CHICAGO –- Some final thoughts from the Hilton Chicago, where Big Ten Media Days wrapped up Thursday morning:
>> Perhaps reporters have just tired of asking the kinds of questions that lights Bo Pelini’s frustration wick, but the Nebraska coach — while remaining his usual, certain self – mellowed considerably in his third year at this event. No “us vs. the world” commentary, no musings about the fan base, no handwringing over how hard it is to recruit to NU. Even Pelini’s comments about a new targeting ejection played as concern instead of scoffing. He handled several thorny roster questions smoothly — and more forthrightly than he has before. I credit that to Pelini learning and perhaps listening more to the media relations staff around him.
You can’t pretend that press conferences necessarily reflect growth. The media too easily makes that mistake — see its unusual amount of fawning over Urban Meyer’s Wednesday performance. But Pelini’s so often juxtaposed his team to the media and fan base in the past. What changed?
It could be that his biggest gamble as a head coach – picking brother Carl’s recruit, Taylor Martinez, as starting quarterback — has paid off enough that reporters asked, without sarcasm, about Martinez’s future in the NFL. Two years ago, the conversation was so different; Bubba Starling and Brion Carnes were on reporter’s lips, and Pelini spent a good chunk of time defending Martinez. Thursday, Pelini was clearly, genuinely proud that Martinez — a kind of media maladroit in 2010 — sat four feet away, handling his business.
“He’s just grown up as a young man,” Pelini said. “It’s been fun to watch. He’s come a long way … he was thrown into the (starting) role early. Football-wise he was closer to being ready for that role than he was handling things off the field and the media. He’s now in a lot different place.”
The bonus here is this: I haven’t received, in 13 months, a single email questioning the current or future presence of Tommy Armstrong, Johnny Stanton or Zack Darlington at Nebraska. The perception of the Husker quarterback position, in the minds of most fans, has stabilized. Martinez is neither the close-mouthed wunderkind who blew the doors off of defenses in early 2010, or the guy who handed Wisconsin the 2011 game on a platter. He’s dynamic, dangerous, occasionally careless, but ultimately Nebraska’s guy. I see a lot more No. 3 jerseys than I once did. I’ll bet Bo Pelini does, too.
>> Michigan coach Brady Hoke and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio shared a joke early Thursday morning, practically walking arm-in-arm to some meeting. Wonder if that duo is so friendly should the Spartans rattle off a few wins in a row during the series. It’s too early to anoint the Wolverines back from the the Rich Rodriguez experiment, especially if the Big Ten sticks three or four losses on the Wolverines. I see that reality as entirely possible, too. Though Hoke adequately explained why he preferred a return to the downhill, pro-style offense, the switch still requires a terrific offensive line that doesn’t get hurt — or enjoys ample depth — coupled with big-bodied receivers who can make catches against bracket coverage. Michigan had that before Rodriguez’s departure, but he dismantles the entire engine. It won’t be put together in one fall camp. Look for Devin Gardner to have some great stretches — and those where he’s too aggressive taking shots downfield against defenses geared to take the deep middle away. Michigan’s going to see a lot of zone defense in this league from teams that know to play it.
>> Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald’s natural charisma — and evident affection for his alma mater and Chicago — make the Wildcats a good pick to stay relevant in a Big Ten that hasn’t always been kind to the program. I’ll wait to see if the Wildcats can duplicate a fine 2012 season. Northwestern claims to have been 5:03 from a perfect season. Another way to look at it: Northwestern only outgained its opponents by an average of 16 yards last year and needed a +6 turnover margin to eke out wins at Syracuse and Michigan State.
>> Nothing says love like a bunch of closed security stations in Midway Airport and 500 (or more) irritated folks waiting to wend their way through glorified cattle stalls for an hour to make (or miss) their flights. I used to mentally poke fun at Sports Illustrated’s Peter King for sharing every travel complaint during the NFL season. He’s still Mr. TMI MMQB, but I’ll be the hypocrite here and say that, when you slice open your right index finger on the conveyor belt, then wrap a giant paper towel around that finger as you’re told to pull your little bag of liquids out of the innards of your suitcase, you may have hit a travel low. I hope Midway treats me better when I return here in October, en route to the Purdue game.