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My Column: The Big Ten Coach of the Year Award Is A Disaster

Yes, your preconceptions of the award are probably insane.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

As most fans are probably aware, Sunday marks the end of the Big Ten’s regular season. It’s an exciting time for college basketball fans that sets up perhaps the greatest postseason in sports: March Madness.

However, that isn’t the only thing that comes with the end of the regular season. The end of the regular season also signals the period when voters will make their picks for various individual honors across the Big Ten. Fans will learn whether their favorite player(s) were named Big Ten Player of the Year, All-Big Ten, or Sixth Man of the Year.

And fans will also learn which coach was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.

But despite the hype and acclaim that comes with the Coach of the Year Award, its selection process is an unmitigated disaster. Instead of truly evaluating a coach’s performance, it’s simply become an award based on flawed media projections.

Let’s dive into that disaster today, starting with taking a look at the selection process.

The Coach of the Year Award generally goes to the coach of a team that had underwhelming preseason expectations and/or a tough stretch in the middle of the year that finds a way to exceed those expectations and turn things around.

Here are some of the recent winners.

Big Ten Coach of the Year Award Winners:

  • 2010-’11: Matt Painter (PU)
  • 2011-’12: Tom Izzo (MSU)
  • 2012-’13: Bo Ryan (UW)
  • 2013-’14: John Beilein (MICH); Tim Miles (NEB)
  • 2014-’15: Bo Ryan (UW)
  • 2015-’16: Tom Crean (IU)

Generally speaking, the award has recently seen about a 50-50 split in whether it goes to the Big Ten champions’ coach or to the coach of a team that had a surprising turnaround. And sometimes, it went to both of the above.

This year’s prime candidates are Minnesota’s Richard Pitino and Northwestern’s Chris Collins. Both have seen their teams improve considerably from last season and are now receiving the vast majority of the media’s attention for Coach of the Year.

But they’re receiving that hype for the wrong reasons.

Let’s start with Pitino.

No one would dispute that Pitino has done a stellar job this season. His offseason recruiting was excellent and his ability to bring in players like Amir Coffey, Reggie Lynch, and Akeem Springs has been impressive. Additionally, the improvement for players like Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy has also been fun to watch.

However, everything Pitino has done this season hasn’t been unique. He piloted his team to an 11-6 record in Big Ten play? Well, Matt Painter pushed Purdue to a 13-4 record. He guided a young team to second place in the standings? Well, Mark Turgeon did the same thing with an even younger team.

So, why is Pitino getting the hype then?

The answer is simple and it goes back to last season. While Maryland and Purdue were earning their way to NCAA Tournament appearances, Minnesota went 8-23 on the season. And moreover, it’s the fact the Golden Gophers had underwhelming preseason expectations, while Maryland and Purdue both received a substantial number of preseason top 25 votes.

However, there’s a serious issue with this thought process. Why are we rewarding a coach because his team was awful in the preceding season and/or had underwhelming preseason expectations? After all, Pitino was still building last season, but it wasn’t like he just took over. It was his third year on the job.

Seriously, think about the logic of an argument supporting this “improvement” concept. We’re essentially telling coaches that they have a better shot at a Coach of the Year Award if they tank their team in the preceding season. Obviously, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but you get the point.

It just doesn’t make sense.

And many of these arguments hold true with Collins too. Getting Northwestern on the verge and/or in the NCAA Tournament is an incredibly impressive performance and it deserves an enormous amount of acclaim.

However, it’s hard to view Collins’ efforts as those of a single season and moreover, should he “benefit” from the failures of past Northwestern coaches? If you want to give him Coach of the Year as a quasi-historical achievement, I can reason with that, but it does feel like you’re cheating other coaches out of their fair shot too.

So, what’s the solution? After all, if I’m going to whine and complain about this Award for an entire column, I should at least offer a solution.

Here’s what I would propose. To start, coaches only be evaluated on the present season and the present season only. Every team comes in with a blank slate. It doesn’t matter whether you were terrible or great during the prior season. It’s simply a restart.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t evaluate each team’s rosters. Coaches deserve credit for recruiting talent to their rosters, but if a team is especially young (Maryland and Minnesota) or is almost completely devoid of talent (Rutgers), then take that into account. And if a roster is loaded with talent and underperforms, that should count against a coach in this evaluation.

Finally, evaluate all Big Ten games equally. The last five games should not be more important than the first five games. I know people like to believe in teams “trending” one way or another, but with the vast scheduling imbalances Big Ten teams now experience, pointing out any trend is a stretch. In other words, we need to look at the full picture, from start to finish.

My solution certainly isn’t a perfect one, but it would at least give every Big Ten coach a legitimate shot at the Coach of the Year Award. There’s also no debating that it would generally favor the coaches of the best Big Ten teams. But, for me, I would rather award the coach of a great and consistent program than one would simply outperformed his own low expectations.

Coaches like Chris Collins and Richard Pitino deserve credit for what they’ve accomplished this season. But until the Big Ten Coach of the Year selection process makes sense, the award is always going to come with a bit of an asterisk.