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  • Hazell Returns, Bielema Departs

    It’s that time of year again – time for the coaching carousel to whir in motion. With the regular season over, the massive bowl schedule not kicking off until Dec. 15, and programs all over the country reassessing, several head coaches were fired to set off the inevitable domino effect.

    The Big Ten, of course, was not immune. Virtually within the same time frame on Tuesday, reports spread like wildfire that Purdue was about to name a new head coach and Wisconsin, even with the Rose Bowl awaiting, also was in a state of flux at the top.

    That news and other important items relating to the Big ten follow:

    Hazell Heads West

    When Jim Tressel hired Darrell Hazell away from Rutgers, it became apparent early that Hazell had an immediate positive effect on the Ohio State passing game and was a key member of the new offensive brain trust.

    Hazell moved on to become the head coach at Kent State and in two years there authored a complete turnaround of the program.

    Now Hazell is back in the Big Ten as the head coach of Purdue and his assignment is twofold – revive the Boilermakers’ offense and change the culture in West Lafayette, Ind.

    Purdue flirted with other candidates including Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, but announced Hazell as the successor to Danny Hope on Wednesday morning after several reports had already linked him to the job.

    Boilermakers athletic director Morgan Burke hired the 48-year-old Hazell to lead the school dubbed as the Cradle of Quarterbacks out of mediocrity and Hazell obliged in the release announcing his hiring.

    “I’m extremely excited to work with the players at Purdue, and I look forward to experiencing a lot of success in the future,” Hazell said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

    Purdue scheduled a Wednesday evening press conference to introduce Hazell as the new head coach and allow him to break the news to his players at Kent State (11-2), which is preparing for a Jan. 6 appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala., vs. Arkansas State (9-3).

    Hazell grew up in New Jersey but played football at Muskingum College in Ohio. Tressel lured him back to the Buckeye State in 2004, and he remained an important part of the Ohio State coaching staff until 2010, when he left to become a head coach. At Kent State, endured growing pains with a 5-7 mark in 2011 but the Golden Flashes came on strong this past fall, posting an 8-0 record in Mid-American Conference regular-season play and advancing to the league title game as the Eastern Division champion.

    The Flashes came extraordinarily close to continuing their dream season this past weekend, but lost a 44-37 decision to Northern Illinois in double overtime in the MAC Championship Game.

    Hazell won this season’s MAC coach of the year award after leading Kent State to its first winning season since 2001, first bowl appearance in more than four decades and the brink of a BCS bowl game.

    Burke made it clear during a Nov. 25 presser announcing Hope’s firing that the program was in need of a new leader who could revive the Purdue offense, which was borderline anemic this season.

    “We are an offensive-minded program,” Burke said. “That’s where we’ve made our mark over the years. I don’t see that under the circumstances changing. We’re not going to move into a coach that has a dramatically different scheme because we’ve built this team to play a certain kind of football.

    “We’ve seen other institutions that made a coaching change, then they changed their style of play. It took two or three years to adjust. We’re not going to do that. We’ve got talent in this program, we know we have talent in this program. We want it to be nurtured.”

    Purdue has tended toward an up-tempo style offense that thrived under coach Joe Tiller and quarterback Drew Brees. Hope kept that system but with disappointing results and a bevy of different quarterbacks.

    Ironically, many PU fans were in the corner of Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren, who also has been a Big Ten assistant, but Doeren just accepted the head coaching position at North Carolina State.

    Burke reportedly offered Jones a five-year deal worth $13.5 million, but those negotiations broke down.

    Hope earned a Big Ten-low $950,000 in guaranteed compensation last year, though Burke acknowledged he was willing to spend more on his next coach.

    Details of Hazell’s contract were not immediately available. He made a base salary of $300,000 with the Golden Flashes.

    Hazell, who was an assistant head coach at OSU from 2005-10, becomes the first black coach in Boilermakers history and will take over full-time duties later this month. The Boilermakers (6-6, 3-5) will face Oklahoma State (7-5) on. Jan 1 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl and are a decided underdog. Receivers coach Patrick Higgins has been tabbed to serve as head coach for the bowl game.

    Hope compiled a record of 22-27 in four years at Purdue.

    Bielema Era In Madison Ends

    While Hazell becoming the new boss at Purdue was surprising, Bret Bielema leaving Wisconsin after seven successful years there was even more jaw-dropping.

    Bielema seemed to be the right fit at UW, especially with former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez a step behind him as an acting mentor.

    But Bielema couldn’t resist the urge to take his headset to the mighty Southeastern Conference and accepted an offer to become the new head coach at Arkansas. The university released a statement Tuesday night saying Bielema had agreed to a deal to take over the program, which is still reeling following the firing of former coach Bobby Petrino.

    Former Michigan State head coach John L. Smith served as acting head coach of the Razorbacks in 2012 but couldn’t rejuvenate the program. The Hogs went to the Sugar Bowl to face Ohio State following the 2010 season and finished 10-3. Last year they were 11-2 including a victory over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. In 2012 under Smith they were just 4-8, 2-6 in the SEC.

    Arkansas has not yet released terms of Bielema’s deal but a report claimed he was prepared to sign a six-year agreement paying him $3.2 million annually.

    Alvarez’s hand-picked successor at Wisconsin, Bielema was 68-24 with the Badgers, with four double-digit win seasons. He coached Wisconsin to a 17-14 victory over Arkansas in his first season at the Capital One Bowl.

    UW is heading to its third straight Rose Bowl – and has a ticket to face Stanford – after waxing Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten Championship Game. However, the Badgers were unsuccessful in the last two trips to Pasadena, losing to TCU and then Oregon.

    Wisconsin (8-5) backed its way into the league title game after losses to Ohio State and Penn State to end the regular season. The third-place Leaders Division finish still merited a date against Nebraska in Indianapolis since OSU and PSU were ineligible from postseason play because of NCAA sanctions.

    Still, Arkansas came courting.

    “His tough, aggressive style of play has been successful and will be appealing to student-athletes and Razorback fans,” Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said in a statement. “He not only shares the vision and values for the future of Arkansas football, he embraces them.”

    The move was the second stunning hire this year at Arkansas, which brought in Smith as the interim coach after firing Petrino for hiring his mistress to work in the athletic department. Long announced after the season that Smith wouldn’t return.

    Arkansas continually ranked among the SEC’s best passing teams under Petrino, but Bielema is expected to bring his signature power game, which has featured hulking offensive lines and punishing running backs such as current UW senior Montee Ball.

    “During my conversation with Jeff (Long), he described the characteristics for the perfect fit to lead this program,” Bielema said in a statement. “It was evident we share the same mission, principles and goals.”

    Ball tied Barry Sanders’ longstanding single-season record of 39 touchdowns last year, and this year became the FBS career leader in touchdowns. He currently has 82 touchdowns after running for three Saturday night against Nebraska.

    The 42-year-old Bielema was the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin for two years before being promoted to head coach in 2006. He played for Iowa and started his coaching career there as an assistant under Hayden Fry and later Kirk Ferentz.

    Rumors surfaced that Alvarez told Bielema to immediately leave the program when he learned of discussions with Arkansas, but Alvarez didn’t address that issue publicly, instead saying, “I was very surprised when Bret told me he was taking the offer from Arkansas. He did a great job for us during his seven years as head coach, both on the field and off. I want to thank him for his work and wish him the best at Arkansas.”

    After the Cotton Bowl victory, the Razorbacks ended the 2011 season ranked No. 5 in the nation and Petrino said the program way on course to compete for a national championship. But his April 1 motorcycle accident led to the scandal with his mistress – a former Arkansas volleyball player he had hired to work in the athletic department.

    Petrino, who was married at the time and has four children, was fired.

    Arkansas’ on-field outlook plummeted quickly. The Razorbacks suffered an overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 8, a setback that led to a four-game losing streak that dropped Arkansas out of the rankings. The Razorbacks finished with the school’s lowest win total since 2005, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2008.

    To make matters worse, Smith made headlines of his own when he filed for bankruptcy during the season, revealing $40.7 million in debt he blamed on bad land deals.

    Long, though, still has designs on pushing forward. The school is expanding the 72,000-seat Razorback Stadium and is currently building an 80,000-square-foot football operations center.

    “The infrastructure in place at Arkansas shows the commitment from the administration to accomplish our goals together and I am excited to begin to lead this group of student-athletes,” Bielema said. “This program will represent the state of Arkansas in a way Razorback fans everywhere will be proud of.”

    Bowl Trouble

    Wisconsin and Purdue are two of seven Big Ten teams heading to bowls – and the matchups do not look favorable for the conference.

    The Badgers have not named an acting head coach for the Rose Bowl battle with Stanford. Purdue, as previously mentioned, will face Big 12 combatant Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, also on New Year’s Day.

    Also, league runner-up Nebraska heads to the Capital One Bowl, Michigan will play in the Outback Bowl, Northwestern travels to the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Michigan State competes in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, and Minnesota heads to the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

    Even without 12-0 Ohio State and 8-4 Penn State, the Big Ten has earned at least six bowl berths for the 14th straight year.

    The Badgers will be in the spotlight again when they face Stanford at 5:10 p.m. Eastern on Jan. 1 on ESPN. Wisconsin, which holds an 11-12 record in bowl games, becomes the first Big Ten team to go to three straight Rose Bowl Games since Michigan went to Pasadena following the 1976-78 campaigns. Conference teams are 30-35 all-time in the Rose Bowl Game, while the Badgers hold a 3-5 mark in the game.

    Winners of the Big Ten Legends Division, Nebraska is set to appear in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., where the Huskers will face Georgia at 1 p.m. Eastern on Jan. 1 on ABC. Nebraska is one of the most accomplished programs in the country in terms of postseason appearances and is one of three Big Ten teams boasting 20 or more postseason victories, owning 24 triumphs in bowl contests. However, the Cornhuskers will be hard-pressed to take down a Georgia squad that was 5 yards away from advancing to the BCS title game.

    Making its 42nd postseason appearance, and third consecutive, Michigan will play in the Outback Bowl for the first time since the 2002 season, where it will face South Carolina at 1 p.m. Eastern on Jan. 1 on ESPN. The Wolverines are 3-1 all-time in games played in Tampa, Fla., including a 38-30 victory over Florida in the 2003 game.

    Northwestern also will make a New Year’s Day appearance in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., where it will face Mississippi State at noon Eastern on ESPN2. The Wildcats earned their 11th bowl berth, advancing to the postseason for the fifth straight time under coach Pat Fitzgerald.

    Michigan State makes its first appearance in Tempe, Ariz., for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, where the Spartans will take on TCU at 10:15 p.m. Eastern on Dec. 29 on ESPN. The Spartans are heading to their 23rd postseason game and sixth straight under head coach Mark Dantonio, matching the longest streak in school history.

    Minnesota travels to Houston to take on Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Dec. 28 at 9 p.m. Eastern on ESPN. The last time these two teams met was a doozy – a 44-41 overtime victory for Texas Tech in the 2006 Insight Bowl.

    The Boilermakers, who will kick off New Year’s Day bowl coverage at noon Eastern on ESPNU, have been victorious in their last two bowl games. They return to the state of Texas for postseason play for the first time since the 2004 Sun Bowl. Purdue has faced Oklahoma State once previously, a 33-20 Boilermaker victory in the 1997 Alamo Bowl.

    O’Brien Honored

    Penn State’s Bill O’Brien was named Big Ten Coach of the Year by the conference’s coaches and members of the media, edging out Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, another candidate for national awards, in the process.

    Upon accepting, O’Brien confirmed he plans on being the Nittany Lions head coach in 2013, ending speculation that arose when he was linked to several NFL head coaching jobs.

    Last January, O’Brien left as offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots and took over a Penn State program in shambles in the midst of the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Although his hiring was initially criticized by some former players and alumni, O’Brien eventually helped bring a sense of pride back to Happy Valley.

    He also held the program up through crippling sanctions and the exodus of several veteran players including star running back Silas Redd, who transferred to USC.

    He affirmed his desire to stay at Penn State – but was somewhat noncommittal – when the topic came up during a radio interview with 790 the Zone in Atlanta, though he didn’t definitively rule out a return to the NFL.

    “I plan on being the head football coach at Penn State,” O’Brien told the station. “That’s my plan and that’s what I intend to do.”

    Despite a rough 0-2 star that included a home loss to Ohio University and a one-point setback at Virginia, O’Brien was able to lead the Nittany Lions to a 8-4 record and tapped into the right arm of quarterback Matt McGloin, who became the leading passer in the Big Ten.

    “It was a tough, tough year here, especially if you go back to November, but I think these kids – and again it goes back to this senior class – they’re wise beyond their years,” O’Brien said.

    “As time went on they realized that it’s not about bowl games, it’s about making sure that we do our part to help put an end to child abuse but at the same time go out and play as good of football as we can. And like every season, we wish we had some plays back and some games back, but I think at the end of the day we played pretty good football.”

    Powerball

    The conference is looking powerful in men’s basketball, even after it had to settle for a 6-6 tie in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Associated Press poll that was released Dec. 3 had Indiana still firmly entrenched at No. 1, although Duke also was receiving a share of the first-place votes after topping Ohio State in the Challenge.

    Indiana, which dusted North Carolina in the Challenge, entered the week at 8-0 and with 45 of a possible 65 first-place votes. Duke, which also was 8-0, garnered the other 20 and was second in the poll. Michigan, 7-0, at the time the poll was released and 8-0 after a 32-point win over Western Michigan on Tuesday, is No. 3 in the AP poll.

    Ohio State, which bounced back from the five-point loss at Duke with a win over Northern Kentucky on Saturday, entered the week at 5-1 and No. 7, a drop of three slots. Kansas (6-1), which will pay a visit to OSU on Dec. 22, is No. 9.

    Three other Big Ten teams join Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State in the top 20 – Illinois (8-0) at No. 13, Minnesota (8-1) at No. 14 and Michigan State (6-2) at No. 19. Like OSU, Minnesota’s only loss is to Duke.

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  • Football Season Finally Arrives

    CHICAGO – All 12 member teams will be in action Labor Day weekend, kicking off the 117th season of Big Ten football.

    It promises to be a fall unlike any other.

    Sure there will be marquee games right out of the chute such as Boise State at Michigan State on Aug. 31 and Michigan vs. Alabama in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 1.

    And there will be familiar faces as well, including Wisconsin’s Montee Ball (the leading rusher in the conference last year), dynamic Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson (who could break several league marks this season), and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz (the most tenured Big Ten coach).

    Rex Burkhead should be just as versatile performer at Nebraska, Ohio State’s John Simon will continue to chase down quarterbacks, Chris Borland will return to anchor Wisconsin’s defense, and UW coach Bret Bielema again enters the season on top.

    However, there is much change afoot.

    Burkhead and Ball are the only first-team offensive All-Big Ten performers from 2011 who are back, and three member schools have new head coaches – Tim Beckman at Illinois, Urban Meyer at Ohio State, and Bill O’Brien at Penn State.

    In fact, for the first time in the history of Big Ten Football Media Days, which was held Thursday and Friday in Chicago – and for the first time since 1966, for that matter – Joe Paterno was not representing the program as its head coach. Of course, Paterno was fired from his 46-year post in November and died of lung cancer at the age of 85 on Jan. 22.

    The scandal involving former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, his conviction of sexually abusing 10 boys, and the cover-up orchestrated by the university hierarchy has led to months of unrest in Happy Valley and recently imposed sanctions.

    The punishment is crippling – a fine of $60 million, a four-year bowl and probation, a massive loss of scholarships, the vacating of all wins dating back to 1998, and an open door for student-athletes to transfer to other programs without having to sit out a year. The Big Ten piled on by censuring the school and stripping it of league revenue over the same four-year period, which could cost Penn State another $13 million.

    With all of that thundering down on Penn State on Monday and leading to speculation about an exodus of players, O’Brien reluctantly moved right into the spotlight when he arrived to town.

    “We’ve got a bunch of kids back in State College right now that are sticking together, that have been through a lot of tough times over the last six months but have turned the page and are ready to move forward,” he said at the lectern.

    “And all I can tell you is that we’ve got a great staff. We’ve got a tough, smart football team. The fans need to get on board, our alumni need to get on board and our lettermen need to get on board.”

    Of course, that didn’t keep reporters from delving into the pain, especially considering that while O’Brien was speaking star PSU running back Silas Redd was in the midst of a three-hour meeting with USC coach Lane Kiffin about the prospect of moving right into the Trojan backfield.

    O’Brien, as one might imagine, is most concerned with the restrictions on recruiting and the relaxing of the rules regarding transfers since his roster is sure to deal with constant tinkering

    “It’s like NFL free agency without the rules,” he said. “So they can do what they want as long as they tell our compliance office that they’re contacting these kids, and it is what it is. So I don’t really have anything to say on that.”

    O’Brien certainly backed that claim when, moments later, a reporter greeted him with the following: “Hi, Coach. Can you give us an update on the Silas Redd situation?”

    “No,” O’Brien said, before the reporter had finished exhaling his question.

    The former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, O’Brien has embraced what is already in place – Penn State’s excellent football tradition, topnotch facilities and impressive community support. However, the theme of his comments here centered on moving forward and forging the program into a new age.

    He even hinted that the team may don new uniforms this fall.

    “There’s a lot of discussions going on with our football team right now,” he said when asked about the possibility of the Nittany Lions having a different gameday look. “We’ve got a group of young men there, like I said, that are sticking together. And there’s changes that have taken place at Penn State over the last six months that are reflected already. The new era of Penn State football.

    “And some of the changes people will have to wait and see until September, on September 1st.”

    Meyer Makes His Mark

    Meyer also comes from a winning background, having won two national championships in six years at Florida and also putting together eye-opening two-year stints at Bowling Green and Utah.

    All eyes were on him when he took to the lectern Thursday morning.

    “I’m honored to be here representing the Big Ten conference and Ohio State University and look forward to starting training camp a week from Friday,” he opened. “I like our players. I like our team. We had a conditioning test that our players are telling me about. And the energy level is real high right now in Columbus with our football team. So I’m anxious to get going.”

    Meyer immediately was asked to compare the SEC to the Big Ten.

    “Big Ten, the SEC, the last few years, is kind of the kingpin with the success they’ve had in the BCS,” he said. “I have watched a lot of the Big Ten as we got ready to play some Bowl games in recent years. I see the Big Ten has changed dramatically.

    “As a matter of fact, I think it was eight out of the 12 teams are running some sort of spread offense right now. And then there’s two option offenses and then traditional offenses, and that’s obviously a drastic change from historically what you think of the Big Ten. So there’s a little bit of a movement.

    “There’s some great defense in this league, which there’s always been. But there’s several teams right now playing as good as defense as anybody in America.

    “So I think it has changed, but it’s going to be interesting, the evolution, in the next few years with the coaching transitions that are taking place.”

    The Buckeyes are coming off a 6-7 season and are dealing with sanctions of their own, including a postseason ban in effect for this season. Meyer admitted he’s still struggling to deal with that, but he still has his team reaching for a big season.

    “There’s no such thing as a buffer year in college football, certainly not at Ohio State and certainly not with myself and our staff and our players,” he said.

    Meyer’s no-nonsense approach has been well-received so far and compelled him to suspend the scholarships of veterans Jack Mewhort and Jake Stoneburner after they were arrested for urinating in public and trying to elude police this summer. The charges against Stoneburner have been dropped but Meyer is making both players work their way back into good graces.

    “They’re not reinstated yet,” Meyer said. “They’re actively working out. They have to fulfill their penance or obligation that we’ve asked them to do. Obviously the kind of people that they are, the families they’re from, we did take their scholarships. They’ve had to pay for their summer school. Very expensive mistake.

    “They’re doing what they are supposed to do. Monitoring it closely. And that decision won’t be made until we get to training camp. But as of now they’ll be reporting to training camp a week from Friday.”

    Hands Off

    Meyer was among the many league coaches who said he has no designs on raiding Penn State because of the stipulation that Lions players can leave without penalty.

    In fact, he went a step further.

    “I have a problem with that,” he said. “A player has a right to choose, especially by the rules, to go where he wants. To actively go get a player on another team, I’m not sure … when he’s part of a team, you’re getting into a situation that I’m not quite very familiar with, and we’re not going to get very familiar with it.”

    The third to speak on Thursday, Meyer got plenty of backing from other league coaches, including Bielema and another rival, Michigan’s Brady Hoke.

    When this thing came about, and obviously a very unprecedented situation, of course when you're sitting at the head table of your staff room and assistant coaches have a lot of different opinions, I made the decision as a head coach we would not reach out to any Penn State players,” Bielema said.

    “And it wasn't anything more than I have a group of 105 players that are reporting on August 5th that I want them to understand and believe that I think they can help us win another championship. And to bring someone in at this point so close to the season, I just wasn't comfortable with it.”

    Added Hoke on the subject, “To be honest with you, we kind of made a decision – I’d be lying if I didn't say we didn't look at the roster to some degree – but we've kind of made a decision that we’re going to stay and recruit the guys and keep our business our business.”

    Some coaches, however, including Purdue’s Danny Hope, said looking into possible interest from Penn State players is within the rules and therefore something worth pursuing. Beckman even admitted that he and his Illini assistants are already on the case.

    “We were in State College, but we did not go on campus,” Beckman said. “We went to two establishments outside campus and called some individuals and if they wanted to come by, it was their opportunity to come by.”

    Beckman said that he has spoken with O’Brien and that the Illinois compliance director has contacted Penn State about the players in question so that all rules would be followed accordingly.

    New Frontier

    Meyer, of course, is no rookie coach and is expected to bring the Buckeyes right back to respectability. And he was once a member of the OSU staff under Earle Bruce as a graduate assistant in the 1980s. But he’s still new to the Big Ten in this capacity, and that means adjusting to many aspects of the job and getting used to a new league.

    Ditto for O’Brien and Beckman.

    Hoke went through it just last year and came out all right – he was named Big Ten Coach of the Year after the 2011 season.

    “It’s that familiarity and the expectations,” Hoke said. “‘What’s Coach going to be like game week? What’s he going to be like during two-a-day camp?’ All those things. And as a coach it’s ‘How are they going to respond?’ because it’s a grind.”

    Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio agreed.

    “I think the biggest thing with being a newcomer is your don’t know the people, whether it’s the reporters or the opposing coaches or who are the players, the key players, on each team,” Dantonio said. “So there’s a little bit of a learning curve there. I try to be consistent, but I was probably a little bit more at ease now than I was that first year.”

    Bielema is now among the most experienced league coaches but he still remembers what it was like to be in the shoes of someone like O’Brien or Beckman.

    “One of the neat things for me going into my seventh year is I've known so many of these coaches,” he said. “The first year when I came in, I kind of came in like a mouse in the room. I didn't know anybody in there other than Kirk who I had worked for. Now I go around the room, I knew Mark Dantonio when he was an assistant. I actually shared defensive ideas back with him when he was at Ohio State and I was at Kansas State.”

    The newcomer role has helped bond O’Brien and Beckman, at least according to Beckman, who came over after a successful head coaching stint at Toledo.

    “I don’t know Coach O’Brien personally,” Beckman said. “We were not able to meet him at the Big Ten meetings in February. So this was the opportunity, really, for us to get together here earlier today. I have the utmost respect for him. I think he’s doing an outstanding job at Penn State and with the situation there at Penn State.

    “He was a fabulous coach in the NFL and has been around some quality, quality leaders. So I expect great things at Penn State, as always.”

    All Better Now

    Ironically, despite Beckman’s comments, O’Brien seemed miffed when reporters asked him about Illinois’ coaching staff seeking out Penn State players, leaving many to wonder if the two head coaches really were in good spirits with each other.

    Meanwhile, the two league coaches fans assume don’t get along – Bielema and Meyer – say they are just fine.

    Bielema reportedly was miffed after prized offensive lineman Kyle Dodson flipped his commitment from Wisconsin to Ohio State and delivered the following comments during his signing day address:

    “There’s a few things that happened early on that I made people be aware of, that I didn’t want to see in this league, that I had seen take place in other leagues. Other recruiting tactics, other recruiting practices, that are illegal.

    “I was very up-front, very pointed to the fact, actually reached out to coach Meyer and shared my thoughts and concerns with him. The situation got rectified.”

    Bielema, though, downplayed any possible rift with Meyer.

    “At that time of the year people needed something to write about,” he said of reports of their alleged feud over the winter.

    Meyer also claimed no harm, no foul.

    “We have a very, very good relationship,” he said when asked about Bielema. “I think you’d have to ask coach, but we get along fine. We had a conversation about it at the Big Ten meetings, I believe it was in February. A lot of the things that were reported weren’t said.

    “We stand by exactly the way how we do things. And from my understanding, once again, it hasn’t been discussed again, there’s absolutely no problem whatsoever with the way Ohio State does their business. And that comes from the fellow coaches in our Big Ten conference.”

    Notes

    * The official standings from last year were adorned on the front page of the league release at the conference. Why is that noteworthy? Well, Penn State was listed as the second-place team in the Leaders Division in 2011 with a record of 0-0. Of course, that includes marks of 0-0 at home, 0-0 on the road and 0-0 within the division. The nonsense of vacated games.

    * The first league team to hit the gridiron is Minnesota, which will play at UNLV under the lights (11 p.m. Eastern, CBS Sports Network) on Aug. 30. The following evening (8 p.m. Eastern, ESPN), Michigan State will host Boise State for a big opener of national appeal.

    * The Big Ten has not really addressed the recent trend of schools offering recruits younger and younger these days, but Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald believes it should.

    “I’m not sure recruiting 15-year-old kids – their kids, they’re not young men – is the right thing to do,” Fitzgerald said. “What matters is what’s right for kids.

    “I was 15 years old and I was starting to date my wife, Stacy. I was really hoping she’d talk to me. I didn’t need some adult texting me and placating to my ego before I even had a (driver’s) license. So let’s talk about society here. What are we doing? There was something pretty healthy about not being offered a scholarship until after your senior year.”

    * The Big Ten Conference once again announced a preseason Players To Watch list which recognizes 10 players of high stature. A media panel designates five players from each division for the honor. Representing the Legends Division are offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and quarterback Robinson of Michigan, cornerback Johnny Adams and defensive end William Gholston of Michigan State, and running back Burkhead of Nebraska. Representing the Leaders Division are defensive lineman Simon and quarterback Braxton Miller of Ohio State, defensive tackle Kawann Short of Purdue, and running back Ball and linebacker Borland of Wisconsin.

    Quotable

    Simon on the prospect of a 12-0 season for the Buckeyes – “I think it’s very realistic that we can win all our games. We just have to not get ahead of ourselves and take it one game at a time.”

    Bielema on being a newlywed – “Nineteen weeks and five days that we’ve been into this relationship. It’s because I get reminded on a daily basis, not that I knew that stat. I was sitting packing for our trip down here last night. And of course my wife is yelling at me because we were supposed to leave three hours ago, which I’m learning to understand after 19 weeks and five days that you have to learn to do these things.”

    Fitzgerald on the idea of football recruiting becoming as involved as basketball recruiting – “I don’t want at 10:45 at night some coach texting me with, ‘What’s up, Dawg?’ I don’t want to do that. Now, if we have to, we will. But I’m a ’Cat, I’m not your Dawg.”

    Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany on being asked to respond to the fact that Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State are all currently on NCAA probation – “The last 30 years, you’d be surprised to find out that any five-year period the Big Ten has had between four and six or seven teams on probation. Going back 30 years there’s not been a five-year period where we didn’t. And if you look at the Big 12 or any of the major conferences you’d find the same thing.”

    Penn State offensive lineman John Urschel on if there is an added emphasis for the Lions to put together a good season – “Absolutely. We’re representing the university and we’re the face of the university. Unfortunately, you guys don’t get to come in and talk to our world-class professors or talk to some of the great academic students we have. You guys are stuck with us. But it’s an opportunity for us to show everyone how well Penn State is doing.”

    Meyer on how he can avoid having too firm a grip on the OSU football program – “How do I keep things in order, in check? I think humility is one. Also understanding that we’re a product of those around us, and it’s never about the head football coach, it’s about a bunch of players which is most important and second-most important is a group of coaches.”

    O’Brien on what he told his players when he met with them after the NCAA sanctions were announced – “I talked to them about adversity. I gave them my own story, my own personal story on adversity as it related to my wife and I with our son, Jack. And I talked to them about each one of them have stories of adversity in their lives. Our coaches have stories of adversity in their lives. And the measure of a man is how you overcome adversity. I talked to them about without a shadow of a doubt they’re going to be able to play six to seven Bowl games per year in front of 108,000 screaming fans in Beaver Stadium and I expect it to be 108,000 fans in Beaver Stadium.”

    O’Brien on how he’ll deal with the scholarship reductions on the Penn State program – “I came from a league where there were 53 players on the roster, eight practice squad players and 45 players on the active roster, 21 on offense, 21 on defense, three specialists on game day. So I’m pretty well aware of how to handle a roster of 65 scholarship players. So we have plans in place. I’m not going to get into the details of those. They’re already in the works. But I don’t think that that’s as bad as everybody says it is.”

    Robinson when asked about a popular video game commercial – “I actually saw the Desmond Howard one where he’s on Ohio and the dad throws the TV out the window. That’s kind of funny.”

    Meyer on the importance of the Michigan game this year with no postseason to follow – “I don’t know if you can add any more to it. And the big reason is hopefully by the end of the season there’s going to be two really good football teams that are going to go play each other. But I think that will be – I certainly imagine in our home stadium there will be a buzz about that. I’ve already heard it. And I haven’t made that decision on how we’re going to attack that game other than it’s the biggest game of the year and we will get ready for it.”

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  • Colorful Two Days In Chicago

    The Windy City is known for its popular and colorful Chicago-based ball teams – Cubs blue, Bulls red and the familiar black worn by the Bears.

    On Thursday and Friday the town was painted scarlet and gray in that the discussions during the 2011 Big Ten Football Media Days there always seemed to circle back to Ohio State.

    The Buckeyes, of course, are the perennial power team of the conference after winning six straight league crowns. However, head coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor are gone because of scandal while several other key players have been suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season.

    And new coach Luke Fickell inherits a team that needs to rebuild its core on defense and will have to deal with varying expectations and distractions throughout the fall.

    So as the 12 coaches took the podium individually on Thursday and delved into their team outlook, the questions still managed to pertain to OSU.

    Perhaps most interesting were the comments by Michigan’s Brady Hoke, who, like Fickell, enters the rivalry for the first time as a head coach.

    A former UM assistant who opened eyes heading up the programs at Ball State and San Diego State, Hoke already has Wolverine fans fired up and Buckeye fans disliking the portly new head coach. In Woody Hayes-like fashion, Hoke has showed extra attention to the rivalry by referring to the enemy with a slighted title. But in this case, instead of Hayes calling Michigan “that school up north” Hoke simply refers to OSU as “Ohio.”

    He did it repeatedly in Chicago.

    “You know, we're really fortunate at Michigan,” Hoke said at the mic. “We have a national rivalry. We play Notre Dame. We have an in-state rivalry with Michigan State, obviously. Then the rivalry with Ohio is as big a rivalry as there is in sport.”

    Fickell didn’t react to Hoke’s reference to the Buckeyes but he made sure to tell reporters in Chicago that he doesn’t intend to let UM suddenly get the upper hand in The Game.

    “Nobody will overlook that,” Fickell said. “I know that's not something that will ever be overlooked at Ohio State. Obviously (we) look forward to that rivalry, continuing that great tradition.”

    Hoke also admitted he has a special feeling for the late November matchup.

    “It’s fun,” said Hoke, who last participated in the rivalry as an assistant at Michigan in 2002.

    “I mean, if you can’t get geared up for that and get goosebumps and all those things for that game, then you may not be human.”

    Hoke grew up in the Dayton area but claims he rooted for Michigan as a kid. His father, John Hoke, played for Hayes and Bo Schembechler at Miami (Ohio).

    Hoke eventually found himself on the sidelines for the rivalry but doesn’t expect to be part of the spotlight when the series is renewed this fall.

    “It never has been who the coach is,” he said. “It’s always about those two great institutions.

    “Playing at the end of November is tradition and some traditions you don’t mess with,” Hoke added.

    And some you start yourself – like calling your bitter rival by its first name.

    Similarly, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema seemed to both crack Ohio State and show the program major respect throughout his two-day appearance in Chicago.

    Bielema, who was selected by the media as the conference’s best coach in a preseason poll, has made no bones about putting Ohio State in his gun scope and he sounded like a man hell-bent on the opportunity to catch the Buckeyes during his media address. He also reminded reporters that the Badgers ruined OSU’s otherwise perfect season – even if sanctions take away the 12 wins.

    “We’ve been knocking on the door of Ohio State for a couple of years, but to finally go through last year in the way that we did, there wasn’t any question about who won that football game,” he said of the 31-18 upset of No. 1 OSU last October.

    “The only bad part about Terrelle leaving was he said the week after it was a fluke, that they’d beat us nine out of 10 times. So to me, we really wanted to play that game against him, but unfortunately we won’t.”

    The two teams will meet again in Columbus this year – a Halloween (Oct. 29) treat that is sure to stir up more emotion. The Buckeyes are expected to wear replica uniforms for that contest and the national spotlight will shine brightly. Considering Bielema’s obsession with surpassing OSU in the conference race, that some consider the Badgers as Ohio State’s biggest rival, and that the two teams are now in opposing divisions, setting up a possibly December rematch in the conference’s first-ever championship game, Bielema was asked to respond to the Buckeyes’ recent NCAA hot water.

    “I understand why you ask the question, but I don’t spend one day at the University of Wisconsin worrying about what’s going on at Ohio State,” he said.

    Sure you don’t, Coach.

    “Ohio State still has a lot of real good football players,” he continued. “Luke (Fickell) is a very good football coach. He’s a great assistant coach and my guess is he’s going to be a good head coach, but it doesn’t change what we do at Wisconsin.”

    Bielema also seemed to reference Tressel, saying, “If you’re trying to be competitive, you’re trying to win a football game, all those things, maximize all your opportunities, do what you have to do,” he said at the podium.

    “But when you consciously break an NCAA rule, to me the only way to deter that is to get rid of people, or seriously hold programs accountable. That’s probably the number one thing I would love to see happen in the world of college football.”

    However, a gaggle of reporters grabbed Bielema in thw hallway and he tried to clarify his statement.

    “You know what, those comments weren’t directed toward Ohio State,” he said.

    “I don’t know exactly what went on. More to those comments that I was referring to was recruiting. When you have people who knowingly are breaking rules or doing things that aren’t over the table, that is very frustrating. It’s very hard to trace. It’s just very, very upsetting when the people who are involved aren’t hammered the way they should be.”

    Bielema went on to say that Tressel was highly supportive of him and did admit regret that he is no longer in the conference.

    “Unfortunately, the situation arose there, but it doesn’t change my opinion about who he is or what he is or the program he built,” he said. “To win six Big Ten championships (in a row), that doesn’t just happen. You have a lot of good coaches and a lot of good football players that were able to do that, and he’s responsible for all of that.”

    Veteran Presence – Just prior to the Big Ten Football Media Days, the conference compiled a list of the top players and called it the league’s inaugural Preseason Players To Watch List. The intent was to honor five student-athletes each from the Legends Division and Leaders Division. The 2011 list was selected by a media panel and features additional honorees due to a tie.

    Representing the Legends Division are Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David, and Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa.

    The Leaders Division honorees are Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, Indiana wide receiver Damarlo Belcher, Ohio State center Mike Brewster and defensive tackle John Simon, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti and Wisconsin running backs Montee Ball and James White.

    All five Legends Division players received postseason recognition in 2010, with Robinson, Crick and David earning All-America honors and first-team All-Conference accolades. Robinson was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year while David was tabbed the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. Persa was also named first-team All-Big Ten while Cousins was an honorable mention All-Conference choice.

    The group of Leaders Division standouts includes five All-Conference selections from 2010. Brewster earned All-America accolades and first-team All-Big Ten honors. White was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a second-team All-Conference selection. Belcher, Simon and Ball were each All-Big Ten honorable mention selections.

    Hot Ticket – The conference opened up ticket sales for the inaugural Big Ten Football Championship Game to the general public on July 30 and the ducats reportedly sold out within a few hours. Tickets ranged from $50 to $125. Orders were limited to eight tickets.

    The championship game is slated to begin at 8:17 p.m. Eastern on Sat., Dec. 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and will be televised by FOX Sports.

    Those individuals who purchased tickets through Ticketmaster or the Lucas Oil Stadium ticket office for the 2011 Big Ten Football Championship Game will have the opportunity at a later date to purchase tickets in a comparable location for the 2012 game. In addition, every Big Ten Football Championship Game ticket will include a ticket to Big Ten Fan Fest, to be held at the Indiana Convention Center from 10 a.m. Eastern until kickoff.

    The championship game will feature the champion of the Legends Division facing the champion of the Leaders Division, with the winner earning the Big Ten Championship and a chance to play in either the Rose Bowl Game or Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game.

    The Big Ten Conference and Indiana Sports Corporation have entered into an agreement to host Big Ten Football Championship Games at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis through 2015. FOX Sports will serve as the official broadcast partner of the Big Ten Football Championship Games through 2016.

    Looking Back – Just one year ago, Nebraska was not a part of the conference and the fraternity of Big Ten head coaches included the likes of Tressel, Rich Rodriguez, Tim Brewster and Bill Lynch.

    In fact, just last summer Lynch was talking about the strides his staff was making at Indiana and raving about the Hoosiers’ renovated stadium.

    “One, it shows a commitment to football at Indiana, and I think that’s really big,” he said at the time. “And then I think it’s more fun. There’s no question it’s more fun to play in a lively atmosphere. That’s why when you talk to our kids they talk about playing at Penn State or playing at Iowa, those places where it’s alive from the time you take the field to the time the game’s over.”

    Lynch, of course, wasn’t around long enough to see the full effect. But he was prophetic when he said the following: “Everybody can say what they want but I don’t care where they’re at, they don’t want to line up and play Ohio State.”

    A year ago, the league also had different players in starring roles, most notably defensive end. Sure enough, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn and Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan all had big senior seasons and became top draft choices.

    “Those are good ones right there,” Tressel said of that trio last year. “When you have edge guys like that, those guys disrupt what you do. All of a sudden you’ve got to send your backs out to chip them, you get them out in routes and your quarterback’s timing is off because he’s used to the check-down being there with that coverage. I don’t think it’s a secret whether it’s our league or the league above us, D-linemen are impactful.”

    Meanwhile, a few tables away, Rodriguez was telling reporters that UM football was on the brink of returning to glory despite fan unrest.

    “We’re at a place where they care,” Rodriguez said last August. “You want to coach and play at a place like that. I don’t know if you ever have 100 percent of the people happy no matter where you’re at. When we were having our good runs at West Virginia at the end there, when we lost two games it was tragic. But you build up to that point.

    “There’s nothing wrong with that. I want to get to that point. I want to get to that point where, boy, one or two losses is a bad, bad thing – and we can get there. It’s taken us longer than we wanted, that’s for sure, but we can get there.

    “We’re getting there. We wanted to have a fast team. It starts off with recruiting fast players. Now we’ve got to get them to play fast all the time, and that’s our job as coaches. We’ve got to put them in that position. We’ve got to teach them, educate them. And on both sides of the ball. Some people talk about the offense, but it’s defensively, too. We’ve got to play faster defensively. And in a couple years those fast guys playing fast will be juniors and seniors.”

    Michigan defensive back Troy Woolfolk also was talking about a turnaround – including Michigan’s results against Ohio State.

    “For us (the hatred of OSU) has been as high as it’s ever been because they’ve kind of dominated the last few years. I think it’s that time to finally get over the hill and end that winning streak. Everyone on the team, I can just see it in their eyes when everyone is telling them about Ohio State. Or even just on TV or even just an O-shaped figure I just get instantly angry. Cheerios, Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, none of that.”

    For the record, Woolfolk ended up suffering a season-ending injury and his Wolverines were bombed at Ohio State in November.

    Coachspeak – The Big Ten coaches checked in on a number of topics at the Media Days. Here are some of the more noteworthy comments:

    Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio on the demise of Tressel, his former boss and mentor – “To me, it’s tragic. He becomes a tragic hero in my respect, in my view. Usually tragic heroes have the ability to rise above it all in the end and that’s what I’ll look for in the end. It is very heart-wrenching for me and my family because we’re close to Coach Tress. He’s had a lot to do with my life as a mentor really since 1983, and that’s a long time. That’s a tough situation.”

    Illinois’ Ron Zook on Ohio State’s NCAA predicament – “You hate to see those things happen. Obviously it’s lessons that we as all coaches have to look at, maybe rethink, obviously help your players in education, learning what’s right and what’s wrong from that standpoint as well.”

    Zook on hanging onto his job – “Well, it’s hard to believe going into my seventh year and I’m actually third in seniority. Actually kind of mind-boggling.”

    Indiana’s Kevin Wilson on making the Hoosiers a contender – “If you talk to our three guys representing us today, we’re not trying to be good four, five, six years from now. The expectation, I think every game is going to be exciting, competitive, challenging in the Big Ten. That’s the niche in college football these days. That’s the beauty of BCS, fighting every week in your bowl situation.”

    Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz on Nebraska being added to the league – “First and foremost, I think it’s a fantastic thing for the conference. I was in the league for nine years back in the ’80s, gone for nine, now I’ve been back again. I was not here when Penn State joined the league. I think we’d agree that’s been a tremendous thing overall. I think this is a move that balances that out, if you will. In our case we have a border that we share. It’s certainly something that is going to be something very much of interest for the fans.”

    Nebraska’s Bo Pelini on QB Taylor Martinez – “We feel really good about where Taylor is. He’s had a great offseason. He had a tremendous spring. He’s had a phenomenal summer. I think he’s more engaged as a leader. I think he’s really taken it
    upon himself to grow in that area. I think he’s becoming a tremendous leader on our football team, holding his teammates accountable, holding himself accountable. I think he’s poised to have a great year.”

    Pelini, a former Buckeye, on how the Big Ten compares to the Big 12 – “When I think of the Big Ten, I think of class, I think of tremendous tradition. Like I said, I think of integrity. I think that’s what the Big Ten has represented for a very long time. You look a the academic accomplishments throughout the conference. To me it serves as a model, and it’s why I feel so great about us being a part of the conference. I think it serves as a model for the rest of college football. That’s why it’s such an honor for us as an institution for us to become a part of it.”

    Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald on Ohio State’s troubles – “There’s a lot that’s going on right now in college football that I think we need to wrap our arms around as a complete and total body. We will. We’ll make it better. There are going to need to be changes, tweaks, adjustments, to bylaws and rules, I would think so based on what we’ve seen in the last off-season. I don’t think there’s a coach or administrator in the country that doesn’t want to be a part of that solution.”

    Penn State octogenarian Joe Paterno on his health – “I feel a lot better than I did a year ago. I had two tough years physically. The kid from Wisconsin running into me in the sideline, when I broke my knee that time. Then I threw my hip out showing off, trying to show the kids how to kick a football. I couldn’t kick when I was healthy. I sure as hell couldn’t kick with a broken knee.”

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