Throughout the history of college football, the Big Ten has been front and center. The conference was founded in 1896 and has been a prominent part of college football ever since. The biggest reason for that is the incredible coaching lineage of the conference. Many of the all-time greats have coached at Big Ten school, helping the league remain a haven for powerhouse programs. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the greatest football coaches in Big Ten history.
Amos Alonzo Stagg, Chicago
Admittedly, most people have never heard of Stagg, who coached the Chicago Maroons from 1892 to 1932. While the University of Chicago now plays Division 3 football, they were a founding member of the Big Ten, making Stagg one of the league’s first coaching legends. From 1896 when the Big Ten was founded until 1932, Stagg led the Maroons to seven Big Ten titles and two national championships.
Outside of football, Stagg was influential in the game of basketball, playing in the first-ever basketball game that was played publicly. He was also instrumental in basketball being played with five players on each team. Stagg also turned down the chance to play pro baseball but did invent the batting cage. Before passing away in 1965, he was inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and Basketball Hall of Fame.
Robert Zuppke, Illinois
Zuppke is another one of the early coaching legends in the Big Ten. He was the head coach at Illinois from 1913 to 1941. While the last dozen years of his tenure didn’t go particularly well for the Illini, he turned Illinois into a powerhouse for most of the 1910s and 20s. Between 1914 and 1928, Zuppke led the Fighting Illini to seven Big Ten titles and four national championships, making them one of the first powerhouse programs in the Big Ten.
In addition to his coaching accomplishments, Zuppke was a well-known artist and philosopher. He is credited with several profound sayings that are commonly known as Zuppkeisms. The field at Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois is named after him.
Joe Paterno, Penn State
There’s no getting around Paterno’s unceremonious exit at Penn State and the disturbing circumstances around it. But before all of that happened, Paterno was a beloved college football coach and one of the best in Big Ten history. Oddly enough, he was at Penn State for over a quarter-century and won two national championships before the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993.
Even if you only look at Penn State’s time in the Big Ten, Paterno accomplished a great deal. Under Paterno, the Nittany Lions were immediately one of the league’s best teams. Over his 18 years in the Big Ten, Penn State won three conference titles and finished the season as a top-10 team six times.
Bo Schembechler, Michigan
The Big Ten aside, Schembechler is in the running for the best coach in college football history. The Wolverines dominated the conference during his tenure, winning 13 Big Ten titles in 21 seasons under Schembechler. While he never won a national title, Michigan finished the season as a top-10 team 16 times over those 21 years.
Few programs have dominated a conference the way Michigan did under Schembechler. During that time, the Wolverines were 194-48-5. Including his years at Miami (Ohio) before coming to Ann Arbor, Schembechler won 234 games with only three other college football coaches reaching 200 wins faster.
Woody Hayes, Ohio State
Why is Ohio State a national power today? A lot of it has to do with Hayes, who coached the Buckeyes from 1951 to 1978, helping set the stage for future success. Hayes won five national championships at Ohio State while also leading the Buckeyes to 13 Big Ten titles in 28 years.
During the decade from 1968 to 1977, the Buckeyes won at least a share of the Big Ten title nine times, won two national championships, and finished the season as a top-5 team eight times. That stretch is even more impressive because Hayes was doing battle with Schembechler and Michigan on a yearly basis. Those two Big Ten legends had one of the great coaching rivalries in college football history and both helped make the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry what it is today.