CHICAGO – Here on Michigan Ave., a Great Lake bearing the same name within spitting distance, it’s the end of the college sports world as we know it.
Surely you’ve heard in recent days/weeks/months that mountains will crash into oceans, the struggling NCAA will be flung off collegiate athletics like a shabby coat and a new, postmodern era of unfettered free market economics will set in and hold sway. College football’s major conferences are ready to break away – to something of their own creation, to another NCAA division – while being forced, at least in the theoretical world of court proceedings, to consider paying the athletes who attend their schools. At long last, national sportswriters declare, the scales have fallen from our eyes and TV contracts have put schools in an untenable position of keeping millions from the players who – some argue – primarily put the butts in the seats.
We shall see. On Wednesday, the most solemn and careful of those college football powers, Big Ten boss Jim Delany, steps to a podium to frame the debate during Big Ten media days. Delany’s measured-yet-stentorian-in-effect comments are the truest wind sock of how major college football programs – that is, universities that run major collegiate athletic programs – intend to work their way around the minefield to come. The Big 12 commish, Bob Bowlsby, can and did talk tough Monday about the size of Division I – it’s too easy for teams to get in and too hard to kick teams out is the gist – but Bowlsby’s opinion, let’s face it, laps like water against a wall. Texas and Oklahoma run the Big 12. Bowlsby’s been there not even two years.
Delany operates with less ripple and deeper reach. It’s little secret now that the failed vote to create cost-of-living stipends for athletes – which would have been funded through conferences – ticked off said leagues that could afford the freight of across-the-board cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) bumps for all athletes. Now, with the complex O’Bannon case potentially gaining class-action status, these programs have little-to-no good faith acts to show to the media, Congress or judges that any progress has been made in getting athletes a full, fair compensation package. The COLA bumps should have been an easy phase. It wasn’t. If that can’t pass, a power conference team might ask, what’s the point of sticking around Division I?
It’s a reasonable question. But so far, the ominously-intoned solutions have been more bluster than strategy. And perhaps bluster is the point. A tactic. The ball’s in your court, Sun Belt, Missouri Valley, Summit, etc. If you want the pleasure of our considerable financial shade, flip your vote.
Remember that Delany was the last on board the playoff train. He took his share of insults for it. But his reluctance was a kind of gift and tactic of its own, a guard against rushing in – like college football did with the BCS, which was tinkered with 2,356 times in the first five years, creating a mess. It was, if you will, a legislative gambit.
What he has in store for this latest drama is one of the top stories of the two-day event from the Hilton Chicago.
Here’s four more.
Be sure to catch Lee B’s take online and in The World-Herald Wednesday. Be sure, too, to come back through Big Ten media days for more blogs and instant coverage. We’ll be here both days with a full crew and fun stories.
All eyes on Urban: The drama king of college football — a man who plays the role of passionate coach with zeal and conviction worthy of Brando as Terry Malloy – will try to bull his way through two tough days of questioning.
The surface subject: Whether Meyer’s lax controls on team discipline helped create a disaster in Florida — and, as a byproduct, an alleged murderer in former Gator tight end Aaron Hernandez — and whether the same program collapse is in store at Ohio State. The Buckeyes are a broad favorite to finish undefeated this year — like last year — and play for the BCS National Championship, so, naturally, gear up for a debate on winning, integrity and the foibles of young men, especially those OSU players who just recently ran afoul of the law. (Although one, Carlos Hyde, hasn’t been charged and may not be charged if this story is correct.)
The real subject, if you want to know, is a longstanding belief by SEC-area reporters that Meyer is akin to the object of Bob Dylan’s derision in “Like a Rolling Stone.” A high-hatting, judgmental prig who wants to win as ruthlessly as the next coach, but presents himself as above the fray. Outkick the Coverage founder Clay Travis is most vocal on the matter:
“He has to be the most hypocritical coach in major college football. He has to claim he’s winning the ‘right way.’ Ask other college coaches about Urban Meyer and they just roll their eyes at what a fake the guy is. No matter what you do everyone has worked in a profession with a hypocrite, a person who tries to control his image to such an extent that he himself actually starts to believe his own lies.
That’s Urban Meyer.
He’s so good of an enabler that he even enables himself to believe his own lies.”
I don’t quote Travis because I think he has the best take, or even one of which I’d approve. In limited dealings with Meyer, including a pleasant one-hour interview over the phone, he does not scream “sociopath.” Travis renders Meyer as a kind of teeming, unrepentant villain who used Tim Tebow as a cover for corruption. It’s the usual amped-up-for-web-hits style that the Internet tends to create in gifted writers.
No, I quote Travis because, like him or not, he’ll be a major contributor on Fox Sports 1′s new Saturday morning college football show. (Whether Travis likes it or not, he’ll be a mainstream voice talking to a broader audience than just twenty and thirtysomethings and he’ll have to adjust accordingly.) Millions of viewers may hear Travis, tasked with talking about teams outside the SEC, consistently refer to Meyer as a “hypocrite.”
Meyer’s history with journalists is average at best. He once called a beat writer now with CBSSports.com a “bad guy” in front of cameras and his colleagues for running a slightly negative quote about Tebow from one of Meyer’s Gators. He wagged his finger and threatened to boot the reporter from practice for good. This wasn’t a back-and-forth in a press conference; this was tactical, with Meyer walking away arm-in-arm with his daughter afterward. Meyer eventually made up with the reporter – away from the cameras. I can assure you, a lot of reporters and pundits haven’t forgotten that happened. Nor do they forget when Meyer seemingly told a whole room of coaches a bizarre, intense story about Woody Hayes and a snapping turtle, only to find out later it was a long joke.
That doesn’t mean Meyer can’t change, or that he hasn’t changed somewhat in his transition from Florida to Ohio State. But he’ll always answer questions as if he’s right on the edge of his seat, daring the interviewer to get caught up in the stream of enthusiasm or get tagged as a doubter and unbeliever. That’s part of what makes Meyer college football’s most compelling coaching figure, and a good story in Chicago.
Huskers due: Nebraska can only make so many Big Ten waves without winning a league title or playing in the Rose Bowl. But the Huskers bring a kind of identity with them to this year’s media days. They’re no longer newcomers – NU’s heading into year three – and the Big Ten schedule turns favorable. The Huskers are seen as a clear co-favorite of the Legends Division despite having to replace most of its defense. Further, Bo Pelini enters his sixth year having established a kind of consistency that may frustrate the Sea of Red, but appears to the Big Ten to be a pretty solid program. With mercurial quarterback Taylor Martinez making his own appearance, Nebraska will be the program that has a shot of getting over the hump. Yes, even with Ohio State looming on the opposite side.
The Michigan/Michigan State debate: Wolverines coach Brady Hoke tries hard to relegate an in-state rivalry with the Spartans to second or even third-tier status. There’s the rivalry with “Ohio” and the recent Moaning Myrtle act over the eventual end of the Notre Dame series. His recent recruiting success may eventually put some space between Michigan and the Spartans, but a hair’s length separates them now. MSU had won four in a row in the series before UM pulled out an at-the-gun 12-10 win at home last year. With Michigan losing quarterback Denard Robinson and some key pieces on offense and defense – while the Spartans return their most experienced team in years – watch this week for MSU coach Mark Dantonio to press the issue, if ever so gently, on the relevance of his own team.
Quietly, Michigan State thinks it has a very good chance of winning the Legends, provided it corrects the multitude of “how did they blow that?” mistakes committed in the fourth quarter or overtime of losses to UM, Nebraska, Iowa and Ohio State. And the considerable MSU media contingent that travels to Chicago – equal only to Nebraska, interestingly enough – will make sure to plug Dantonio with those questions.
That won’t stop the Wolverines from tilting the chin upward. That’s what Michigan does. But don’t be surprised if the conversation rekindles over which group is the real best team in the state.
Life at low tide: Aside from OSU, the Big Ten doesn’t appear to have a team inside the nation’s top 15. (Although it won’t stun me if Nebraska gets there by October). The league doesn’t have a lot of top, experienced talent. One question several coaches and players will field in one version or another: Where is the Big Ten at in relationship to the rest of the power conferences, and where is it headed? That points to recruiting. And, trust me, there are always lots and lots and lots of recruiting questions at Big Ten media days.