INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– The Big Ten Conference rolled out the red carpet for players, coaches, and members of the media this past week in Indianapolis for Big Ten Media Days. There was a relaxation and recovery room for the student-athletes to hang out in and play games like ping pong and pop shot, a media workroom set up on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium and there was even an in-house DJ curating the vibe. The National Championship Game Trophy was on hand, a nod to the future site of this season’s playoff grail while all 14 head coaches plus three players from each school mingled with the media.
The event kicked off with a rousing speech from Conference Commissioner Kevin Warren, who announced the return of Barry Alvarez in the form of a Special Advisor to the conference for Football. Alvarez just concluded his 32-year run at the University of Wisconsin, 18 as Athletic Director and 16 as head football coach, and will begin his new role on August 2nd. But Warren didn’t stop there – he also announced the creation of the George and Viola Taliaferro Fellowship, which will provide individuals who have not historically had access to collegiate conference leadership positions with an opportunity to work in the Office of the Commissioner and gain valuable experience in both the sports and business sectors.
Warren talked about the three focuses for the season – respect, protect, and transform the conference and he fielded questions about Name, Image and Likeness Policy, conference realignment rumors, and various other hot topics before turning the mic over to the coaches.
Here is what we learned about the Day 1 Big Ten teams.
P.J. Fleck started off strong in the leadoff spot, bringing energy and optimism to the podium early. Highlights included: the “Practice Like Pros, Play Like Kids” mantra this season, his fired-up attitude toward NIL, and how comparisons steal your joy. Fleck described 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year Mohamed Ibrahim as “a bowling ball going downhill with razor blades on it.” He talked about bringing in some competition to improve the Golden Gopher’s kicking game. And he wants people to think “TGIF” when they watch Minnesota play this season – togetherness, gratefulness, identity, and focusing on each other.
“We’re a developmental program,” said Fleck of the experience of this year’s team. “We’re going to take kids from high school all the way to when they graduate and they get multiple degrees. I don’t take a ton of transfers a lot. We did this year take probably five or six to be able to plug some holes.”
Terps head coach Michael Locksley’s time at the podium was short and sweet – the relatively new head coach didn’t field a single question. But his opening comments were fierce and direct. His motto for the season: “No BCE’s – no bitching, complaining, or excuses.” Locksley later explained what the saying stands for and how he came up with it as a blueprint for the Terps 2021 season, citing it all starts with discipline. TWEET Maryland has eight returning starters on offense, led by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who has an incredibly deep receiving unit to throw to. The defense has some work to do but it’s clear that Locksley isn’t playing around this year. Fun fact: when asked about the NIL policy, the former Bama OC joked that he probably would have been sponsored by a carwash because he was good at washing cars.
Yesterday, I followed up with one of my favorite coaches from #BigTenMediaDays, @CoachLocks on his “No BCE’s (bitching, complaining, excuses) & how HE came up with it. @TerpsFootball @bigten pic.twitter.com/MR8XwblnTn
— Emily Van Buskirk (@Emilnem) July 23, 2021
The Huskers head coach got a little frosty when asked about his motto for the 2021 season by one eager reporter. “I’m not into sloganeering, replied Scott Frost. “If the players need me to motivate them or, all the time or come up with a unique slogan to get them to play harder, I probably don’t have the right players. I played for a coach at Nebraska in Coach Osborne that he didn’t need all the sayings and slogans he just taught us the right way to do things and we went to work. That’s what we need in our program.” Frost’s time at Nebraska hasn’t played out exactly as the former Husker QB has hoped but this season he has 17 returning starters and all his own recruits to work with. No fear of failure this year. Expect the Huskers to reach .500 and beyond.
Seniority is the major key for The Fighting Illini this year, both on the field and in the coaching room. Newly minted head coach Bret Bielema comes with a 37-19 Big Ten record from his seven years at Wisconsin. Illinois returns nine starters on each side of the line and Bielema made a point of noting that there are 40 seniors in the program, 22 of which are super seniors. The veteran coach talked about trust, mentioning a folder he carries around with him since 1996 with the caption “every player deserves a coach that believes in him.” A player’s coach is a powerful thing. “It’s a big part of what I believe in – to make players understand that for us to get where we want to be, I have to believe in you,” explained Bielema. “And the only way you can believe in someone is to get to know them.” Expect some upsets by this experienced, tight-knit Illinois team, giving them a fighting chance at making it back to a bowl game.
The Nittany Lions were quite the enigma the last two years, finishing 11-2 in 2019 and looking for all the world a playoff contender but last year went sideways. Having a bad year during the 2020 season is mostly understandable but an 0-5 start is tough in any climate. This year, head coach James Franklin believes his team will stay hungry and use that chip on their shoulder as a motivator. Franklin mentioned the secondary as being the best they’ve ever had and nobody in the blue and white is even thinking the word injury. Franklin did have some interesting things to say about the NIL policy, embracing the notion of players preparing for life after football. He called it “bold and aggressive” but believes his players are taking a mature approach and that it is not a distraction. By default, Penn State wins most improved team in the country this year, bet.
Speaking of improved teams…Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald had an energy on stage that was absolutely contagious. He joked about being jealous of the new NIL policy, praising it as “a great opportunity if used in the right way.” He even joked that he would have been raking in some dough in the ’90s if this policy had been around but later said he wasn’t sure who would have actually taken a chance on him. “I really don’t know who would have been interested in me,” laughed Fitzgerald. “Probably some pizza place I guess.” They may have the fewest starters back in the conference (8) but Fitzgerald appeared optimistic about the year, seeming very confident in his talent on defense and glad for the favorable schedule. Anything is possible in the wild, wild West division.