Conference media days are a study in sociology. A bunch of print, radio and TV reporters – fueled by boxed lunches and miniature cans of soda – thrown into a big space with some of the stingiest quotes this side of mimes: College football coaches and players. Competing interests, angles and agendas bang into each other by the second. Like watching molecules heat themselves up with activity.
And the Big Ten Media Days, held in Chicago Thursday and Friday, promises to be a bigger, stranger affair than the usual league soiree. Though the NCAA and Big Ten wisely addressed Penn State’s Sandusky Scandal Monday, expect plenty of extra reporters – especially those wanting to pose tough questions to league boss Jim Delany – to roll into McCormack Place. And expect coaches to get grilled, too. Media relations folks will earn their pay this week preparing their bosses for all the contingency questions that could trigger an awkward answer.
But there will be more stories in Chicago, starting with the actual Penn State football that has to take the field in some shape or form this fall. Here’s five more angles to watch as the Media Days unfold:
Meet the new, utterly beleaguered boss of Penn State football: That’d be coach Bill O’Brien, who might take a blindfold and a cigarette at this point, even if the Nittany Lions just barely avoided NCAA execution this week. The penalties that the NCAA chose to levy – including a four-year postseason ban and potentially-crippling scholarship reductions – are bad enough.
Add to that the very real possibility that O’Brien may lose whole chunks of his roster to transfer, and the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator may have the toughest coaching job in college football. He’ll have the reporters’ sympathies – he didn’t create the mess he inherited from the late Joe Paterno — especially if he flashes some resolve in front of a big crowd.
Should be interesting, too, to see how O’Brien reacts when asked what he might think of his Big Ten peers actively recruiting Nittany Lions currently on the roster.
Make way for the rock star: If Penn State’s on ice, here comes the fire in Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, fresh off a year in the ESPN broadcasting booth, where he spent a whole season scouting the very teams he’ll coach against this fall.
Meyer won national titles at Florida in 2006 and 2008, made Utah relevant in 2004 with an undefeated season, and generally resides in that upper echelon of college coaches with Nick Saban, Bob Stoops and a few others. And Meyer can pack a mean (occasionally sanctimonious) quote, too.
The Big Ten’s never been brought this low by scandal and mediocrity; Meyer injects a dose of salesmanship and credibility at a moment when the league needs it.
Bunyan Boys: Hey – did you hear that Michigan State’s beaten Michigan four years in a row the first 565 times Spartans coaches and players said it? No? Chalk up at least a dozen more in Chicago. The media considers MSU and UM – which battle annually for the Paul Bunyan Trophy – the top two favorites for the Legends Division crown this year, and a whole presidential term of bragging rights belongs to the gang from East Lansing.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke slayed nearly every other dragon during an impressive first year in Ann Arbor, but Michigan State stuffed the Wolverines cold, and bullied them around a bit for good measure. Though Michigan and Ohio State – and their attendant rivalry – appear to be trending upward, Michigan State, coming off two straight 11-win season, has no intention of slowing down.
Sparty currently has the upper hand on its proverbial older brother, seems proud of it, and plans to win for the thumb this year. Michigan, meanwhile, must shoulder the burden of being the division favorite, despite being just one year removed from the Rich Rodriguez era. Nebraska found itself in a similar spot in 2009 and made it to the Big 12 title game.
Well, somebody has to win the thing: Since Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the Leaders Division crown, that leaves four teams – Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana – to vie for a Big Ten title spot. Eliminate the Hoosiers for the good of common sense, and you have three teams.
Of the bunch, Purdue rates as the most intriguing with 15 returning starters, three experienced quarterbacks and star defensive tackle Kawann Short. Illinois breaks in a new coaching staff and faces a brutal league road schedule (at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State). Wisconsin revamps its coaching staff, too and welcomes another transfer quarterback (Maryland’s Danny O’Brien). But the Badgers seem to have acquired the look of a perennial contender, and cocksure coach Bret Bielema annually sets that trend in Chicago. Purdue’s Danny Hope, on other hand, defines mild-mannered.
Culture Club: It’s coach Bo Pelini’s fifth year at Nebraska and, according to who you ask, he’s either settled into the job nicely or not quite delivered the goods he promised. Does his oft-discussed “process” create the culture worthy of a conference crown? In some ways, this team may be his ultimate litmus test. Full of fifth-year seniors who have soaked up practically a half-decade of Bo’s preaching and teaching on the virtues of effort, study and intangibles, these Huskers have their feet firmly planted in adulthood. Ditto for fourth-year junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who’s started 25 games in his career. How can Nebraska translate this seasoning into a 11-win season? We’ll see how Rex Burkhead, Will Compton and Kyler Reed answer.