A quick day of B1G stuff! Here’s what I learned:
>> When Nebraska coach Bo Pelini gets questioned about some perceived weakness of his team – its lack of athleticism last year on defense, its lack of experience on defense this year – he tends to double down on his core beliefs. Where you might peek outside to see if the bombs stopped, he goes down another level in his coaching bunker. There are advantages to that – primarily continuity. Nothing loses faster than a program or coach constantly looking for a new vision. Pelini has certitude. He actually wears it confidently and casually. In this way, he’s an analogue to Penn State’s Bill O’Brien, a similarly-certain innovator who practically shrugs at handing over his offense to a true freshman while his other quarterback spends the summer away from the program to handle “issues.” You know, similar to the drama Pelini faced before the 2010 season.
Reporters are in the mood to believe every word O’Brien says and question Pelini’s sense. I’d argue that what separates them is four years of coaching record. We’ll see.
At any rate, it’s not particularly surprising that, Wednesday, Pelini was even more pumped about his defense and its potential than he was in spring. He’s not going to simplify – he’s going “more multiple” because of the personnel. Huge losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin last year were not “a scheme thing,” but mistakes made in execution. You already knew his take on it, and it should provide some small comfort that Pelini still believes it – whether or not you do.
Pelini fully expects he and his staff to coach up what’s on hand, just like he fully expected the experience of his defense last year to carry the day and cover for any athletic deficiencies. And, for many games last year, the experience did, indeed, hold sway. Until one mistake turned into three and then into ten.
For different reasons, Nebraska’s defense in 2013 will be vulnerable to the same snowball effect unless Pelini can free up young guys to play fast and without undue fear of screwing up. Call that state of being “wanting it just enough to trust you don’t want it too much.” The Huskers played the 2012 Big Ten title game like a boxer cold and unable to sweat the nerves out. The defense has an excellent offense on which to rely in 2013, but pressure will inevitably mount if the defense struggles for the balance of the non-conference season.
>> Urban Meyer’s a fascinating person to watch. He’d be so in any field he was in. He’s the werewolf at Trader Vic’s. His hair is perfect. He pauses for effect. There’s a performance power to how he struts and talks that takes on an interest of its own. He was in an excellent, almost self-immolating form Wednesday for the time that I caught him. I’ll have to catch more of the show Thursday.
Ohio State’s coach fielded his share of tough questions from Big Ten reporters on how he’s handled disciplinary problems in the past – and how he handles them now. Without admitting to too much regret about his Florida days – when some have argued his desire to win overwhelmed any ethical considerations he’d have as it pertained to his roster – he dropped hints and phrases about giving players too many “second chances” or being “human” when it comes to criticism that not only spoke to his gift creating a compelling narrative, but also – if only in some small way – to the fierce family intervention that took place in 2011, when Meyer spent a year away from the game. From Meyer, you not only get the conviction, but the language of self-inventory. It’s a potent posture against the cynicism of journalists who might be more accustomed to the coaches so incapable of reflection that they wear defiance in every word and mannerism. Meyer’s more sly.
He did well Wednesday. He usually does. He shaped the message deftly. Of the four OSU players who recently got in trouble, Meyer essentially disavowed two freshmen who he claimed to barely know – he recruited them, so why wouldn’t he know them? – while soft-peddling the “upperclassmen” (Carlos Hyde and Bradley Roby) as players on whom the facts are not yet known. (This is accurate on Hyde.) He explained his disciplinary process in bland terms with regulated force. He dialed down intensity and maybe his voice an octave. Meyer will make a significant amount of money as a professional speaker when his football coaching career is over.
But, as Meyer often does, he put a line out there that seemed just south of absurd.
When talking about how he disciplines players at Ohio State, he said: “I have a guy that watches if a certain situation takes place across the country. I want to make sure our punishment is as hard or harder than any discipline that’s out there.”
This is where the width between Meyer’s hands start to grow, where the fish he caught grows to record-length. Meyer has a guy who watches how other coaches apply discipline, then adjust his discipline so it’s as stringent or more stringent than anyone else? Is he a discount, big-box store matching any price in town?
First, Meyer probably does have a guy paying some mind to this. It’s reasonable to ask: Why? Disciplinary rules are not a competition, but a series of precepts and ethical beliefs that each coach has to create based on his own experience. And it differs from coach to coach, school to school. Some punishments are unreasonable. Some aren’t reasonable enough. Meyer’s proclamation that he’s devoted to be the toughest speaks to that vainglorious urge in him to be “the top.”
Then Meyer took his explanation to the next level. After his chat with the regular media, he offered a rationale to Sports Illustrated for just how his discipline changed over the years, and why. It ties up in impressive style precisely what I’ve been describing above.
From the column by Stewart Mandel:
Meyer, rightly or wrongly, is now perceived as a renegade, win-at-all-costs coach.
“What’s ironic is I was raised in a very tough, very disciplined home. No gray area whatsoever,” Meyer said late Wednesday afternoon. “I became a head coach at 36, went to Bowling Green, absolutely no gray area. If there was any issue, I kicked him off the team. I go to Utah, same thing, very hardline. Then something happened.”
That something was he and his wife, Shelly, became close with Utes running back Marty Johnson, who’d had a DUI arrest prior to his arrival and who Meyer dismissed following a second arrest. They visited him in jail. “His mom was killed. He became part of our family. … Shelly came to me and said, I don’t know if we’re doing the right thing. If he leaves football, he’s done.’ That’s when it starts tugging on you.” After a year away, Johnson was allowed back for Utah’s undefeated 2004 season.
Then, at Florida, came the tragedy of Avery Atkins, a highly rated recruit seemingly destined to star for the Gators. “Bright smile, loved life,” said Meyer. “But he started getting into some bad situations. Eventually he pushed a girl. I kicked him off the team.” Atkins subsequently committed suicide. “That really impacted our staff, not just me,” said Meyer. “It was a staggering blow, because you just kept thinking what more could you have done?
“So I remember taking the approach after that — especially ones from tough background — we’re going to get counseling, we’re going to do as much as we possibly can do to not just throw them back on the street if there’s an issue. We had some great success stories, we had some failures.
“It’s unfortunate, I look back at the great coaches and great players we had. That was six years of incredible players, incredible people. And all anyone wants to talk about is these incidents. That’s disappointing. But if you have to lay blame, lay blame. I was in charge of the team and we had too many issues.”
Does it sound tough and cynical of me to puff my bottom lip at that passage? Perhaps. Is it like Meyer to weave a player’s suicide — a player’s suicide — into a day that was nominally focused on Meyer’s handling of an alleged murderer?
Before you cast significant doubt on Meyer — before I do — ask this: Didn’t Nebraska’s Tom Osborne face these questions — and worse — in the mid-1990s? Knowing what you (and I) know about Osborne’s coaching tenure and long-term mentoring mission, were all those questions fair?
That’s what makes Meyer compelling. You must think about him. He has a long-standing relationship, at this point, with gray. His complexity defies canned cynicism — and invites canned sympathy. Neither response really fits.
Do I think Meyer is the strictest drill sergeant in college football? No. And he shouldn’t aim to be. Those coaches, to some extent, belong at programs where they can shape a roster that never runs afoul of the rules and yet still wins their fair share of games. The straightest arrows probably don’t hang out in BCS conferences, or even in Division FBS. And that’s not a knock on the character of the coaches. It’s reality.
Meyer has a reality-altering way about him, the ability to seem – and believe that he seems – to be all good things all the time. It’s a trait many leaders – good and bad – have. It’s a long field of vision. And he wins a lot of football games with it. He doesn’t always win admirers.
>> Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is beginning to blend into the Big Ten wallpaper. He fielded eight short minutes of questions in the main ballroom and only one of them specifically pertained to his own team. It was a question about all of Iowa’s hurt running backs. Ferentz answered it for the 567th time.
He’s a guy who plays it close to the vest. That accounts for some of the brevity. He appeared after Urban Meyer. That accounts for more of it. But, mostly, his team has been such an also-ran for the last two years that one’s desire to peek into Ferentz’s vest for wisdom or secrets or anything is on a low setting. Iowa has few exciting athletes. Iowa has few exciting games. Iowa has more in common, right now, with moribund Minnesota than Michigan. Iowa’s Q factor is low. Ferentz’s Q factor – so high three years ago – may be even lower.
Here’s Dirk with a thought:
My dear mother fights insomnia. I'm going to make her a CD of Kirk Ferentz press conferences.
— Dirk Chatelain (@dirkchatelain) July 24, 2013
Know this about the Hawkeyes: There’s a fan base, year in and year out, that gets behind the effort. Iowa may still be, in my own mind, a basketball school first, but football has a real traction. And Iowa fans, almost congenitally self-deprecating about every sport but wrestling, like Ferentz. Yeah, he has the outward countenance of an actuary. But he’s not Steve Alford. (Don’t get Iowa fans started on him.)
But, at some point, the amiable Iowa lot starts to wonder how much longer it must patronize the Big Ten’s boringest team if that fiber doesn’t come with the taste of victory. When Ferentz barely registers a burp in the wind, the Hawkeyes need to rally. This year.
>> In my 5 things to watch piece from Tuesday, I tried to lay out how Big Ten boss Jim Delany might attack the thorny questions surrounding the NCAA, stipends and the Ed O’Bannon case. I think I was right. But I also think Delany’s dense, complex conversation left reporters rolling their eyes at Delany’s need to dip into nuance and not offer shark bait quotes.
Well, it’s never been what Delany does, the shark bait stuff. He’s a corporate lawyer. He plays out the case. He files his rhetorical motions. He dodges, darts, parries, thrusts. It’s how he’s always been until he’s not, like when he opened the door to expansion or created the Big Ten Network. Delany spends most of his time in crouching, defensive position. It’s served him and his league quite well from a financial and relevance standpoint.
One thing Delany was strong about: That the Ed O’Bannon case will not feature “compromise” on the part of the NCAA and that, if the O’Bannon’s plaintiffs keep winning, the case will eventually end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
My take? It belongs there, and good for Delany suggesting it over some ill-considered financial deal that runs afoul of Title IX or prematurely rips the guts out of college athletics. It’s not that I don’t respect national journalists, or Jay Bilas, or Sonny Vaccaro, or anyone else who wants to bring unfettered free market principles to college athletics. I just think they haven’t considered the slippery slope ahead of them if amateur sports plunges into the ocean.
Congress, which signed Title IX into law more than 40 years ago, needs a real court directive, not Bilas’ Twitter invective, to reexamine, if necessary, how it changes Title IX to fit the landscape.
And once Title IX proponents begin to understand the weight of handing millions to college football and basketball players – what it could mean for thousands of women who play college sports – you’ll hear them roar. And if I know the media like I think I do, the equality-in-opportunity argument will lend significant counter-balance to the “indentured servants” narrative you hear from many pundits these days.
OK, you’re ready for some quick hits. I sure am:
>> Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said he’s in the best health he’s been in for years. Good to hear. Likable guy. Brutal road ahead to make the Gophers viable.
>> Illinois coach Tim Beckman comes off as nothing quite like a street barker. Loud. Declarative. He said the word “excited” eight times in his opening comments. His opening spiel also produced this gem:
“This football team has set new standards academically that no other Illini athlete, football athlete has ever become.”
This’ll be Beckman’s last annual roll through the Big Ten head coaching yard, I suspect.
>> Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio gets more team-specific questions than any other coach, including Pelini. And you know how we pepper him for every little detail. MSU always brings a big media contingent that’s furiously focused on the football side of things. I’m fine with that. The Spartans seem close in kind to Nebraska in that regard.
>> Heck yes I asked BTN President Mark Silverman about whether the network would look into broadcasting more non-revenue sports contests. How many replays of Big Ten football games or reruns of BTN documentaries does one need to see? ESPN and the SEC Network is stepping up its coverage of smaller sports like softball and baseball in a way that suggests that inventory will be popular as time goes on. BTN has hockey and wrestling – which the SEC can’t leverage – to broadcast, and BTN generally does a good job. But to capture the full market of viewers, BTN is going to have to consider more live event coverage, and fewer reruns of stuff that’s long been over. Nebraska fans can watch the Big Ten title loss only so many times. Enough. Something else.
Here, by the way, is the long, winding answer Silverman gave: “ESPN owning the SEC network is a challenge for us. But for us, I feel that our brand, our viewers are interested in what we have more than anything else. We’re going to produce over a thousand events this year. What we’ve seen is that we’ve seen that women’s volleyball has grown every year that we put it on the air.We’ve seen wrestling has grown every year we put it on the air. So we believe that you can build audiences for many of these sports that here to date have never really been on television much.
So I do think there’s opportunity there. I like our mix of hockey and basketball and women’s volleyball and softball and baseball better than anyone else’s. We had more top-ranked basketball and football teams on our air than any of these other college networks would have. So I think we’re positioned very well to be successful. Financially, we’re able to produce already a thousand events. It’s something we’re always looking to produce more as we grow. As we add more subscribers, we grow our ad revenue. There’s only more and more opportunity for us to increase the number of events we have on the air.