Back in the good, old days – way before Al Gore invented the Internets and you could use the Google to look up anything you wanted – members of the media covering Big Ten football were members of an elite group known as the Skywriters.
Each fall, this group of about 20 or so writers would pile into a small airplane and make the rounds of each of the Big Ten campuses, meeting with coaches as they kicked off their respective fall camps.
The writers – no electronic media were allowed on the trip – were granted complete access to a team for an entire day. They interviewed any player they wanted, toured the facilities, made their way in and out of the locker rooms and watching every minute of practice.
That night, they were treated to dinner, frosty cold beverages of their choice and a fine cigar as they traded notes, swapped stories and interacted with coaches, athletic directors and conference officials. The next morning, all would pack up, squeeze into the airplane and go off to the next destination.
Of course, that was a simpler time when maybe 100 media outlets covered the Big Ten. Now, counting all the entities which try to cover the 11 teams, there are well over 10,000.
Was it better in the old days when there was more access but a gentleman’s agreement not to publish scandalous items? That’s not for me to say. I do know, however, that the toothpaste is out of the tube and we will never see those days again.
Case in point: Last week’s Big Ten Media Day and Kickoff Luncheon, the 36th annual get-together between conference coaches and media. In this day and age of immediacy, coaches and players are much more guarded about what they will say in front of writers and broadcasts. But sometimes – rarely, but sometimes – you can find a pearl or two among the dead clams.
Yesterday, we had a few things you may not have heard out of last week’s meetings from five of the Big Ten coaches. Today, we’ll wrap up our Chicago report with the other six, listed in alphabetical order according to schools.
Tim Brewster, Minnesota – In his first season as a head coach, Brewster had a rough go of it. Of his team’s 11 losses, some were real doozies. It all started with a 32-31 overtime loss to Bowling Green in the season opener. Prior to that game, Minnesota had won its previous 12 home openers in a row and had been 24-3-1 against current MAC teams.
There was also the game at Northwestern where the Gophers blew a 35-14 lead in the third quarter and lost 49-48 in double OT. And there was the 27-21 loss at home to Division I-AA North Dakota State.
All difficult and painful losses, but not totally unexpected … at least according to Brewster.
“Change is a difficult process,” he said. “We changed head coaches, we changed systems. We changed a lot of things. We feel like at the University of Minnesota that our change is really going to benefit us as we move forward. I like to say we took two steps back so that we can take that one big step forward.”
Of course, some skeptics remain unconvinced. When a reporter asked the coach if there was anything he could do to transform Minnesota into the kind of program that could consistently battle Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin for the league championship, Brewster replied with a little history lesson.
“You’re a young guy, right?” he said. “You don’t realize that the University of Minnesota has won six national championships and 18 Big Ten championships. The University of Minnesota is truly one of the top schools in the Big Ten.”
Of course, Brewster didn’t stop to point out that his was an ancient history lesson. The Gophers haven’t won a Big Ten championship since 1967 and won their most recent national title in 1960.
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern – No one really knows what to make of Fitzgerald’s Wildcats. They could be a trap game for several opponents or they could go into the tank, leaving the conference’s youngest coach vulnerable. He has a 10-14 record in two seasons at the helm, but NU fans got used to success under Gary Barnett and Randy Walker, and Fitzgerald admits he feels a sense of urgency to get to the postseason.
“We had six wins last year, but we’re not satisfied with six wins,” he said. “Of course, back in 1993 when I arrived on campus at Northwestern (as a player), if we would have had six wins, we would have had a parade down Central Street. We’d have shut it down and had a purple party here in Chicago.”
In order to keep moving in the right director, Fitzgerald overhauled his coaching staff over the winter. He hired Mick McCall away from Bowling Green to be his offensive coordinator and lured Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz away from Madison to lead the defense. Hankwitz has been an assistant coach for 38 years, and his teams have had 32 winning seasons.
Northwestern also has a new athletic director in Jim Phillips, and as any head coach knows, his tenure becomes more tenuous the moment he loses the AD who hired him. Fitzgerald acknowledged the presence of Phillips, perhaps seeing him looking over his shoulder from time to time.
“I thought that I didn’t sleep a lot,” Fitzgerald said, “and now I look at Jim and he’s a great role model for sleep deprivation.”
Jim Tressel, Ohio State – Tressel is never going to lead the conference in potent quotables, but this year reached a new low even for him. A couple of cases in point:
Q. Coach, you’re 6-1 against Michigan in seven years. To what do you attribute your success against Michigan and is this perhaps the best rivalry in all of sports?
A. We’ve had very good players.
Q. Jim, you guys are the overwhelming No. 1 pick in this conference in the preseason poll with Wisconsin, Illinois, but there’s no Michigan or Penn State in that top three. How accurate do you think that poll is?
A. It hasn’t been very accurate in the past, which is a little frightening.
Q. Coach, would getting to a national championship game – and losing it again – have a positive outlook or would that be a negative and a disappointing season for you if it happened again?
A. Well, if that happened again that means we were the Big Ten champions, and I would never be disappointed about being the Big Ten champions. I would be very proud of that. If we got to the game and didn’t win it and didn’t play as well as we were capable of playing or didn’t prepare as well as we were capable, obviously I would be disappointed in that, so I guess that was a bad answer.
Tressel does have a dry sense of humor but it is rarely on public display, and never at an event such as this one.
Joe Paterno, Penn State – Of all the coaches in Chicago, Paterno was clearly the one who couldn’t hide the fact he would rather have been elsewhere. That is probably because the 81-year-old veteran knew what kind of questions were coming his way.
When a reporter asked him what kind of impact Terrelle Pryor would have for Ohio State, Paterno grumped, “I don’t think that’s my decision to make. In fact, I think that’s a dumb question to be honest with you. I have absolutely no idea.”
Later, when the subject of retirement came up, Paterno got even more fidgety.
When asked if he sought any counsel from Purdue’s Joe Tiller, who is retiring after this season, Paterno replied, “Do you think I want to go with some guy that sits on his rear end and fishes for advice? You’re crazy, and that’s exactly what I would tell him. Joe has got to do it his way; I’ve got to do it my way.”
Finally, after telling another reporter he didn’t want to talk about retirement and getting another question right after that, an exasperated JoePa threw up his hands and said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. Let me spell it: I-D-O-N-T … How many times can I say it?”
Why do they suddenly want to run Paterno and his 372 career victories out of Happy Valley on a rail? Could be the fact that in the 15 seasons the Nits have been in the Big Ten, they have won only two Big Ten championships – outright in 1994 and a co-title with Ohio State in 2005.
It also could be that over the past five seasons, JoePa’s teams have posted a 19-21 conference record – and that includes a 7-1 mark in ’05.
Joe Tiller, Purdue – Some made a big deal about Tiller arriving in Chicago fresh from a fishing trip in Wyoming, but the coach typically vacations there in the summer. Also, he was the lone Big Ten coach to eschew wearing a coat and tie … but again, he never wears a tie.
That is because he is about as non-conforming as you will see from a conference head coach. He will retire after this season, probably without getting as much credit as he deserves (from me included) for turning around a Purdue program that was foundering when he got there.
Tiller is 83-54 in 11 seasons in West Lafayette and is probably the reason why more and more conference coaches have embraced his style of wide-open offense. When he was asked if he took pride in changing the Big Ten from a run-oriented league, Tiller gave one of his patented tongue-in-cheek answers.
“Not really,” the coach said. “I think it was going to happen sooner or later. Young people like to throw and catch and run around and high-five each other and enjoy having fun playing the game. I think the style of offense is a fun style, I guess, to participate in. You know, young people, if you want to keep them involved in the sport of football, you have to provide an outlet that is enjoyable to them, not just a highly disciplined or regimented style of play. So, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the spread offense has really swept the nation.
“To me, it’s almost a reflection of our society in that things can be instant in the spread offense. And I often times refer to our society as being an instant gratification society so the spread offense just fits right in. We’ve just done our part to help America be better.”
Bret Bielema, Wisconsin – The Badgers remain the contrarians of the Big Ten. While nearly everyone else is embraced the spread offense, Wisconsin continues to recruit road-grading offensive linemen and big, bruising running backs.
And that’s just the way Bielema likes it.
“The thing I like about being at Wisconsin right now is we’re unique,” he said. “Five years ago when the spread first started coming into the league, you needed preparation versus those teams. For us now, Wisconsin is unique. You line up with a fullback and tailback and have some big ugly guys in front that come downhill. It’s a different preparation for us. I like that.”
Bielema, who is a glittering 21-5 in two seasons in Madison, did take some heat in Chicago for a 2008 non-conference schedule that features Akron, Marshall, Fresno State and Cal Poly.
One reporter asked, “Isn’t this below what’s to be expected of a program that’s been to 13 bowl games in the last 13 years and that is a perennial contender for the conference championship?”
Bielema smiled that squint-eyed smile of his and fired back, “Do you want to answer your own question or do you want me to?”
He later explained that his program substituted a Nov. 22 date at the end of the season for a Sept. 20 contest against Virginia because he didn’t think it fair to his team to play the Cavaliers and then immediately sail into the conference season, which begins with a trip to Michigan and then back-to-back night home games with Ohio State and Penn State.
Of course, Bielema’s team had better watch out for Cal Poly. They went 7-4 last season and have 10 starters back off an option offense that averaged a school-record 39.2 points per game.
Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to former OSU linebacker Thomas “Pepper” Johnson.
Born July 29, 1964, in Detroit, Thomas Johnson was a 6-3, 216-pound all-state terror at MacKenzie High School when he joined the Buckeyes for the 1982 season. Nicknamed “Pepper” by an aunt who observed him regularly sprinkling pepper on his breakfast cereal, Johnson teamed with Chris Spielman in 1984 and ’85 to give the Buckeyes one of the most awesome one-two linebacker punches in college football history. Johnson topped 140 tackles in each of his last two seasons and was voted the team’s defensive most valuable player both years. Earning All-America honors as a senior, he was also voted as one of the team captains in both his junior and senior seasons.
After completing his OSU career, Johnson was a second-round selection in the 1986 NFL draft by the New York Giants and he anchored a defense that won Super Bowl championships in 1986 and 1990. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and spent 13 seasons in the NFL with the Giants, Browns, Lions and Jets. Since 2000, he has been an assistant coach for the New England Patriots, first with linebackers and now with the defensive line, and has won three more Super Bowl rings with that team.
Johnson’s son, Dionte, played four seasons at fullback for Ohio State from 2004-07, and when the younger Johnson was voted team co-captain for the ’07 season, it made the Johnsons only the third father-son combination in school history to serve as captains. The others are Jim (1960) and Kirk Herbstreit (1960 and 1992) and James and Jeff Davidson (1964 and 1989).
Also sharing birthdays today: comic and self-styled Professor Irwin Corey; former U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum (who is married to former U.S. Senator Howard Baker); U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.); former pro wrestler, manager and Cyndi Lauper confidant Captain Lou Albano; Sixties and Seventies television actor Robert Fuller (Jess Harper on “Laramie” and Dr. Kelly Brackett on “Emergency”); former Cincinnati Reds infielder Dan Driessen; Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun; Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley; Rush lead singer Geddy Lee; singer/songwriter Patti Scialfa (Mrs. Bruce Springsteen); Project Runway consultant Tim Gunn; boxing training and commentator Teddy Atlas; country singer Martina McBride; actor Wil Wheaton (Gordie in “Stand By Me” and Wesley Crusher in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”); and documentary filmmaker extraordinaire Ken Burns.
In addition to the birthdays, lots of other historical events have occurred on July 29 including: Adolf Hitler became leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party in 1921; the first Summer Olympic Games after World War II began in London in 1948; U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower signed a law that created NASA in 1958; “Son of Sam” serial killer David Berkowitz claimed his first victim in 1976; Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer wed in 1981; and talk show host Tom Snyder died of leukemia in 2007.
** The Sporting News is counting down its top 50 college football teams and today reached No. 28. In that spot is Notre Dame. Yes, I think the Fighting Irish will be better this season. It’s pretty difficult for them not to be better than last year’s 3-9 disaster. But the 28th best team in the nation? No way, no how. They have an offensive line that gave up 58 sacks last year and a defense that allowed 29 points a game. You don’t solve those kinds of problems overnight.
** SN ranks Notre Dame a full 18 spots ahead of Purdue. We get to see just how accurate those rankings are on Sept. 27 when the Boilermakers invade South Bend. Purdue took a 33-19 win over Notre Dame last season in West Lafayette although the Irish did have the upper hand in total yardage, 426-371.
** All I can say is Tom Crean must be one helluva coach. Indiana University announced today that it had given its newly hired basketball boss a two-year contract extension – before he has coached his first game for the Hoosiers. Crean originally signed an eight-year, $18 million deal with IU. The extension matches the length of the deal the coach had with Marquette before moving to Bloomington to try and fix the Kelvin Sampson mess.
** During induction ceremonies over the weekend at the Baseball Hall of Fame, Ernie Banks asked commissioner Bud Selig if he could be placed on the Chicago Cubs’ active roster on Aug. 31 – which would make him eligible for the postseason. The 77-year-old Mr. Cub never made it to the World Series during his playing days. There is something that’s just wrong about the fact Ernie Banks never played in a Fall Classic and a guy like Jose Canseco played in four of them and got two rings – 1989 with Oakland and 2000 with the Yankees.
** The count of NFL first-round draft choices signed to contracts now numbers 28. The lone holdouts are Nos. 7 through 9 – DT Sedrick Ellis of New Orleans, DE Derrick Harvey of Jacksonville and (naturally) LB Keith Rivers of Cincinnati. The largest contract so far has gone to QB Matt Ryan, who got a six-year, $72 million deal from Atlanta with $34 million guaranteed.
** In case you missed it, Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston came to terms with the New York Jets. The sixth overall pick in the draft agreed to a five-year deal worth $50 million, with $21 million of that guaranteed.
** Further proof that the U.S. economy remains strong for the upper class. Of those 28 first-rounders signed, the contracts are worth more than $600 million. And before you pooh-pooh that amount, arguing many of those contracts will be voided before their conclusion, understand that $275 million of that figure is guaranteed money.