A whirlwind trip late last week to Chicago for the annual Big Ten Media Day and Kickoff Luncheon put a severe crimp in the blog. And trying to squeeze a vacation in before football season gears up in earnest will limit the number of entries over the next couple of weeks.
But while I’m still around, we’ll get to what was said (or implied) in Chicago by the 11 conference coaches.
You have no doubt already heard and read the meat and potatoes of what went on in the Windy City. Over the next two days, we’ll deal with some of what you may not have heard or read.
We’ll take the coaches in alphabetical order according to schools with the first five today, finishing with the other six tomorrow.
Ron Zook, Illinois – Zook led his team to a 9-4 record and a Rose Bowl berth last season, just one year after a 2-10 campaign. But he was pragmatic about last year’s success, perhaps because he saw similar things happen when he was at Florida.
“Until we can take a freshman class and go through all four years and win consistently,” he said, “then I think you can say that you’ve turned the corner. Not until then.”
Zook, who has a career coaching record of 36-37 and a lifetime bowl record of 0-3, was perhaps the most stoic of all the coaches at the event. Perhaps his best one-liner came after a reporter asked if he was happy having such a tough season opener against Missouri and its Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Chase Daniel.
“Well,” Zook replied, “they’re not going to change it, so I might as well be happy about it.”
Bill Lynch, Indiana – The Hoosiers overcame seemingly insurmountable odds last season in the wake of the death of Terry Hoeppner. Somehow, they pulled out a 7-5 regular season and earned the program’s first postseason bid in 14 years.
But Lynch’s team cannot afford to rest on those laurels. On offense alone, IU lost top receiver James Hardy and neither quarterback Kellen Lewis nor running back Marcus Thigpen went through spring practice drills. Lewis was suspended but Thigpen had an excuse.
“Marcus missed spring practice because we let him run track,” Lynch said. “He had an outstanding spring with our track team and was very competitive in the Big Ten and at a national level. We felt like going into his fifth year, he kind of earned that opportunity.”
Even with all of his offensive firepower, Lynch will need some help on defense. The Hoosiers gave up 20 or more points in each of their final 12 games of the 2007 season, and 30 or more in five of their last six. That included a 49-33 loss to Oklahoma State in the Insight Bowl.
IU hasn’t won a bowl game since a 24-0 win over Baylor in the 1991 Copper Bowl.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa – An offseason checkered with team members running afoul of the law was about the last thing Ferentz needed. Since 2004 when the Hawkeyes tied Michigan for the Big Ten championship, the team has finished no higher than a tie for third and is 19-18 over the past three seasons.
That includes an 11-13 mark in conference play, so when Iowa players began showing up on the police blotter with alarming frequency, university officials insisted Ferentz make an addition to his coaching staff.
“I think we’re going to call him a player development coach,” the coach said. “It is a result of going back and looking at things and just re-examining every step that we’ve taken. Our goals are really to help our players, particularly our younger players. I think that’s been a constant – a lot of the bad decisions have been made by players in their first and second years on campus.
“So our goal with the position is going to be better supplement the coaching staff, better help our players with the transition, have another person for them to meet with and visit with, and perhaps offer a little bit more accountability.”
When Ferentz was asked if he had filled the position, he shook his head.
“We’re not looking to hire Dr. Phil,” he said. “I don’t think he’s available or we can afford him, so we’ll have to skip that.”
Rich Rodriguez, Michigan – In a few short months, Rodriguez has gone from the relative comfort of his home state to a caldron of controversy in Ann Arbor. He has endured a rocky recruiting season, player defections, and an ugly court fight regarding the buyout clause of his contract at West Virginia.
Through it all, however, he appears to remain matter-of-fact about the job that lies before him.
“I’m not a pessimist or an optimist,” he said. “I’m more of a realist, and I prefer to tell it like it is. We’ve lost some of the best players that probably have ever played at the University of Michigan on offense. We’re talking about the first pick in the draft (OL Jake Long), a second-round pick at quarterback (Chad Henne), one of the all-time leading
rushers in Mike Hart and two wide receivers (Adrian Arrington and Mario Manningham). We also lost a lot of talent offensively up front.
“We have one starter returning and that’s it. But some of these young guys – when you’re young and you haven’t played a lot, you’re hungry. And a hungry player to me is a guy who is pretty exciting to watch.”
Rodriguez added that he has been able to cope fairly well with the turmoil of the past few months, with the notable exception of when offensive lineman Justin Boren left the program and decided to transfer to Ohio State. On his way out the door, Boren questioned Rodriguez’s motivational methods as well as his family values.
“If I paid a whole lot of attention to a lot of stuff that was written, it would have probably been a little bit tougher,” Rodriguez said, “but after a while it was just stand in line and throw some darts my way. There were so many things out there that happen and it’s really nobody’s fault; it’s just the day and age that we are in today, the rumor mill and how they spread so many things out there that weren’t even true, so many things I wasn’t aware about.
“Maybe I’m being ignorant, but the only one that really worried me was a question about our family values and how we approached the young men on our team. That was the one that really upset me most because that’s the one we take the most pride in. Any player that’s ever played for us in 15 years as head coach will tell you it’s just the opposite, not only on our team but also amongst our staff, and anybody that has touched our program. That’s the one that upset me the most. Nobody has a closer family-tied union than our football program. That one upset me the most.”
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State – After last year’s 7-6 finish, which included all six losses by a touchdown or less, Dantonio has one of the teams considered to be a dark horse title contender.
A couple of weeks ago, the coach was asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Detroit Tigers game and obviously still had baseball on his mind when he noted, “Where we sit right now as a program is on first base. We’re on first base trying to get to second. First base was a bowl game for us. Now, it’s important to take a step forward, not a step back, and I do believe that’s where we’re headed.”
Before Dantonio was hired last season in East Lansing, he had spent six seasons with the Spartans as an assistant coach, first under Nick Saban and later under Bobby Williams. He feels that his prior knowledge of the MSU program led to a successful first season as head coach.
“Familiarity breeds success,” he said. “It was the same when Coach Tressel was hired at Ohio State. He had coached there and he knew about the traditions. He knew about Woody Hayes. He knew about Script Ohio. He knew about John Stillwagon.”
Good thing Coach Dino and his Spartans are entertaining Ohio State in East Lansing this season. At the age of 59, Jim Stillwagon is still an imposing figure and I wouldn’t want to get his name wrong.
It’s a little light on the birthday front today. Sharing birthdays this July 28th are Oscar-winning film producer David Brown (“Jaws,” “Cocoon,” “Driving Miss Daisy”); former NBA star and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley; Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez; Garfield creator Jim Davis; ditzy actress Georgia Engel (Ted Baxter’s wife on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Robert Barone’s mother-in-law on “Everybody Loves Raymond”); Emmy-winning actress Sally Struthers (Gloria on “All In The Family”); actress Elizabeth Berkley (wholesome Jessie on “Saved By The Bell” and less-than-wholesome Nomi in “Showgirls”); Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright; former MLB pitcher Vida Blue; and longtime Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman.
** With new head coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, UCLA is getting its share of preseason love from the prognosticators. That hasn’t translated into any recruiting luck for the Bruins, though. In July alone, they lost defensive back prospect Byron Moore of Harbor City (Calif.) Narbonne to USC and cornerback Marlon Pollard of San Bernadino (Calif.) Cajon to (gulp!) Notre Dame. Both players had been UCLA verbals. The Bruins still have a top DB prospect committed in Sheldon Price of La Puente (Calif.) Bishop Amat, but the Irish are after him, too, as well as Cal and Oregon.
** The defections of Moore and Pollard left UCLA with only seven verbal commitments for its 2008-09 recruiting class. Normally, that would be a decent number this time of year. But this is no normal year. Several teams already have more than twice that number, including USC (15) and Texas (19) while Ohio State has more than three times the number of verbals (24) as the Bruins.
** Out of the “Nothing Better To Do With My Life” file comes the story of a guy named Jim Purol. Recently, he set a new Guinness world record for Most Seats Sat In During A 48-Hour Period. It seems that Mr. Purol plunked his fanny down in every one of the Rose Bowl’s 92,542 seats – and apparently someone was there to document each of those sittings.
** Here is an interesting stat from Major League Baseball: Among pitchers with at least five at-bats this season, two major league hurlers have higher batting averages than ERAs. Through July 25, Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs was hitting .356 with 21 hits (including two homers) in 59 trips to the plate. His 2.96 ERA ranked 10th in the majors at the time. Also, Hong-Chih Kuo of the Dodgers was hitting .333 (3 for 9) and had a 1.89 ERA in three starts and 21 relief appearances.
** During the first half of this season, Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez appeared in 45 games, converting 38 of 41 save opportunities. That represented the highest first-half total in the 40-year history of the save rule. Bobby Thigpen of the Chicago White Sox set the single-season record with 57 saves in 1990. Thigpen didn’t get his 38th save that season until Aug. 15.
** Whitey Ford will celebrate his 80th birthday in October and shows no signs of slowing down. On Saturday at the annual golf outing in Cooperstown, N.Y., which is part of the Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend festivities, Ford helped his team to the championship over a second-place team that included fellow Hall of Famer Wade Boggs and newly inducted member Goose Gossage.