Dienhart: My favorite Big Ten coaching icons

It was big news yesterday when Tom Izzo reaffirmed that he would remain at Michigan State, shooting down rumors that connected him to NBA openings.

Izzo is a true Big Ten coaching icon, having just completed his 19th season in East Lansing. Izzo has won 468 games, seven Big Ten titles and been to six Final Fours with one national title and one other appearance in the national title game.

With the 59-year-old Izzo looking like he might finish his career with the Spartans, he could coach another 10 or so years, right? And, if he keeps winning like he has, Izzo will end up as one the most successful coaches in the sport’s history.

The Big Ten is fortunate to also have an icon still working the football sidelines in Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, who is entering his 16th season in Iowa City.

[ MORE: Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio rank top 10 in SN coach rankings ]

That got me thinking: Who are my favorite Big Ten coaching icons of the past 40 years? In no particular order, I present …

Woody Hayes, Ohio State 1951-1978. From the block “O” ball cap. thick glasses and red windbreaker, Hayes cast a mighty visage along the banks of Olentangy. In 28 years storming the sidelines of the Shoe, Hayes won 13 Big Ten crowns and five national championships. Hayes epitomized his era of grab-you-by-the-facemask football coach.

Lou Henson, Illinois 1975-1996. Who doesn’t love Henson? From the hunter’s orange sport coat to the infamous swirl of hair on top of his head, Henson was a lovable character. He was “Every Man” who just so happened to be a terrific coach who famously led the Flyin’ Illini to the 1989 Final Four during a 21-year tenure in Champaign.

Gene Keady, Purdue 1980-2005. Forget the combover cracks. No one can say that Keady didn’t maximize his abilities and the talent he led. That’s coaching, people. His teams always were known for playing hard and playing smart. Keady was a seven-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and six-time league champ in 25 years in West Lafayette. It’s not easy to win consistently at Purdue. And the fiery Keady, who loved to toss his sport coat, did. Kudos.

Jud Heathcote, Michigan State 1976-1995. The beloved Jud forever will be known for leading Magic and Co., to the 1979 national title over Indiana State and Larry Bird. Heathcote was an uncanny combination of coaching acumen and self-depricating humor. His teams always were prepared in a 19-year run in East Lansing.

Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin 1990-2005. Let’s go ahead and call him the King of Wisconsin. Because, that’s what he is. Alvarez breathed life into a moribund program, taking the Badgers to three Rose Bowls in his Hall of Fame 16-year stint in Madison. It’s because of Alvarez that Wisconsin matters nationally. He’s the King, remember?

Bob Knight, Indiana 1971-2000. Controversial? Yes. Successful? Heck yes. Love him or hate him,”The General” cast a massive shadow over the Big Ten and nation during an often stormy 29-year career in Bloomington that saw Knight win 11 Big Ten crowns and three national titles all while ruffling the feathers of millions along the way–and not giving a damn about it.

Bo Schembechler, Michigan 1969-1989. He lifted the program up from some lean years to national prominence, winning 13 Big Ten championships in 21 seasons in Ann Arbor. Gruff and tough, Schembechler’s iron jaw came to epitomize Wolverine football. Bo did it his way.

Hayden Fry, Iowa 1979-1998. The Hawkeyes played the Wile E. Coyote to the rest of the Big Ten’s Roadrunner for years prior to Fry’s arrival. Fry quickly changed that. Arriving from Texas with a twang, cowboy boots, white pants and cool shades, Fry had the Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl in three scant years. He finished with three trips to Pasadena en route to making Iowa an elite program–and having a lot of fun along the way.

Joe Paterno, Penn State 1966-2011. A coaching giant who had god-like reverence. That’s as simple as I can put it. From the black shoes, white socks and thick black glasses, JoePa was an American icon who won more than anyone in the business. He had an impact on and off the field the likes of which never had been seen. It’s unfortunate it is sullied by a tragic and scandal-ridden end.


Tom Osborne, Nebraska 1973-1997. Osborne never coached in the Big Ten, admittedly, but the unflappable Dr. Tom was the perfect portrait of Midwestern stoic. No frills, just steady doses of excellence while leading an often-dominating Cornhuskers program for 25 years to three national championships and 13 league crowns. A quiet assassin who would trample a foe and still be beloved.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Your Opinion?
Show Comments (8 Comments)
Barb Mackison on 5/1/2014 @ 1:35pm EDT Said:

Thanks for having the courage to include JoePa. For some of us he will always be the man not only on the field but off it as well.

Jeff Schnipkoweit on 5/1/2014 @ 2:21pm EDT Said:

Thanks Tom for including the Greatest Hokey Pokey Dancer Of Them All, Coach Fry. While his antics and success on the field is well documented what truly made him an “Icon” was how he rallied both the rural and city people of Iowa to support the Black n Gold. His legacy will not be forgot anytime soon as more of his players and coaches become “Icons” in their own right. He is the “root” of one of the greatest coaching trees in all of college sports.

Glenn on 5/1/2014 @ 6:37pm EDT Said:

Can’t argue with the list except Osborne. Personally I don’t think a coach should be considered except for the years he’s been in the Big Ten. With that said, perhaps Paterno might not be there, but I’ll give it a pass. Obviously this is a modern era list. I’d be interested in seeing a classic list too…Fielding Yost, Piggy Lambert, Ray Elliott…

bigtengrad on 5/1/2014 @ 9:04pm EDT Said:

Glenn, BTN has done everything possible to include the new teams to the conference and done a good job of it. Sorry if you don’t like Nebraska, but Osborne is one of greatest coaches of the modern era. Nebraska is in the conference to stay, so like it or not their history (and former coaches accomplishments) come with them. Oh, and that includes Fielding Yost.

Mark on 5/1/2014 @ 10:15pm EDT Said:

Don’t forget or overlook the Irishman, the one and only Duffy Daugherty. Great recruiter, coach and personality. Biggie got us started, but Duffy brought us to the next level. We also had a great and well known hockey coach, Amo Bessone. At 20 years old I was lucky enough to meet Duffy several times and hear him speak as well. But Amo turned out to be a wonderful friend to two 20 year old kids, we were the first to film the games for the coaching staff and team. He made sure that we had everything we needed. I got to visit with him almost every afternoon for a few minutes, during the school year and cherished that time.

Chaz on 5/2/2014 @ 8:56am EDT Said:

No love for Woody Hayes, here? He was a complex man who had the capacity to be very human and cared deeply for people. On the other hand he could be very boorish and graceless. At least he went down swinging. He was one of college football’s great characters.

Jay W on 5/3/2014 @ 12:07pm EDT Said:

Great list, but missing two key words – Dan Gable

yomama on 5/5/2014 @ 11:25pm EDT Said:

Schembecler not top 3? 2? You must have daddy issues. Hayes, Schembechler, Paterno. Case is easily closed. What reality do you HAIL from?