CHICAGO -- The Big Ten Conference has never been more ready to take the football field and put the tumultuous offseason in the rearview mirror. Players and coaches alike could not have made this more evident during the Big Ten Media Days at the McCormick Center from July 26-27.
Head coaches fielded question after question about the Penn State scandal and the sudden ability for other Big Ten schools to recruit PSU players—and understandably so. The highly anticipated answers were largely similar, with most coaches playing the “we’ll wait until the Penn State players approach us before we do anything” card.
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema based his opinion on the Penn State debacle chiefly out of respect for the Penn State players and their first-year head coach, Bill O’Brien. He also noted the proximity of the upcoming season as a factor.
“I think that what Penn State is going through right now is something that they have championed over the last several days and the last several weeks,” Bielema said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for coach O’Brien and everything that he has going forward.”
“And to bring someone in at this point so close to the season, I just wasn’t comfortable with it,” he added.
Bielema simply can’t wait any longer to step onto the turf and actually play football after what many believe to be one of the most disappointing offseasons in Big Ten history.
“Very excited to be at Wisconsin this year, coming into an opportunity to be a three-time defending champion in our conference,” Bielema said.
Thanks to the Penn State scandal, Ohio State’s hiring of two-time national champion Urban Meyer has been pushed from the forefront. But that doesn’t mean the ex-Florida Gators icon wasn’t antsy to start play in Big Ten country, even if he isn’t all that familiar with its style of play.
“The thing I don’t understand and really have a complete grasp of is our opposition, of our opponents, because I don’t know the conference very well,” Meyer said. “As far as our football team, I like where we’re at and anxious to get going.”
However, Meyer made it clear that he wasn’t about to use this year’s bowl-ineligible team to simply test the waters of Big Ten competition.
“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 perhaps put it most bluntly when asked whether or not he had a problem with coaches being able to solicit players from Penn State.
“I have a problem with that,” Meyer said. He later noted his understanding of the rules remains a bit foggy.
Providing sympathy for PSU head coach Bill O’Brien and the rest of the Nittany Lions players was commonplace Thursday, as almost everybody mentioned it in some way, shape or form during his 15 minutes on the podium.
Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson, now starting his second season at the helm in Bloomington, had plenty of confidence that the Big Ten would assist Penn State during the crisis.
“I know as a conference we’re going to support those guys and keep all those players’ families and people in the community in our thoughts and prayers,” Wilson said.
Purdue’s Danny Hope and Illinois’ Tim Beckman seemed to be the least shy about addressing the issue.
“(The) NCAA has established the rules and the guidelines, and obviously because they’re strong from an ethics standpoint—and as long as we’re compliant—we’re going to exercise every opportunity we can to enhance our own football team,” Hope said.
Beckman tackled the situation right away during his opening statement. He said that there were talks of transfers between his program and Penn State’s even before the sanctions were handed down. He also said that Illinois officials were, in fact, not camped out alongside Penn State buildings, contradictory to some earlier reports.
“We did not go onto their campus,” Beckman said. “We only talked to individuals that would be willing to meet with us. We did not go after them.”
Beckman did not reveal what Penn State players his staff had spoken to.
Other big news from the first day of press conferences was Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany saying the conference is highly unlikely to stray away from an eight-game conference schedule. He said the conference is “of a unanimous mind to stay at eight games,” but acknowledged that there were still some discussions circling the issue.
Delany also touched on the failed collaboration between the Pac-12 and Big Ten scheduling agreement. The two conferences had announced previously that they would schedule games against each other starting in 2017. The agreement faltered because the Pac-12’s nine-game conference schedule proved to be too difficult to work with.
“We worked really hard,” Delany said. “Got great friendships and relationships out there. Personified in the Rose Bowl game. But we weren’t able to do that. That was disappointing.”
Wisconsin will conclude a home-and-home series this season with Pac-12 school Oregon State, and the Badgers will travel to Tempe, Ariz., in 2013 to wrap up a home-and-home with Pac-12 school Arizona State. These Big Ten-Pac-12 showdowns did not come from an official collaboration between the conferences, but instead came from the non-conference scheduling between the particular schools.
Despite all the negativity associated with the Big Ten in recent months, the conference as a whole seemed optimistic about the upcoming football season and the league’s foreseeable future.
“Honored to be a part of this conference,” O’Brien said. “I think it's a fantastic conference with great coaches. 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.”