Big Ten celebrates change in football
By Ralph D. Russo, AP College Football Writer
CHICAGO -- The Big Ten gathered in its Midwestern hub city to usher in -- and celebrate -- a new era in one of college football's most tradition-rich conferences.
The league has a new format, with two divisions and a championship game, and a new powerhouse member in Nebraska to help draw viewers to its already lucrative television network.
No doubt, there were plenty of reasons for Big Ten pride to be swelling on media day. And one ugly mess at Ohio State is drawing attention from all the good stuff.
Ohio State's NCAA issues come less than a year after Michigan, the Big Ten's other flagship program, was found to have run afoul of the rules.
"It not only reflects poorly on them, it reflects poorly on us," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said Thursday.
Delany, clearly trying to send an enough-is-enough message, said he met with his football coaches in Chicago to let them know the responsibility for running a clean program starts with them.
Delany said he couldn't remember a time when there were more questions about NCAA rule-breaking, from players having contact with agents to recruiting violations.
"We've had two of them in this conference and that's two too many," he said.
The Ohio State scandal started in December, when the university learned players were trading tattoos for memorabilia and led to the ouster of coach Jim Tressel and the early departure of quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
Interim coach Luke Fickell has been given the task of trying to salvage the 2011 season for the Buckeyes, who have won or shared the last six Big Ten titles.
"We focus on the things that we have and not the things we do not have," Fickell said.
Many coaches use that line at the start of a new season, but for Fickell and the Buckeyes it's more than coach-speak.
Tressel built one of the best programs in the country over 10 years and the Buckeyes would have entered this season as a national title contender -- again -- if not for all the uncertainty.
Pryor deciding to bolt from school early instead of facing NCAA scrutiny leaves Ohio State searching for a quarterback, and several other key players, including running back Dan Herron and receiver DeVier Posey, will be suspended for the first five games for their roles in the tattoo parlor scandal.
Tressel's downfall came when it was discovered he knew about potential NCAA issues involving Pryor long before the school investigated and kept the information to himself.
Michigan State coach and former Ohio State assistant Mark Dantonio, whose relationship with Tressel goes back nearly 30 years, said watching the demise of his former boss was "heart-wrenching."
"To me it's tragic," Dantonio said. "He becomes a tragic hero in my view."
Still, it's hard to sell the other Big Ten coaches that Ohio State is hurting.
"When you have schools that have that quality about them, that have those legacies, I don't see anybody as wounded," said new Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
Hoke takes over for Rich Rodriguez, who had only one winning season in three years in Ann Arbor and was found to have broken NCAA rules about practice time.
"I don't think we're rebuilding. Period. We're Michigan," Hoke said.
Hoke has one of the league's most spectacular players in Denard Robinson leading a team that could bounce back quickly, but make no mistake, Michigan and Ohio State are both in flux and that should make for an unusual season in the Big Ten.
In fact, Nebraska comes from the Big 12 and immediately becomes one of the favorites to reach the first Big Ten championship game in December at Indianapolis.
Landing the Huskers was a coup for Delany. It gives the Big Ten another one of college football's marquee brands.
"We are now more nationally relevant than ever before," said Big Ten Network President Mark Sliverman, who announced that BTN now has an agreement with every major cable provider in the country.
Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini said he doesn't expect his team will have adapt to the Big Ten.
"Hopefully we can make the conference adapt to what we do," he said.
In another change for the Big Ten, the league didn't compile a preseason poll or all-conference team. The Plain Dealer of Cleveland did survey 24 reporters who cover the Big Ten and the results of that poll had Nebraska winning the Legends division, with Michigan State second. Wisconsin was predicted to win the Leaders divisions, with Ohio State second.
Michigan was picked fourth in the Legends division. Penn State and coach Joe Paterno were picked third behind Nebraska and Ohio State in the Leaders.
With all the changes and turmoil in the Big Ten over the last year and a half, the 84-year-old JoePa just keeps rolling along in Happy Valley.
"I feel a lot better than I did a year ago," he said.