CHICAGO – Big Ten Media Days have come and gone, with coaches and players from 13 schools giving their reasons to believe that good things are about to happen. All 13 also gave a nod of condolences to Nebraska, the one team that couldn’t make it, which came in the wake of punter Sam Foltz’s death in a car crash.
Two days of nonstop interviews in crowded ballrooms in Chicago doesn’t change anyone’s outlook of what will happen on the field — it’s become too fancy and blown-out to be that sort of revealing — but it did show certain sides to teams, players and coaches that maybe we weren’t looking as hard for previously.
Here were my three big takeaways from the two days:
1. Michigan State and Nebraska have a lot of heart
The entire event took on a somber tone the moment the news broke Sunday that Foltz and Mike Sadler, the Michigan State punter from 2011 to 2014, had died in a single-car accident on the way back from a football camp in Wisconsin. The reality hit like a dagger to both schools, and they handled the next two days in completely different – but equally noble – ways.
Nebraska honored its lost punter by staying home on Monday, showing that a player who lived in the shadows and always put his team first was ultimately the kind of force to stop an entire train in its tracks. Perhaps the emotions were too raw, or the moment was too big, but this was the proper call after losing a player.
Michigan State honored its lost punter by showing up on Tuesday, facing the cameras, holding back the tears and finding a way to reconcile it all in live action. It was impressive to see Dantonio recount the memories of Michigan State’s first-ever four-time Academic All-American and to hear tight end Isaiah Price admit it was hard to even talk about but still find a way to do exactly that. Ultimately, the Spartans paid its respects to Sadler in what Dantonio described as the only way he would want them to, by moving on.
2. James Franklin and Darrell Hazell know they have to deliver this year
In today’s age of mass media and shrunken access, media days have become as much of a learned drill for the participants as the NFL Combine. Coaches come in with a plan they’ve worked on with a media relations staff, and it usually involves dancing around subjects or relying on vague responses.
James Franklin and Darrell Hazell both had clear plans, but for once, they were kind of interesting.
Hazell began his opening statement with an anecdote about a billboard in West Lafayette that’s been around since he arrived that reads, “The train is coming.”
“And the back of my mind I said at some point in time the train has to get here. It has to arrive,” he said. “That sign’s no longer there.”
Franklin embarked on his by pointing out what people also already know, about how he inherited a mess with the Jerry Sandusky scandal and how this will be the first year the Nittany Lions are back up to the normal 85 scholarship spots. How he framed it, however, was worth noting:
“I think this is an exciting and pivotal time for Penn State football,” said Franklin, who has gone 7-6 each of his first two years with the Nittany Lions. “This is going to be a very important year for us, no doubt, to make progress, to show the direction that we’re going.”
Perhaps I’m too used to former Illinois coach Tim Beckman’s nonstop positivity and tap dancing around expectations, but it was at least a little refreshing to hear some reality. It came under the veil of terms like hope and progress, but neither coach seems confused about how much this year is going to mean. The weights are different — Franklin seems fine for at least another year, whereas Hazell probably has to reach a bowl game — but they can see the pressure ramping up.
3. Jim Harbaugh can tell a moment when he sees one
The stories that come from covering an other-wordly personality like Jim Harbaugh can be wide-ranging, from moments when he’s not afraid to take a blunt stand to so many others where he shuts down and superglues his program’s lid shut.
On the whole, it’s easy to tell he doesn’t like the media — he half-jokingly described having to speak during fall camp, which he didn’t last year, to having bamboo shoved into his fingernails — but his ego is so large and his drive to win recruiting so fierce that he knows how important it can be at times.
Take Monday as one of those days where Harbaugh came alive for us all to see. For 15 minutes in front of a podium and a full hour at a crowded table, the most polarizing coach in the game bounced from humor to confidence to cockiness with very few dips in his vibrato.
A man who can be as distant as any was completely engaging, running on tangents about getting picked on in middle school, about how hip his rap video was, how he’s unafraid to fire back when he feels an opponent took a shot.
I stood in front of his table for the full hour, searching for cracks in the frame, and each time when that shut-down urge seemed to be settling in with a response, he felt some kind of kick to step it up. Literally, I could feel him kicking the curtain draped over the table.
Something about Harbaugh seemed to love the spectacle of this all, from the cameras to the running Twitter accounts to the understanding that people like me were going to be tracking his every movement. He’s trying to build a program built on taking aim and delivering on those promises, sort of like he did as a player in 1986, when he led Michigan to a win over Ohio State after saying he would. This was his showcase to the conference and to potential recruits from all over the country.
Something tells me his weekly in-season press conference will have a much different feel.