Barry Alvarez makes no bones about it. The former Wisconsin coach — and current Badger athletic director — wants a blow-out Heisman Trophy campaign for UW running back Montee Ball, who got an invite to New York City in 2011, but lost to Baylor’s Robert Griffin III.
Thursday, the school unveiled a “This Fall Belongs to Ball” campaign, complete with a 90-second YouTube commercial that features Ball studying film inside Camp Randall Stadium in the dead of night while shots of Wisconsin’s other two Heisman winners –- Alan Ameche and Ron Dayne –- flash on the screen.
At the end of the video, Ball walks out to the field and yells into the camera: “I’m back!”
Said Alvarez: “You know what? You have to do everything that you can. He was a finalist last year. He’s the one who has to win it, but you do want to get his name out in front of people, so that they’re following it. If he has the kind of year you hope he has, he’ll get votes. But we’ve got a responsibility there, too.”
Current Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema certainly lived up to it in his 15 minutes at the Big Ten media days podium.
“I’d love to be a head coach that coaches a Heisman Trophy winner,” Bielema said. “Our offensive line would love to be an offensive line that blocks for a Heisman Trophy winner, and everybody in our program is going to try to help him win that award.”
The league’s second most-accomplished running back — Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead — has earned the same type of campaign.
While Burkhead’s 2011 numbers (1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns) aren’t as strong as Ball’s stats (1,933 and 33), remember that Ball could regress a little back to the mean without quarterback Russell Wilson to keep defenses so honest. And Burkhead’s production could improve if NU’s offense — with an extra year of experience — scares defenses more with the pass.
And Burkhead’s off-the-field resume is impeccable.
“The definition of what a role model is and what a student-athlete should be,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “And the things he does in our community, the type of leader he is, the type of example he sets on a daily basis, what he’s accomplished in the classroom, I wouldn’t trade him for another player in the country. That’s how much I think of Rex.”
For now, Nebraska’s planning a relatively low-key approach to Burkhead’s candidacy for several awards, including the Heisman. A NU spokesman told me there’d be a “micro Web site” built off of Huskers.com with Burkhead’s accomplishments. That fits Burkhead’s modesty and NU’s recent practice.
Nebraska did something similar for Ndamukong Suh in 2009, building progressively as Suh’s senior season soared into the stratosphere. Suh’s one of the most-decorated defensive players in college football history — winning the Outland, Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski Awards — but he didn’t grab the stiff-arm trophy. And if Nebraska had sold Suh, well, the way Nike sells him now, I think he would have.
Remember: Baylor put out the “RGIII” campaign before the 2011 season for Griffin. The Bears sent out a campaign card in the summer. They had a Twitter and Facebook page with Heisman attached to it. And Griffin nudged out Andrew Luck at Stanford, which waited too long and relied on Luck’s production too much.
I ranked Burkhead only tenth in my “15 Best Players in the Big Ten” list. But that ranking has no bearing on the Heisman, long an award for an offensive stars on national TV. In the Big Ten, Ball, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and Burkhead are the frontrunners, and the race is wide open with Griffin and Luck leaving for the NFL, and the nation’s best SEC teams — Alabama and LSU — not having any standout offensive stars to spotlight.
Idea! Swiss Army Rex. Versatile. Handy. Red.
* * *
Michigan coach Brady Hoke strikes the kind of podium posture that says: The sooner I get out of here, the happier I’ll be.
“Glad to see you,” he said to the media. “Uh, kind of.” It was the best joke of the day — not many to go around — because it rang perfectly true.
The press gets the picture; this is not a guy who fielded a lot of in-depth questions Thursday.
But this square-built guy is leading the Big Ten’s blue-blood Tiffany program, and you can tell that, too. It’s when he describes Michigan’s 11-2, Sugar-Bowl-winning season as “disappointing” because the Wolverines, which hadn’t sniffed mediocrity in the three years prior, didn’t play in the Rose Bowl.
The flip side of that coin is Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, the senatorial coach of the league who prepares a dissertation for his opening statement, and only becomes brief when the topic turns to the team he’s beaten four straight times: Michigan.
“Well, why do you guys bring that up on me?” he said.
It’s the Spartans who are coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons and the Spartans who have the intimidating defense that the Wolverines were once known for. But it’s Michigan that gets the nod as preseason favorite. And Michigan who played in the Sugar Bowl. Michigan.
“They’ve been favored pretty much the last four years,” Dantonio said. “Competitive game. Big rival game. They do an outstanding job there. But it only matters: Are they favored or not in the locker room?
“And in our locker room, they won’t be favored. So we’ll start with that.”
* * *
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien has few advantages right now. And he’ll have even fewer in two years.
But Thursday, he had the sympathy of the media, and the advantage of being a new head coach.
His lack of preconceived notions about the event allowed him to be open (to a point) and available to writers, reporters and radio hosts assembled in McCormack Place. It would have been easy for O’Brien to do his 15 minutes, move briskly through the obligations, and head to his hotel room.
Instead, at 4 p.m. — nearly five hours after he spoke to the full press room — he was conducting a lengthy one-on-one interview while his players — who had already taken off their suits — were signing autographs for a couple kids. To a scribe, O’Brien and Penn State made a lot of good moves here today and didn’t shy away from the challenge of the next four years.
* * *
Jim Delany might be the Big Ten’s boss, but he appears willing to listen to league coaches on the number of conference games.
“We’re of a unanimous mind to stay at eight,” he said. The Pac-12, which plays nine conference games, pulled out of a scheduling agreement that was set to start in 2017.
Now look for Delany to push hard for an across-the-board upgrade in schedules, especially when the playoff system begins in 2014.
“We think that having more opportunities –- not fewer –- to demonstrate strengths around the country is a real opportunity for us,” Delany said.
If the Big Ten’s going to stand pat on eight — and it makes sense from a home game/away game perspective — it has to adjust the nonconference approach to keep up with the Big 12 and Pac-12, who are both playing nine. So fewer MAC games. More neutral games with pizzazz like the one Michigan will play vs. Alabama on Sept. 1. And it just might mean fewer home games, which sends a chill up the spine of the bottom line.
Here’s the thing: The Big Ten will have the sweetest TV deal out there in a few years. The money for it gets sweeter if the league can show it’s serious about upgrading schedules. And you get serious with neutral/road games vs. the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12.
* * *
There was only one media member Thursday trailed by a couple handlers, who probably shook as many hands as conducted interviews. Only one dancing an impromptu jig in the McCormack skywalk that connects the Hyatt Regency hotel to the rest of McCormack.
Erin Andrews, who becomes Fox’s new college football studio host this fall.