The 137th episode of Seinfeld is called The Bizarro Jerry, where Kramer gets a real job (or at least goes to work at one), Elaine breaks up with a guy who is totally cool and just being friends, and George dates a woman who’s beautiful enough to get him into a models-only nightclub, but flawed in that she has man-hands.
Over the course of the episode, Bizarro versions of Jerry, George, and Kramer amount and Elaine momentarily chooses them over her, until later on when Bizarro Jerry — in the form of a guy named Kevin — flips out about her not asking to get in the fridge to eat olives.
If the Bizarro Jerry were a college football offseason start, it’d probably be this one. No longer is the question, “How can the Big Ten catch up to the rest of the nation?” Nope. Rather, the question is, “How can the nation catch up to Ohio State?” Meanwhile, the Big Ten West is hiring itself into the most dominant division in college football.
Is it Bizarro, or is it a true shift in college football (dusts off countless old columns about how the sport is cyclical and the Big Ten would be back shortly).
The real question is, how much better is the Big Ten, or are we overrating how things are going off the field? The question was posed: is the conference really better in light of its coaching carousel at the start of this offseason?
It’s probably a better question than it looks at face value. You bring Jim Harbaugh in, and it’s like that one girl in a group who’s so pretty, you don’t mind hanging around her lower-tier, somewhat stale-personality friends just because she’s so worth being in the company of. So that’s been the focus.
The truth is, the rest of the conference aside from Ohio State probably doesn’t much care for Harbaugh in Ann Arbor. It makes Michigan immediately relevant again, and more importantly, gives the Wolverines elite coaching. Ohio State doesn’t care because Ohio State is like Michigan … their programs and history are so overwhelming, only they can bring themselves down with things like scandals or bad hires.
The rest of the upheaval in the conference is a little harder to paint with a broad brush. First, you look at old, stable Wisconsin, who has become basically like dating a librarian. Perhaps she’s not the most gorgeous woman in the world, but she works, comes home, and there’s never any wild deviation that makes you go gray before you need to.
Paul Chryst, as referenced prior, felt at first glance like going out with a woman whose most endearing quality is that she simply won’t leave you. After surprising stage-left exits from Bret Bielema and then Gary Andersen, Chryst has Wisconsin blood coursing through his veins to the point where you know, sink or swim, he’s staying around.
But his record is what it is, and sports is … right or wrong … about winning and losing. Coaching is easy in the sense of what you know you have to do to keep your job and your people happy. Whereas other jobs might have more arbitrary criteria to determine your success, coaching leaves little wiggle room.
You can be the greatest in the world off the field but not so good on it, and you’re gone. You can be an awful human away from the games, but win when the lights are on, and you have a key to the city so to speak.
Chryst comes in with a portrait-of-mediocre 19-19 career head coaching record at Pitt, zero winning seasons in conference play, and the dubious distinction of never having lost fewer than six games in a season. If he wasn’t a Wisconsin guy (need something like Michigan Man here), would he have been considered?
I’m not about to say it won’t or cannot work. I am saying he has less experience and success than his predecessor, and has overseen three average seasons. Wisconsin doesn’t do average.
Then, you have the case of Mike Riley, who was brought on because he’s basically the anti-Bo Pelini. Problem is, Pelini won. You could argue that considering a program of Nebraska’s stature, the Huskers could sell the “he didn’t win enough” line, but Pelini is the closest case I can come up with of a successful coach not mired in scandal or off-field issues being let go.
Riley is an interesting hire because he’s been outstanding holed up in Oregon State, who was bad before he first got there, hideously bad. He put the Beavers on the upswing before flaming out in San Diego and returning to Corvallis to continue his success.
That success came at the same time Oregon has flexed national muscle on a yearly basis, making it even doubly hard to win in a place wholly not used to doing it. Riley is 61-years-old, and I’m a big “age is nothing but a number” guy, but you still wonder how much longer he wants to coach. It’s not about age, it’s about not really wanting to do this rigorous job forever.
Success-wise, Riley cannot be questioned. The NFL is so different compared to college football, it’s too crass and shortsighted to simply suggest that one stop means long days are ahead in Lincoln. That said, when you take over a program that wins 9-10 games every year under the last guy who got fired, what the hell is the expectation level going to be?
Did the Big Ten get better overall? Yeah. It did. Chryst enters a program ready-made for success and simply needs to carry on that tradition. Nebraska got a guy who is basically Bizarro Jerry in terms of nice-ness, but with more success (no word on how stringent he is on getting in his fridge).
And then … Harbaugh.
The Big Ten has truly become The Forbidden City. It’s no longer a dusty meat locker everyone portrayed it to be. Cyclical, I tell ya.