Thomas Bradley / Campus editor
While the 2011 football season has not yet officially started, coaches and conference officials gathered for the 40th annual Big Ten Media Days and Kickoff Luncheon in Chicago on Thursday. Coaches addressed everything from Ohio State’s NCAA investigation to their feelings about the first-ever Big Ten championship game.
A new era of OSU v. Michigan
Both OSU and Michigan have new head coaches and both coaches are excited about the opportunity to usher in a new era for the schools’ storied rivalry.
Buckeyes’ coach Luke Fickell said he hopes for a long rivalry with Michigan’s Brady Hoke, which could emulate previous coaching rivalries between the two schools.
“If that starts, hopefully, a long rivalry as some of the (coaches) in the past have had, that’s what it’s all about,” Fickell said. “Nobody will overlook that. I know that’s not something that will ever be overlooked at Ohio State.”
Hoke echoed Fickell’s excitement.
“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 said.
Ohio State’s NCAA investigation
OSU head coach Luke Fickell insists that despite the emotions of inheriting a program under fire, his focus is on moving the program forward from the investigation.
“As you can probably imagine, the last few months have been nonetheless a whirlwind, exciting, crazy, emotional,” Fickell said, “but yet very productive as well.”
Fickell credited his coaching staff and their experience in helping the program move forward. He also indicated that the players, who he says have “come really tight together,” are ready to prove themselves on the field.
“They say the right things. They’re doing the right things. But we keep referring to them and trying to remind them when we have the opportunities that we see a lot better than we hear,” Fickell said. “… I don’t care what team you are, where you’re at, especially at Ohio State, you’re out there to prove what you can do.”
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said strong responses from the NCAA is the best way to prevent future rules violations.
“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,” Bielema said. “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.”
Illinois’ Ron Zook said that Big Ten coaches could avoid a downfall similar to that of OSU by learning from the Buckeyes’ mistakes.
“You hate to see these things happen,” Zook said. “Obviously, it’s lessons that we all as 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.”
At least one coach — Penn State’s Joe Paterno — said his sole focus is his own program.
“I try to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, period,” Paterno said. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, I worry more about answering the question about whether we’re going to have an opportunity to play for the conference championship.”
The Big Ten coaches had nothing but praise for the Nebraska program, which will make its Big Ten debut this season.
In addition to welcoming Nebraska’s tradition and history, Big Ten coaches, including Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, also said they hope the Cornhuskers will improve the Big Ten’s competitiveness and image.
“With Nebraska coming into the conference, I think it gives us, the conference as a whole, strengthens our brand,” Dantonio said.
But no one was more excited than Nebraska’s coach Bo Pelini, who said he believes his program will mesh well with the conference.
“I think if you look at the tradition, academic integrity, all the things that I believe our program at the University of Nebraska stands for, I think we fit right in with this conference,” Pelini said.
While Pelini said facing all new opponents will take more preparation from his team, he said he has no plans to drastically alter his style of play.
“We’re going to do what we do and we’re going to do it well,” he said. “We’re not really going to adapt what we do to the conference. We’re going to hopefully make the conference adapt to what we do.”
United on divisions
The sentiment among coaches at Media Days was that the addition of the divisional play and a conference championship game are positive developments for the Big Ten.
Purdue coach Danny Hope said he sees the divisional alignments as an added opportunity for teams to make their mark.
“I think it gives every football team in the Big Ten one more opportunity to become a champion,” Hope said. “…Any time you have an opportunity to become a champion, I think that’s huge for our football team and everybody else’s team in the Big Ten.”
New year, new coaches
As the new season begins, four Big Ten teams have coaches who are new to their programs.
Both Fickell and Hoke will make their head coaching debuts at their respective schools.
Fickell said the expectations surrounding him haven’t really sunk in.
“I had no time to feel sorry of any sort, to have a whole lot of emotion,” he said. “The situation arose and obviously I had to stand up.”
Hoke said he doesn’t think Michigan is in need of rebuilding, despite their struggles on and off the field in recent years.
“I don’t think we’re rebuilding, period,” he said. “I mean, we’re Michigan.”
Jerry Kill will be taking over as Minnesota’s head coach. Kill, who guided Northern Illinois University through the 2008–10 seasons, said he is focused on revamping Minnesota’s program and looking forward to the challenge of a Big Ten schedule.
“I’ve got to be able to sell the vision to our program, our fans, athletic department, our president. This is where we’re at, this is what we need to do, this is what we need to do to get there,” Kill said. “…If we do those kind of things, we’ll have a chance to be very successful in the Big Ten.”
Former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson will take over at Indiana, which finished 2010 with a 5–7 record. Wilson said he is focused on rebuilding the Hoosiers’ team, as well as its culture.
“We should do well, we expect to do well,” Wilson said. “To me, the culture changes with our performance. I don’t complain about our culture. I want our fans to be excited about it, but they’re not going to be until we win games and do the things that winners do.”