Big Ten Media Days, Part 1

Jerry PalmCorrespondent IJuly 29, 2008

The Big Ten's media day festivities is a two-day affair.  The first day consists of a rotation of press conferences with each of the 11 coaches, plus Jim Delany.  We only get 15 minutes with each coach, but Delany gives us an hour.  On day two, we get a chance to talk to all the coaches and players assembled one-on-one (or one-on-some).  That's a different column.

Day one started with a video reviewing the officiating points of emphasis.  One of the new rules this year is that the horse collar tackle is illegal.  However, it's only a penalty if the player is brought down immediately with the tackle.  They showed an example where a defender caught the guy behind with the horse collar, but it took him a few steps to get him down.  That is not supposed to be a penalty.  I think that's an odd line to draw.

And, as usual, there is an emphasis on unsportsmanlike conduct.  In short, just about any individual celebration of a play is going to get flagged.  Anything remotely choreographed will get flagged.  Any goose-stepping, flying leap, or other gyrations into the end zone will get flagged.  It won't be long before bands get flagged for playing the fight song.  Some probably should.

The top three teams predicted by the media are Ohio St, Wisconsin and Illinois.  The preseason offensive player of the year is OSU RB Beanie Wells, and on defense, it's Buckeye LB James Laurinaitis.

Generally, everyone in the media agrees that it's OSU and everyone else fighting for second.  Penn St, Michigan, Michigan St and even Purdue are teams mentioned as possible runners up.  Iowa and Northwestern are considered dangerous as well.  Indiana and Minnesota bring up the rear, but neither is truly horrible.

Here are some of the highlights from each coach:

  • Illinois coach Ron Zook spoke first.  Like everyone (except Purdue's Joe Tiller), he's excited to be here.  That's because he hasn't lost yet.  He is focused, as are his players, on making sure that last year wasn't a fluke.  He thinks his defense could be very good, but his team still has questions.  For example, who will replace Mendenhall and Leman?

    He was asked about the biggest difference between playing Missouri this year and playing them last year.  Zook said that last year, the coaches were still trying to teach the team how to win.  This year, they know they can.

  • Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald was next.  He spoke about how there were some positives last year, but that they were not satisfied with a six-win season.  He compared it to how things were 13 years ago when he came to NU as a player.  Back then, "if we would have had six wins, we would have had a parade down Central Street, shut it down and had a purple party here in Chicago. Things are changed and I'm excited about that."

    There are a lot of new faces around Fitzgerald.  He has new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and a new boss in AD Jim Phillips, who Fitzgerald called "a great role model for sleep deprivation."  But QB CJ Bacher and RB Tyrell Sutton are back, so NU figures to score a lot of points.

  • Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was having a good time.  He talked about looking forward to back-to-back night games at the Madhouse saying, "Hopefully Wisconsin fans, if they have a couple more hours to relax in the stadium parking lot, we'll have a festive environment."

    On Michigan's conspicuous absence from the media top three, he said it was a "misprint."  After another question about Michigan, he chuckled and said, "it's good to be at a Michigan press conference."

    He also patted himself on the back for picking Illinois as last year's conference sleeper.  He hedged when asked this year, but came up with Michigan St or Indiana.

  • Tiller spoke next.  He pointed out that 15 probable starters missed all or most of spring practice, so he knows less about this team than usual.  That makes fall training camp even more important.  He's glad to have a QB as experienced as Curtis Painter, so at least he doesn't have to worry about that.

    He said that having his successor on the staff (OL coach Danny Hope) is not a distraction at all because Hope was an assistant to him before and because they get along so well.

    He was asked about some of his most endearing relationships with coaches on his staff or other at other schools over the years.  He said that he generally gets along well with pretty much everyone.  "I like to think that if you can't get along with Joe Tiller, there's something wrong with you."  He singled out Penn St coach Joe Paterno, "probably because I'm the closest one to his age."

    He also felt that the one thing he'd miss is the camaraderie with his coaching staff.  He said that they "gen-u-ine-ly" like each other and said that how well a guy might fit in with the group is at least as important as skills when he hired assistants.

  • Jim Tressel hasn't read Carson Palmer's grade-A trash-talk yet, but he said things like that don't bother him.  He also hasn't seen Terrelle Pryor practice yet, so he hasn't figured out how he'll be used.

    He said (facetiously) that the fact that OSU is the overwhelming favorite does concern him because he thinks these picks haven't always been accurate.

  • Indiana coach Bill Lynch now carries the mantle of dullest speaker now that Lloyd Carr is gone.  He did hint that Kellen Lewis' return to the team from a suspension doesn't mean he's a given to start at QB.  He really likes backup Ben Chappell, who is more of a drop-back style QB.

    He also said now that they have accomplished the goal of Play 13, the next goal is to win that game.

    Lynch was also asked that since IU plays eight home games this year, if they gave any thought to playing one of those games up in Indianapolis, where the questioner said they have a "tremendous fan base."

    He said that they want to play all the games in Bloomington they can, so they aren't considering playing in Indy.  However, the correct answer is that they have a tremendous basketball fan base in Indy.  IU fans still don't really care about football and don't sell out their own stadium, so why play in an even bigger stadium in Indy?

  • After Lynch (and lunch) was MSU coach Mark Dantonio.  His 15 minutes can be described by only one word: Outstanding.  He used it 13 times to describe everything from his recruiting, to his schedule, to his tie.  OK, I made up the bit about the tie.

    When someone asked him about being the sleeper, he said his team expects to win every time they take the field and that their goal is to win the league.  If they pull that off, it would be, um, outstanding.

  • Tim Brewster of Minnesota has figured out how to keep the media from asking him stupid questions.  He doesn't leave them any time.  Brewster is so wired that caffeine would probably bring him down.  He started talking.  And talking.  And talking.  By the time he stopped for air, almost ten of his fifteen minutes was gone.  He only had time for four media questions.

    The short version is that he feels that they have to get a lot better on defense if they're going to have any success.  That happens not with better schemes, but with better players.

  • JoePa was next.  He dispensed with the opening remarks, so we all asked him Minnesota questions.

    No, I'm kidding of course.  He was asked, over and over, when he was going to retire.  This was after he said he got tired of answering that question because he doesn't know too many ways to say "I don't know."  At one point, he got frustrated and spelled out "I D O N T K N O W"

    He also chastised one writer for asking him how Terrelle Pryor would impact Ohio St.  "That's a dumb question, even though you're a Penn St grad.  You should ask Tressel."

    He also felt honored to have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, but said, "when you've been around as long as I have, they gotta do something with you."

  • Iowa's Kirk Ferentz started by talking to us about the weather damage in Iowa this summer and how that has affected everyone there.  Reporters were more interested in the sexual assault scandal going on there.

    You can see the story here.

    He did say that he hopes to hire a life skills adviser, or what he called a "Player Development Coach," to help players make better decisions.  He said he wasn't going after Dr. Phil, "and he's probably not available."

    He was also relieved that former Indiana WR James Hardy is now gone.  "He doesn't have a brother or cousin there (at IU) does he?  No?  Good.  We didn't cover him for three years.  It was like he had poison ivy."

  • Finally, it was time for the new guy, Rich Rodriguez of Michigan.  He said he was sorry he missed Tiller because he had "a new concoction of snake oil to show him."

    Mostly, people wanted to know about the goings on with West Virginia.  He said that they settled the lawsuit because it needed to be put to rest so everyone could just go forward.  He also said that he was sorry he didn't get his day in court to clear some things up.

  • There were three recurring themes that most coaches were asked to address.

    What do you think of the perception that the league is down based on BCS results of the last two years?

    In general, the coaches all feel the league is very competitive top-to-bottom.  No surprise there.  Tressel in particular felt it was unfair to paint the whole league because if his team's performance in the title game the last two years.

    Why do you think the spread offense is so popular?

    It's gives defenses trouble because it spreads the field.  It also forces them into basic packages because you can just as easily run a four deep pattern as an option out of the same formation.  You can also use it with almost any personnel.  Although many run it with mobile quarterbacks, Purdue, for example, uses it with pro-style QBs.

    What is retiring Purdue coach Tiller's legacy?

    Zook: "He's a great football coach, he's been around and won an awful lot of games, and the things he's done with the Purdue program speaks for itself.  Tiller's has come in and put Purdue in the upper echelon in the Big Ten, not once in a while but consistently.  To be honest with you, I'm glad we don't play them this year"

    Fitzgerald: "I think Joe Tiller will always be looked at in the Big Ten as an innovator on the football field. He'll be looked at, I believe, within our coaching ranks, as someone who has never changed who he is, his personality has always been the same, a tremendous sense of humor, and I'm very excited to have Coach Tiller move into retirement.  (He's) been a tough on us at Northwestern against him. Just look at our record.  I'm honored to call him someone I've had a chance to be a colleague with."

    Bielema (who wasn't asked): "I'm a big Joe Tiller fan because he can walk in here without a tie. If I got up here without a tie, I'd get heckled, so I admire a guy going into his last year and can wear what he wants and no one is going to say anything."

    Tiller: "I think number one, a number of people are still curious about me. Some
    of the comments I've made, I'm coming here, by the way, from Wyoming and I'm going back to Wyoming to finish a little more trout fishing here before we head back to West Lafayette.  I think the fact that when I went to Purdue they had 12 non-Bowl seasons and maybe 11 of the 12 had been losing seasons, what have you, to the fact where we've been competitive every year and will be once again this year, probably that's what most folks will refer to I suppose."

    Paterno: "He brought in a whole new concept of what you could do, and he did it with a lot of class.  I'm very fond of Joe.  I'm sorry he's leaving."

    Commissioner Jim Delany capped off our day.  He was pretty sick with the flu, but if you only listened and didn't see him, you wouldn't know.

    The one interesting thing he said was about the BCS meetings where the discussion took place as to whether or not to look into expanding the format.  He said that two conferences were in favor of examining the idea - not in favor of expansion - just looking into it.  He said they weren't really committed to expansion itself, at least not yet.  The other five parties (four conferences and ND) weren't interested.  The whole discussion took about two hours.  He said that the Big Ten and Pac 10 have been taking all the heat for blocking a playoff, but really, there isn't a big movement anywhere for one.  It's not just them.

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