Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, August 5, 2015

Where?s Jim Harbaugh? Did you see him? Did you hear what he said?

And so it went at Big Ten media days last week. Everyone with a pen and notebook was on the lookout for the new Michigan coach. Heck, we tracked the guy's day!

Harbaugh didn?t disappoint in Chicago. He charmed. He transfixed. He mesmerized. The kooky Harbaugh had them eating out of his hand-just as he had since being hired in late December.

Harbaugh?s arrival offers hope for a Wolverines program looking to regain its national rep. How bad has it been? Michigan hasn?t won the Big Ten since ? 2004.

No doubt, Harbaugh is one of the biggest hires in the Big Ten in generations. That got me thinking: What are the biggest, most important hires at each school since 1975-the last 40 years?

Let?s begin with the West Division.

John Mackovic. Out of work after being canned by the Kansas City Chiefs after making a playoff run in 1986, Mackovic sat out the 1987 season and then was tabbed by Illinois. Mackovic inherited a 4-7 squad from Mike White and proceeded to go 30-16-1 (22-9-1 Big Ten) with four bowl trips in four years from 1988-91. He led the program to a share of the 1990 Big Ten title. The Fighting Illini were rolling. Then, Mackovic was swooped up by Texas. Enter … Lou Tepper? No Illinois coach has posted a winning record since Mackovic.

Hayden Fry. The sun glasses, the white pants, the mustache, the black windbreaker, the stand-up tight end, the pink locker room, the Swarm ? it was pure Hayden Fry. He breathed life into a moribund Hawkeye program upon arriving in 1979 after seeing Jerry Burns, Ray Nagel, Frank Lauterbur and Bob Commings all come and go with losing records. Fry rode in from North Texas State with his twang and cachet and made Iowa a Big Ten power, going 143-89-6 (96-61-5 Big Ten) from 1979-1998. Iowa?s march to the Rose Bowl in the 1981 season ended a 12-year stranglehold on Pasadena by Ohio State and Michigan. Fry led the Hawkeyes to three Rose Bowls in all. He?s a legend.

Glen Mason. Jerry Kill soon may top this list, but let?s go with Mason for now. It would have been fun to have seen what Lou Holtz could have done had he stayed longer than two years (1984-85). Alas, he was lured to save Notre Dame from Gerry Faust in 1986. John Gutekunst (1986-91) was uninspiring and the late Jim Wacker (1992-96) was a disaster. Enter Mason, who resuscitated Kansas before coming to Dinkytown. Hey, if ?Mase? could make the Jayhawks a winner, he could do the same for the Gophers, right? Yep. Powered by a physical rushing attack, Mason went 64-57 (32-48 in the Big Ten) from 1997-2006 with seven bowls in 10 years. He went 10-3 in 2003 and twice went 5-3 in the Big Ten. Mason was fired after capping a 6-7 season in 2006 by blowing a 31-point third-quarter lead to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl. Minnesota turned to Tim Brewster and ? well ? you know the rest.

Frank Solich. Tom Osborne was hired in 1973, so he just missed the cut. Solich was the ultimate loyal soldier, a long-time Osborne aide and former Husker fullback who assumed command from Dr. Tom in 1998. Solich went 58-19 in six seasons (34-15) and led Nebraska to the BCS title game after the 2001 season. He also is the last coach to take the Cornhuskers to a league title, winning the Big 12 in 1999. Solich's 58 wins during his first six seasons exceeded predecessors Bob Devaney (53 wins) and Osborne (55 wins). But Solich won only one Big 12 North title and conference championship and had a 1-9 record on the road against ranked teams (0-9 in conference play). Nebraska turned to cerebral Bill Callahan, who was a fiasco, and then to intense Bo Pelini, who never got the program over the hump. Solich is in his 11th season at Ohio with a 72-56 mark with six bowls.

Gary Barnett. Pat Fitzgerald has been good. And the late Randy Walker (1999-2005) left his mark. But it was Barnett who delivered the Purple to Pasadena, a feat some felt was impossible. But in 1995, Barnett took NU to the Rose Bowl, finishing 10-2 overall and 8-0 in the Big Ten. He followed with another Big Ten crown in 1996. Those were his only two winning seasons in Evanston-but it was enough to change the culture and expectations at Northwestern, which hadn?t been to a bowl since the 1948 season prior to Barnett?s arrival. Barnett went 35-45-1 overall (23-33 in the Big Ten) from 1992-98 before leaving for Colorado, where he was an assistant before landing the gig.

Joe Tiller. Jim Young did some great things from 1977-81, but his stay was too brief. Tiller left West Lafayette as the Boilermakers all-time winningest coach, going 87-62 (53-43 Big Ten) from 1997-2008 with 10 bowls. Tiller?s crowning achievement was a run to the Rose Bowl in the 2000 season fueled by Drew Brees. Tiller?s ?basketball on grass? offense revolutionized the Big Ten and showed you could win big by passing the ball in the often-stodgy run-first, run-second, run-third Big Ten. Tiller deserves a statue in front of Ross-Ade Stadium, which has been a coaching graveyard (Bob DeMoss, Alex Agase, Leon Burtnett, Fred Akers, Jim Colletto, Danny Hope) for so many.

Barry Alvarez. He not only saved the football program-but he saved the athletic department, too. Alvarez is an icon who has a statue of himself outside of Camp Randall Stadium. Heck, the stadium should be named for Alvarez. He walked into a train wreck in the wake of the ruinous Don Morton era (6-27 from 1987-89). The stadium was half-full and interest waned as Wisconsin tried to recover from the untimely death of Dave McClain in 1986. Enter Alvarez, who was fresh off a run as an assistant to Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. After a 1-10 debut in 1990, Alvarez went on to compile a 119-74-4 mark (65-60-3 Big Ten) with three Big Ten titles from 1990-2005. Alvarez became AD in 2004 and continues to mold one of the nation?s top athletic programs.


About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, 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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