Believe it or not, Big Ten media days isn’t just sun-tanned millionaires expressing cautious optimism while concealing their depth charts. It isn’t just swagged-out college kids saying they’re in the best shape of their lives and their team’s chemistry has never been better. It isn’t just scribes obsessing over Jim Harbaugh’s latest tweet. Media days is also a lens into the world of recruiting (the pure and petty). It’s a lesson in cranberry farming. It’s movie time with Kirk Ferentz. These are a few sights and sounds of 2016.
>> “I grew up on a cranberry marsh ... It’s definitely turned me into the man I am today.”
Sounds like a bad line from a presidential stump speech, doesn’t it? Nope. Those words belong to Wisconsin stud linebacker Vince Biegel, whose great-great-grandfather started harvesting cranberries in central Wisconsin in the late 1800s.
Biegel grew up outside Wisconsin Rapids, where he spent hot summer days working his family’s 90-acre marsh.
“Listen, there was no greater feeling than to grow up on a cranberry marsh,” Biegel said. “Catching frogs. Plenty of spaces to make forts. I had four-wheelers growing up. I was definitely an outdoors kid.”
The actual cranberries grow on vines. They’re dry most of the year, but in the fall, when the berries are ripe, farmers flood the marshes and knock the berries off the vines with beaters. The berries float to the top, where they’re collected.
“You guys have probably seen the Ocean Spray commercials,” Biegel said. “We actually sell our berries to Ocean Spray. So when you guys go back home and you’re drinking a cranberry juice, you’re drinking some of our berries.”
Every July 4, Biegel takes about eight teammates to his hometown. He leads them around the marsh on golf carts, giving big-city kids a taste of his childhood.
“I’ve always dreamed about one day bringing the whole team up,” Biegel said. “That would be a circus.”
>> 3 points with Fox analyst and former Buckeye All-American Chris Spielman:
1. On Iowa’s chances of replicating last year’s magic:
“Iowa does a great job of identifying what type of player they want and they develop that player. By the time those kids are redshirt sophomores or juniors, they’re really good Big Ten players. When you’re as physical as they are and you have a quarterback in C.J. Beathard who is pretty dynamic, why not Iowa? But who knows, maybe they’ll go through a phase where they’re average and in the building phase again. Then they get good again. That’s who they are.”
2. On how quickly Ohio State can rebuild its defense, which lost six players to the NFL:
“As soon as the season was over. Because they have guys that look like and play just like the guys that left. You’ll have a kid named Sam Hubbard this year — man, he looks like (Joey) Bosa. Or you’ll have Nick Bosa, who looks just like Joey. You’ll have athletes who replace Darron Lee or Michael Thomas — they’re all clones. That’s because Urban, through hard work and the Ohio State brand, can recruit what he wants.”
3. On the pendulum swinging back toward physical offenses:
“What we’re seeing now is the downhill running game being implemented more into that spread offense. You still have the zone read, which is difficult to defend, but like Ohio State, they do a great job of moving a tight end. Now you have matchups. And all of a sudden, there’s no zone read. It’s just a straight handoff downhill, and whether it’s Ezekiel Elliott or Carlos Hyde, you have these big backs running downhill. Defenses aren’t used to it. ‘Wait, they’re not zone-stepping and reading? They’re coming, bam, right at us?’ It’s hard for defenses to adjust. They’re not used to that.”
>> Put yourself in Michael Dunn’s cleats. In 2012, you walk on at Maryland as an offensive lineman, envisioning road trips to Florida State, Clemson and a bunch of stadiums you’ve never heard of.
Two years later, you’re in the Big Ten en route to Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin was incredible — the whole ‘Jump Around,’” Dunn said.
In 2015, Maryland went to Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State, hanging with the Buckeyes until the fourth quarter.
“That stadium was gigantic,” Dunn said. “Their crowd was just really into it. You couldn’t hear a thing.”
The Big Ten didn’t waste any time showing Maryland all the big tourist attractions. But there’s one major stop remaining.
On Nov. 19, Maryland plays in Lincoln, where Dunn expects a very festive, very cold environment.
“It’s kind of funny, my dad is planning on going to all the games this year and he has some friends who’ve told him a lot about Nebraska,” Dunn said. “I know he was talking about how he wanted to get an RV.”
Don’t forget the stocking cap.
>> The idea of “negative recruiting” seems out of place for the cutthroat world of college football. When a coach complains, he sounds like a junior-high kid who tattles in the cafeteria.
But it was a hot topic in Chicago because the Sandusky scandal never goes away at Penn State. According to James Franklin and his A.D., Sandy Barbour, Big Ten rivals are telling prospects that Penn State might be hit with further sanctions.
“That’s flat out untrue,” Barbour told reporters about further sanctions. “The NCAA is very pleased with how we’ve handled this. We’ve done everything they’ve asked us to do. Both the Big Ten and the NCAA consider the matter closed.”
Franklin said negative recruiting happens all over the country. Every school deals with it. But Penn State has “some sensitive subjects” that some rivals exploit.
“We’re probably in a position where we probably have to answer more tough questions than any program in the country,” Franklin said.
Franklin understands the business. However ...
“To me, there is a line that you do not cross.”
>> In the olden days, when Pat Fitzgerald was an All-America linebacker at Northwestern, football players actually took time off.
“Summertime for me used to be Cubs games and Sox games and I won’t tell you the other things,” Fitzgerald said. “You still had to get in shape in camp. Now they never get out of shape. They literally never get out of shape cardio-wise.”
Fitzgerald doesn’t lament change. His Wildcats love grinding. It’s part of who they are, he said. But as a coach, you have to be careful.
“You can grind ’em up. You can lose ’em, mentally, emotionally and physically. I want them showing up on August 7 fired up, stoked up, ready to play football. I don’t want to win and peak in the summer. You gotta balance it.”
>> You’ve heard the comparisons. Maryland is going to be the East Coast version of Oregon. Just as Phil Knight built the Ducks with Nike cash, Kevin Plank will build the Terps with Under Armour.
Recently, Plank, a former Maryland walk-on, contributed about $25 million toward remodeling famed Cole Fieldhouse into an indoor football facility.
“I’m still hurt that they’re building this facility right after I leave,” offensive lineman Michael Dunn said. “It’s gonna be phenomenal.”
Under Armour’s influence at Maryland surely attracted new head coach D.J. Durkin. The values of UA, he said, are consistent with Maryland football values.
“It’s a natural bond and allegiance with one another because it’s easy.”
Of course, all that cash buys a whole lot of shorts, sweats and shoes. How much Under Armour gear does Dunn have in his closet?
“I don’t know how much NON-Under Armour gear I have in my closet.”
>> Lovie Smith has laid down the law ... on scooters.
When the new Illinois coach arrived in Champaign, he was surprised to find that about two-thirds of his new team navigated campus on motorized scooters. They’re popular across the Big Ten, but only outlawed at Illinois.
The risk of injury was too great. Too many guys were racking up parking tickets. And maybe — just maybe — Lovie Smith didn’t like the sight of 300-pound linemen buzzing around campus on teenage toys.
>> Quick, name the only program in the country to finish top 6 in the polls each of the past three seasons.
Florida State? Sorry.
The answer is Michigan State, with rankings of third, fifth and sixth. How have the Spartans created so much consistency?
“Going into our 10th year, we’ve had five coaches leave over that time,” Dantonio said. “Three have become head coaches, and one went to the NFL.”
Sort of reminds you of Tom Osborne’s staff, doesn’t it?
>> Pat Fitzgerald’s recruiting pitch at Northwestern is a little bit different from Urban Meyer’s or Jim Harbaugh’s.
Fitzgerald leans heavily on Northwestern’s academic prestige, specifically the Academic Progress Rate.
“When I visit with a family, typically what I try to do is find out the schools they’re looking at potentially,” Fitzgerald said. “And I just go to NCAA.org — well, I don’t, my recruiting staff does — and just print the numbers off. And I educate the family on what that metric means.”
Every school starts at 1,000. Fitzgerald shows families how schools lose points.
“My six-year average, I think, is 992. Highest in Big Ten. Top in nation. Let’s say we look at a (rival) school that’s maybe 960. I’ll look at the mom and the dad and the student-athlete and I’ll say, ‘So what does that mean to you?’ ...
“What do you want out of this experience? Do you just want to go put on a helmet and pads, go play ball? Or do you want more than that? If you want more that, we’re typically a pretty attractive place.”
For the record, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota occupied the top of the league’s APR ladder in 2014-15 — all were at 992. The bottom rungs belonged to Ohio State (971), Purdue (968) and Penn State (960).
>> Urban Meyer intentionally avoids hiring friends as assistant coaches. For most of his distinguished career, Meyer has chased the most qualified candidate, not necessarily the most comfortable candidate.
Meyer made an exception for Greg Schiano, his new defensive coordinator.
“We’ve been good friends for 20-plus years. We share very similar philosophical views on how to run a program and how to treat players and what to expect out of your coaching staff,” Meyer said. “And he’s been a gold mine for me.”
Meyer cited one more exception to his rule: former Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney, whom Meyer hired at Florida.
“I wondered how that would work. I was very skeptical. How do you (transition) to not be the head coach? And Greg is like Dan McCarney. He’s such a good coach that he just picked up right where I imagine he left off when he was a fantastic assistant coach before Rutgers.”
>> Mark Dantonio is a proud, serious man. You can imagine how he handled a 38-0 spanking at the hands of Alabama in the national semifinals.
“My wife tells me, ‘Get over it,’” Dantonio said.
That’s what Dantonio is preaching to his team. Don’t hang your head. Get on with business.
“It’s easy to walk around when you’ve won,” Dantonio said. “More difficult when you’ve had a loss and you have to regain your composure and you have to move forward with the process. So Michigan State has always been about the process. This is just a steppingstone.”
>> Kirk Ferentz won’t be replacing Siskel & Ebert any time soon. Iowa’s head coach has watched exactly one movie since the end of last season.
“Spotlight,” he said. “Two months later I remembered it ... I knew I saw a good one.”
>> Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker hails from the same hometown as Lavonte David. Walker watched the former Husker linebacker at Miami Northwestern High School.
“A lot of people would tell you that Lavonte David was probably the third-best linebacker on that team,” Walker said.
“He’s dominating the NFL right now, but you had guys like Sean Spence and Quavon Taylor that played on that team at linebacker and Lavonte David was kind of the afterthought. Nobody knew who he was.”
>> There’s a billboard on Interstate 65 between West Lafayette, Indiana, and Chicago. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell saw it en route to his first Big Ten media days in 2013. It’s OK, he thought.
By 2014 and ’15, the billboard started to bother him. What did it say?
“The train is coming.”
“At some point,” Hazell said, “the train has to get here. It has to arrive. That sign’s no longer there. I think you’re going to like what steps off the train this year.”
Hazell, who’s 2-22 in the Big Ten the past three seasons, better be right. Or he won’t be driving up I-65 to represent Purdue next July.
>> The highlight of Illinois’ 2015 season came Oct. 3, an upset of Nebraska.
Tommy Armstrong infamously threw incomplete on third-and-7, giving the Illini a chance to mount a last-minute drive. It was a shocker on the Illinois sideline, quarterback Wes Lunt said.
“We kinda thought the game was over. We just figured they’d run out the clock.”
You and a few million Nebraska fans, Wes.
>> He is a two-time all-Big Ten cornerback and an all-conference return specialist.
Will Likely gives some of the credit to Brian Stewart, the Nebraska cornerbacks coach. Stewart coordinated Maryland’s defense before joining Mike Riley’s staff.
“Great dude,” Likely said. “He’s an impactful person. He’s the person that brought me into Maryland. I was able to spend two years with them. He always pushed me to strive for better. I could come talk to him about anything. He made me a better person overall.”
Likely will get a chance to see Stewart again Nov. 19 in Lincoln.
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