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Weighing the burden of expectations

More often than not, programs are going to want more

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Chryst was a victory over Illinois — and former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema — away from tying for the second-most wins by a head coach in program history at Wisconsin.

Instead, his Badgers lost to the Fighting Illini in decisive fashion, dropping their record to 0-2 in conference play and 2-3 on the season. In a cruel twist of fate, the loss — and Chryst’s subsequent firing the following Sunday — sealed his position on the program’s all-time wins list, behind Barry Alvarez and — you guessed it — Bielema.

Chryst’s ouster comes as quite a shock to many who follow college football. The former Wisconsin quarterback won 67 games at the helm of his alma mater, holds a .720 winning percentage in eight seasons, won the Big Ten West three times, and finished in the Top 25 four times.

But even before the Badgers dropped back-to-back blowout losses to Ohio State and Illinois, Wisconsin fans feared the program was backsliding. The program is 1-9 in their last 10 games against opponents ranked in the Top 20, dating back to the tail end of 2019. They failed to win the West in 2020 and 2021 and seem unlikely to return to Indianapolis in 2022.

At halftime of the Badgers’ 34-10 loss to Illinois, quarterback Graham Mertz said Chryst told the team it was time to draw a line in the sand. Well, by firing Chryst, Wisconsin has done exactly that. Chryst was good, but good enough. Not by the standard to which the program now holds itself.

“The expectations of our program at Wisconsin are to win championships,” Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh said in his press conference announcing Chryst’s departure.

Expectations are a funny thing, and a tour around the Big Ten West provides a number of interesting case studies in program expectations.

Nebraska’s football program has been in a tailspin for the last six years precisely because of their expectations. Bo Pelini won a lot of games in Lincoln but didn’t win enough of them to satisfy their administration or their fan base. Since his firing, the Huskers are 36-51 and will be hiring their fourth head coach in 10 years. A cautionary tale warning that making a change simply because you believe you deserve better also opens the door for things to get worse.

Meanwhile, Kirk Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald are entrenched at Iowa and Northwestern, respectively.

To his credit, Ferentz, the longest-tenured head coach in the FBS, hasn’t finished below .500 since 2012 and the Hawkeyes have finished in the Top 25 in each of the last four years. But the air of invincibility he has cultivated in more than two decades in Iowa City is being tested in a mess of his own making. Iowa’s offense has cratered under offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s son, and ranks 119th or worse nationally in passing offense, rushing offense, and scoring offense. Not only was Brian unqualified for the position when he was promoted, but Kirk has deflected all public criticism of Brian and does not seem willing to even entertain making a change.

Fitzgerald, the sixth-longest tenured head coach in the FBS, is the longest-tenured head football in program history at Northwestern. He has been the most successful coach in program history, holding the program record for overall wins (110) and conference wins (64), even though his winning percentage is only .539 and his record in the Big Ten is underwater at 65-69. Fitzgerald has also won the Big Ten West twice and led the Wildcats to 10 bowl games, when the program had only been to six bowls in the 123 seasons prior to his tenure.

Yet he has finished 3-9 in two of the last three seasons and looks to be headed that direction again this year after losses to Duke, Southern Illinois, and Miami (Ohio).

But for Northwestern, Fitzgerald seems to be good enough.

So what is good enough at Minnesota?

This is a question that comes up a lot when we evaluate P.J. Fleck’s tenure as head coach. He is 39-24 overall at Minnesota, with a 22-23 conference record. Fleck has led the Gophers to three bowl games in five years, but has yet to win the Big Ten West outright, coming as close as tying Wisconsin for first place in the division in 2019. His 11 wins in 2019 are the most in a single season since 1904, and he is responsible for two of the program’s four nine-win seasons since 1905. But Fleck’s record against Top 25 opponents is 3-8.

Is that good enough?

I imagine the answer is going to vary from one person to the next, and obviously the opinion that matters most is the opinion of athletic director Mark Coyle, who keep his cards very close to his chest but seems more than happy with Fleck’s performance thus far. Personally, I’m probably in the same boat. I have my fair share of issues with Fleck — the biggest one being the continued absence of a certain bronze pig — but I think his tenure has been a successful for the most part.

But at what point does good become not good enough? When do expectations change? Because the expectation at Wisconsin wasn’t always to win championships. That became the standard, and I suppose that standard gets raised when the ceiling does. You expectation for Fleck may be to win the Big Ten West, but that’s never been done before at Minnesota. Does that make it an unfair expectation? We may think we know how high the ceiling is at Minnesota, but many of us are talking about a ceiling we’ve never actually laid eyes on before.

Like I said, expectations are a funny thing. When they’re low, you can find yourself in Pat Fitzgerald’s position. And when they’re high, you can find yourself in Paul Chryst’s.