He said, ‘Do you want this job?’

“I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘OK, it’s yours.’

“I said, ‘That’s great.’

“He said, ‘10 thousand bucks a year.’ He said, ‘I’m teasing, 20 thousand you’re getting.’ Never signed a contract.”

Asked to explain his longevity as a coach, Paterno couldn’t say, other than maybe not having to deal with as much media attention.

“We don’t have as many of you guys around as some of these other guys,” Paterno said. “That helps. We’re in that little town up there in State College.”

Of course winning also helps, and Paterno has done plenty of that. His 408 career victories tie for the most all-time in Division I football.

With wins as the biggest factor in contract extensions, it would seem that Hoke can feel confident while Kill, Wilson and Fickell still have work to do to prove their worth in their first seasons.

As Hoke said, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”

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