A Young Man's Game

Bo Pelini

It's a real possibility that by seasons end, the Big Ten's top four teams could all be instructed by the four youngest coaches in the conference.

Pelini at Big Ten Media Days

The average age of all the Big Ten coaches is 50.8; take out the one outlier known as Joe Paterno and his 61 years of coaching experience and the average drops to 47.8.

Compared to the other six BCS conferences, the Big Ten ranks third in terms of average age for head coaches.

As Paterno pointed out at Big Ten media day, things are different today, especially when it comes to the coaching staff.

"There's a lot of people influencing decisions that are made because we have coaches getting fired, backup coaches, all those things that didn't exist when I was coming up the ladder," said Paterno.

This season alone, the Big Ten features four new head coaches in the conference: Brady Hoke, Luke Fickell, Kevin Wilson and Jerry Kill. In addition, the conference adds another new face in Nebraska's Bo Pelini, who has been the head coach for the Cornhuskers since 2008.

But what really stands out in this conference is the possibility that by seasons end, the Big Ten's top four teams could all be instructed by the four youngest coaches in the conference: Ohio State's Luke Fickell, Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald.

Wisconsin and Nebraska are the two favorites to win their side of the division, while Ohio State -- once a starting quarterback is determined -- could find themselves competing for the top spot in the conference yet again.

?And then there's Northwestern. Not everyone is entirely sold on the Wildcats. But with a senior quarterback at the helm in Dan Persa and his favorite target, Jeremy Ebert returning, the Wildcats might just be the surprise team of the Big Ten, thanks in large part to their head coach.

Fitzgerald, Fickell, Pelini, and Bielema are all at various stages in their career. Pelini has past experience in the NFL as the defensive backs coach for San Francisco and as the linebackers coach for Green Bay and New England. Bielema, who was named the head coach for Wisconsin back in 2006, has amassed an impressive 49-16 record, as well as being named the Big Ten Coach of the Year in his first ever season as a head coach.

Fitzgerald, who was named Northwestern's head coach the same year as Bielema took over Wisconsin, has yet to win a bowl game (0-3) in his head coaching career, but he has slowly began to bring in talented recruits and build a respectable program in Evanston.

Fickell, on the other hand, has yet to coach a game in his career after taking over Ohio State following the resignation of Jim Tressel. He takes over a program in disarray, but he does have a very talented roster. Once he determines who exactly is the starting quarterback, Ohio State will once again be one of the contenders in the Big Ten.

Now back to the gist of this story.

The four youngest coaches in the Big Ten could all realistically finish one through four in the conference in no particular no order. With accomplished coaches like Ferentz, Dantino, Paterno and Ron Zook in the conference, it's pretty interesting to ponder the notion that the so-called "young guns" in the conference could possibly trump the "old guys" at the conclusion of the season.

So what is the reason as to why these young coaches are having such success recently?

For starters, young coaches can easily connect with their players. With men ranging from 18 to 24 years-old, there's a sense that the "old guys" may not be able to interact as easily with these kids anymore. Now this isn't always the case, just take a look at how well Paterno and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz have recruited over the years, but it's starting to become more apparent.

Pelini has done an excellent job in bringing in top prospects to Lincoln since taking the reigns at Nebraska. One reason for his success in recruiting is his ability to communicate with the teenagers he visits.

"You have to be able to build a trust. You have to be able to, I wouldn't say talk the talk, but you have to able to communicate," said Pelini. "It's a huge part of coaching...You have to be able to understand this generation of kids has different things that are important to them and they are faced with different challenges than I was. You have to adapt accordingly."

Nebraska starting running back, Rex Burkhead, who was recruited by Pelini, enjoys learning from someone that is younger compared to a coach that has been around for multiple generations.

"I think it's a huge advantage. He has been through the whole college football experience, but he knows what we are feeling. I think it helps out a lot," said Burkhead.

Along with his ability to interact with this generation of kids, he brings a sense of excitement and passion, that some coaches aren't willing to display.

"I feel like I'm fairly young yet. I probably (relate)," said Pelini. "I'm passionate about what I do and how I approach it. I think that I bring a lot of energy. Part of it's my youthfulness and some of it is my style."

Speaking of style, that's another separation between coaches. The game of football is changing. The formations that once stood the test of time are beginning to lose its magic. Many of the successful teams have converted to a spread offense in order to fully maximize their skill set.

Coaches like Paterno are sometimes not willing to go away from the standards of football. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be a problem at times. Does the Big Ten recent lack of success in bowl games relate? The high-octane offenses of the SEC and Big 12 have often been too much for the opposing Big Ten teams.

Younger guys seem more willing to take the "high risk-high reward" approach each and every game. Someone like Fickell, who is entering his first season as a head coach, is more likely to make a gutsy decision that could win or lose a ball game compared to a longtime head coach because he wants to make a name for himself. Once again, this isn't always the case; take Mark Dantonio's called fake field-goal to defeat Notre Dame in 2010. But many of the new, young coaches in the nation try to incorporate their creativity into the playbook, which sometimes results in big time plays (see Boise State).

Boise State's Chris Peterson, 46, is one of the younger coaches in the nation. But there may not be another coach that is more willing to take more risks than him. Why? Because he wants to put himself and his school on the map. And he has done just that.

Younger coaches want to grow with their program. Fitzgerald is a great example of this. He took over a Northwestern team that was seen as a "basement dweller" in the Big Ten. But now, he has led them to three straight bowl games, and despite losing all three, he has Northwestern known as an up and comer.

It's not easy taking over a program, even if it's as established as Nebraska was when Pelini took over in 2008. When he was announced as the Cornhuskers' head coach, he had the responsibility of bringing respect back to the program after their 5-7 and bowless season in 2006.

He has done just that, and he has grown with this program.

"It requires a lot of energy and time It takes it's toll on you. It's a high pressure environment. There are a lot of demands on your time to run a program," said Pelini. "It's not easy and I think youth helps me. I think it also helps in relating to your players."

- Josh Harvey -

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