CHICAGO — So I came to Big Ten media days on Monday with this theory.
I thought there was a chance, in light of a death in the Nebraska family, that the Big Ten would open its collective arms and give NU a hug. Would this bring the Huskers and the Big Ten closer together?
It certainly felt that way on a somber first day of Big Ten football.
The coaches speaking on Monday offered condolences to Nebraska and Michigan State. There was a statement from Commissioner Jim Delany. Heartfelt, but also very official.
What was more striking was the number of other media types and school officials who stopped me in the hallways to see how Nebraskans were doing. You could see the pain in their eyes. They wanted to help. And some had their own stories to tell.
» Rick Brown, a longtime Iowa writer from Des Moines, shook his head and said Sam Foltz reminded him of a kid he once covered named Chris Street.
“He was an Iowa kid, Foltz is a Nebraska kid,” Brown said.
“Small-town. It took the breath away from the entire state.
“They had just played Duke on national TV on a Saturday. Two days later, he was dead.”
Street was a basketball player from Indianola, Iowa — a power forward with an NBA future. On Jan. 19, 1993, Street left a team dinner with his girlfriend. He turned onto a highway and collided with a snow plow. He was killed instantly.
The game against Northwestern scheduled for the next night was postponed. Brown said the team and its fans tried to regroup. What happened next was legendary.
“Their next game was 10 days later at Michigan State,” Brown said. “They were down 17 with 3½ minutes left. Then they hit a bunch of 3s and they tied it and won it in overtime.
“I asked (MSU coach Tom) Izzo about that a couple of years ago, and he said it wasn’t a fair fight, because they had a guy upstairs making shots for them.
“Then they came home and played the Fab Five (Michigan), and Iowa beat ’em. The Street family was sitting courtside and the players took the ball over to them. Pretty much the whole arena was crying.”
Wouldn’t that be something if a similar scene happened this year in Lincoln?
» Jack Ebling is an old friend. He covered Michigan State football and basketball for the Lansing State Journal forever. Now he does a daily sports talk show in Lansing.
I stopped by the radio room to appear on Jack’s show, and before he could ask me, I asked him: “How are you holding up?”
“I’ve been better,” Ebling said.
Nebraska loved Sam Foltz. Michigan State loved its punter, too. Mike Sadler was a Lansing legend — for his punting, for his trick plays, for his sense of humor that found its way on Twitter.
Like Foltz, Sadler was a star punter. A star human being.
“I’m feeling tremendous sadness and shock that two of the best and brightest in the Big Ten would be killed in that crash,” Ebling said. “Mike had so much to look forward to, Michigan State’s only four-time academic All-American. He was ready to go to Stanford law school.
“He wanted to do one more punting camp.”
Ebling stopped himself and swallowed hard.
We talked about how Foltz and Sadler had shared a bond, and it wasn’t surprising, because NU and MSU have shared a bond these first six years, from well-played games to coaches and players and fans who have hit it off.
“I think it’s a great relationship,” Ebling said. “I think it’s one that both schools value. I’m disappointed they didn’t play this year. Michigan State really hasn’t done its part, hold up its end. But it’s a good relationship.”
Ebling and I both agreed this is a series that should be played every year, one probably worthy of some sort of Bob Devaney-Duffy Daugherty trophy. So, when can we move Sparty over to the West Division in exchange for Purdue?
“Sure,” Ebling said. “But (MSU) they’re OK with it either way.
“Originally, I think they thought it would be the way they would go. You could switch with Purdue. They aren’t going to dodge anybody. They don’t want to make it look like they are afraid to play Ohio State. It helps them in recruiting to play Ohio State. But there are some geographic things going on, too. They’re as far from Maryland as they are from Nebraska.”
Right now, Michigan State and Nebraska are closer than ever, but not for a reason anyone wanted.
» John Bacon, an author of sports books and a Big Ten historian based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, came up to offer condolences. And what he said next dropped my jaw.
“Michigan fans are still gushing about their last trip to Lincoln, in 2012,” Bacon said. “When they got back to Ann Arbor, they told other Michigan fans, ‘Don’t even bother bringing food because their food is better than yours. They know how to grill it. They know what they’re doing. And they say, “come on over.” ’
“Everyone I know up here is thrilled that Nebraska is in the Big Ten. Not as thrilled about Rutgers and Maryland, so it’s not automatic.”
The sentiment is much appreciated, John. But I hope the Wolverine fans aren’t too hungry. According to Big Ten schedules released through 2019, Michigan isn’t scheduled to come to Lincoln. So it will be at least until 2020. We’ll keep the grills warm.
» Also working the crowd Monday was the familiar and friendly face of Kevin Kugler, the Lincoln native who grew up to be the voice of Westwood One radio and who does many games for the Big Ten Network.
Kugler knows Nebraska, and I thought he had a very astute point about how the Huskers will handle this tragedy.
“I expect this team to pull together,” Kugler said. “Look at the way the prayer vigil was organized and put together in a short time, all on social media. To me, that showed a tremendous amount of leadership by the players.”
» Jim Harbaugh was the show on Monday. When he spoke, the writers room was standing-room only with everyone from national writers and bowl people and various officials crowding in to listen. Harbaugh did not deliver. He wasn’t in the mood to entertain. But that’s what makes him so appealing to the media: You never know what he’s going to do next. That’s a very good thing for the Big Ten. Harbaugh is a bright light that everyone in college football wants to see.
» Tuesday is Lovie Smith Day. The new Illinois coach will appear just down the way from his old address, Soldier Field. And we’ll get a start on answering this question: Is the former Bears coach going to be Bill Callahan or Pete Carroll?
“Well, he’s not Pete Carroll,” said Teddy Greenstein, veteran college football writer for the Chicago Tribune. “When he was with the Bears, Lovie did not like to do a lot of media stuff. But he’s great with parents and with high school coaches. I think he knows he has to be more accessible than he was with the Bears.”
Illinois football is a sleeping giant, with the emphasis on “sleeping.” When the Illini have been up, they’ve been to Rose Bowls. This is something everyone in the Big Ten West is watching carefully.
“It’s a very interesting hire,” Greenstein said. “This is not an easy job. There are institutional reasons why Illinois football, throughout history, struggles for six or seven years. Chicago doesn’t have as much talent as people think. And everyone in the Big Ten comes here. It’s over-recruited.”
The X-factor is Lovie’s Bears résumé and sales pitch, and that starts today.
» One more and I’m outta here: Greg Sharpe has a fantastic idea for the Nebraska season opener.
“The first time the team comes out in a punting formation, only 10 players come out,” Sharpe said. “No punter. You’ll get a delay of game penalty, but who cares?”
Wouldn’t be a dry eye in the old house.