The Fred Hoiberg era is not off to the start that Nebraska fans wanted.
Home loss to UC-Riverside. Home loss to Southern Utah. Woof.
Pretty much everybody across the nation agreed that Fred Hoiberg was an absolute A+ hire for Nebraska. And he may yet turn out to be. I kind of lean that way myself.
But this is Stats Stuff, and I’m here to stuff you full of stats, not pontificate on potentialities. Irrespective of what I think the Hoiberg Era will end up looking like, we have data that we can look at.
As soon as Nebraska lost the Riverside game, I asked myself: “How many Big Ten coaches lost their first-season home opener and then went on to win the conference at some point?” I looked at the data and found some. Then Southern Utah happened, and I had to go back to the data to see if any of those same coaches had ever lost their first two home games and gone on to win the league.
As it turns out, it happened to the very first guy who ever won the Big Ten.
There are 50 head coaches listed on Wikipedia as having won the Big Ten regular season at some point. (Well, actually 49, but Ralph Jones won the league at two different schools, so just like Grover Cleveland, he gets counted twice.)
Every Big Ten media guide is available on the Big Ten website. Of the ten schools who have won the league at some point, all ten list the results of every game their school has ever played.
To answer our question, it was a simple matter of cross-referencing the two sources.
Here are all of the championship coaches in chronological order by hire date, and the result of their first home game(s).
- LJ Cooke at Minnesota was hired in 1897. The older back in these media guides you go, the more hilarious some of the opponents get, and it’s no surprise that the oldest hire has the weirdest first set of games. Cooke’s team lost to YMCA Triangles, and then to the U of M Ag. School. Yes, that’s right in 1897, the University of Minnesota lost to one of its own schools. And you thought Riverside and Southern Utah were embarrassing. There’s hope, Nebraska fans!
- Emmett Angell at Wisconsin started in 1904 and beat Co. G Sparta. Of all the opponents I found, this is the one where I have no idea who in the unholy hell they were. If anyone knows, leave a message in the comments.
- Ralph Jones started at Purdue in 1909 and beat Earlham. Then he left to go to Illinois in 1912 and beat Wesleyan. I’m not aware of any other man who even coached at two different Big Ten schools, let alone won a Big Ten title in two places. Illinois fans, if you want to argue your program has a better ceiling than Purdue, Ralph Jones leaving West Lafayette for Champaign despite hoisting a banner in the former isn’t a bad piece of evidence.
- That said, maybe Purdue actually ended up with the better end of that deal, because the next coach on the list is Ward “Piggy” Lambert. Piggy started at Purdue in 1916 and beat Rose Poly, which I presume is now Rose-Hulman. If you think Purdue is a nerdy school in Indiana with a skewed gender ratio, just spend a weekend at Rose.
- In 1917, Guy Lowman started at Wisconsin and beat Beloit.
- In 1919, EJ Mather started at Michigan and beat Kalamazoo.
- Walter Meanwell beat Knox as Wisconsin’s head coach in 1920.
- Two years later, Sam Berry at Iowa also beat Knox. (Sounds like Nebraska should have scheduled Knox to open the season.) The same year, Harold Olsen at Ohio State defeated Ohio Wesleyan.
OK, so far, there hasn’t been a lot of hope for Nebraska. You can’t exactly hang your hat on LJ Cooke; nobody’s ever heard of him. Piggy Lambert is the only guy so far anybody has ever heard of. (No disrespect to Wisconsin fans. Your boy Walter won the Big Ten eight times, more than Gene Keady. It’s not my intention to cast aspersions; I mean well.)
But here’s somebody people have heard of, and he lost his first (though not his second) home game.
- In 1924, Everett Dean lost his first game to Indiana State. Interestingly, ninety-four years later, Archie Miller would do the same thing, presumably as an homage. I mean, you don’t lose a game to the Sycamores by 21 if you’re actually trying to win, do you? Both Dean and Miller would win their next game, with Dean besting Washington (the one in St. Louis) and Miller thumping Howard.
- The lone Northwestern coach to ever win the league began in 1927. Arthur Lonborg whipped Wabash.
- Dave McMillan began in Minneapolis In 1927 and lost to Andy Bernard’s Cornell Big Red. He didn’t go full LJ Cooke, though, and in his second game he turned it around to beat North Dakota. Interestingly, the Minnesota media guide is inconsistent on whether his name was “McMillan” or “MacMillan”. Get your shit together, Gopher athletics staff. I don’t care if your football team beat Penn State; this is inexcusable.
- George Veenker rounds out our list of coaches hired in the 20s who eventually won a title despite losing their first home game. His Wolverines lost to Michigan State, which is honestly the most excusable loss on the list so far. They went on to beat Penn.
- J. Craig Ruby started at Illinois in 1931. He beat St. Louis.
- Bud Foster started at Wisconsin in 1934 and beat Franklin.
- Douglass Mills began his career in Champaign in 1936 and defeated Carroll.
- Branch McCracken started at Indiana in 1938 and beat Ball State. Funnily enough, Bob Knight’s first win at IU was also against Ball State. If you want to win a national title in Bloomington, schedule the Cardinals, not the Sycamores.
- Pops Harrison beat South Dakota State in his first game as Iowa’s head man in 1942.
- Ozzie Cowles basically said George Veenker was a total jabroni and proved it by leading the 1946 Wolverines to victory over their rivals in East Lansing. For those of you thinking that it’s strange to open the season with a conference game, 1) Jim Boeheim agrees with you, and 2) remember that at this point Michigan State hadn’t been added to the Big Ten yet. They were just a podunk agricultural college.
- Also in 1946, Tippy Dye led the Buckeyes to a win over Pitt.
- Harry Combes took over Illinois in 1947 and promptly beat Coe College.
- Bucky O’Conner inaugurated his Iowa career with a victory over Western Michigan.
Let’s take another brief pause, because we’re leaving the era of weird old-timey names. Yes, we still have a Jud and a Lute and a Thad on tap, but Piggy, Bud, Branch, Pops, Tippy, and Bucky put those names to shame. Well done, parents with kids born in the early 20th century. But my favorite name is this next one. Forddy, with two D’s.
- Michigan State has joined the Big Ten by now, and in 1954 Spartan head man Forddy Anderson got his first home win over Marquette.
- Fred Taylor, hall of famer, started in Columbus in 1958 and lost to St. Louis. There you go, Nebraska fans: a Fred lost his first game, and he would go on to win a national championship! Believe it or not, Taylor’s second game was against a team from Utah, just like Hoiberg. Taylor won his game against the Utah Utes, though.
- Dave Strack signed up in Ann Arbor in 1962. He beat Ball State.
- In 1965, two future conference title winners would take over new schools and drop their home opener. John E. Benington at Michigan State lost to Western Michigan, and George King at Purdue lost to Virginia Tech. They would go on to beat Bowling Green and Detroit, respectively. Lou Watson also started at IU, but he won his first home game against St. Joe.
- Johnny Orr led Michigan to victory over Northern Illinois in 1968.
- As previously mentioned, Bob Knight got his start against Ball State in 1971. The same year, Bill Musselman led Minnesota over North Dakota.
- Lute Olson beat VCU as Iowa head man in 1974.
- Musselman didn’t last long in Minneapolis, as Jim Dutcher started in 1975 and promptly beat Loyola Chicago. Also in 1975, Lou Henson bested Kent State.
There’s a coach who started in 1976, but I’m going to skip him for now. If I learned anything from watching Pulp Fiction—apart from making sure never to confuse heroin and cocaine—it’s to put the emotional climax at the end, even if chronologically it belong in the middle. Have hope, Nebraska fans! LJ Cooke is not the only man to lose two home games and then win the Big Ten in a later season.
Everybody Big Ten-winning coach since 1976 won his home opener. Here’s a brief rundown:
- 1978, Lee Rose, Purdue over Louisiana-Lafayette.
- 1980, Gene Keady, Purdue over Colorado State.
- 1981, Bill Frieder, Michigan over Arkansas.
- 1989, Randy Ayers, Ohio State over Mount St. Mary’s.
- 1995, Tom Izzo, Michigan State over my hometown Evansville Purple Aces. Damn you, Izzo.
- 1996, Lon Kruger, Illinois over Maine.
- 2000, Bill Self, Illinois over Delaware State.
- 2000, Mike Davis, Indiana over Pepperdine.
- 2001, Bo Ryan, Wisconsin over Green Bay.
- 2003, Bruce Weber, Illinois over Western Illinois.
- 2004, Thad Matta, Ohio State over Towson.
- 2005, Matt Painter, Purdue over Wofford.
- 2007, John Beilein, Michigan over Radford.
- 2008, Tom Crean, Indiana over Northwestern State.
And now we return you to 1976. Jimmy Carter had just been hired as President, and Jud Heathcote had just been hired to coach Michigan State. Here’s how Jud did in his first five games:
- Lost 76-81 to Central Michigan. But that was a road game, so it doesn’t count for our purposes.
- Lost 73-74 to Western Michigan. Home game. Brutal.
- Lost 58-81 to North Carolina. Also at home. But it’s Carolina. Excusable.
- And then believe it or not, Jud came within one point of completing the trifecta of Michigan directional schools. The Spartans hosted Eastern Michigan, and it took overtime to eke out a 54-52 win.
- Then the Spartans played yet another in-state school, Detroit. And lost 94-99.
So to recap, Michigan State hired a guy who played four lesser in-state schools in his first five games. Three of those four games were at home. Three of those four games were losses, and the one win was in overtime.
One season later, he signed Magic Johnson.
A season after that, Michigan State won a national championship.
So if you Nebraska fans are worried about how Fred is doing so far, the answer is... of course! Hoiberg is good, but he ain’t landing the next Magic Johnson anytime soon. This season is going to be a disaster.
What we did here is a textbook example of how to mislead with statistics. We looked at the title-winning coaches and saw how many lost their first two home games. But what we should have done is look at every coach who lost their first two home games and seen how many of them won a Big Ten title.
This week’s homework assignment is for readers to use the linked media guides above and do just that. Report your results in the comments below.