Big Ten

Urban Meyer: Big Ten is 'night and day what it was' when he took over at Ohio State

Urban Meyer: Big Ten is 'night and day what it was' when he took over at Ohio State

The Big Ten finally got a heaping helping of national respect last season, when three of the conference's teams finished in the top six of the final College Football Playoff rankings.

It had been a bit of a challenge in previous seasons — and not always without merit — for the league to get talked about in the same way the national media loves talking about the SEC. But now the conference boasts some of the healthiest programs in college football and some of the most attention-grabbing head coaches in the sport.

Certainly Urban Meyer and his Ohio State Buckeyes fall into those categories. But Ohio State is joined in the highest levels of national conversation by Jim Harbaugh's Michigan program and Paul Chryst's stellar work at Wisconsin. That's without mentioning the reigning conference champion Penn State Nittany Lions and Mark Dantonio's oft-contending Michigan State program.

With the Big Ten now annually having several national championship-caliber teams, Meyer can't help but notice how the league and the league's status has changed since he took the head-coaching gig in Columbus ahead of the 2012 season.

"It's night and day what it was," Meyer told CSN's Pat Boyle at Monday's Golf.Give.Gala in St. Charles, hosted by Michael Phelps and Jason Day. "And I was actually shocked at the disrespect and the lack of respect that the Big Ten had. I never looked at that. I grew up here.

"There's a lot of reasons why that's happened. The schools have hired very good coaches, the recruiting is off the chart now compared to the way it used to be. There's a lot of credit. And you better show up every week now, and it wasn't that way when I first got there in 2012."

Meyer's Buckeyes are again expected to be in the championship hunt this fall after reaching the College Football Playoff in two of the past three seasons and winning the whole thing to cap the 2014 campaign.

Certainly, though, the conference's powerhouses aren't the only programs that have contributed to the league's health as a whole. Coaching hires since Meyer got to Ohio State include former NFL head coaches in Lovie Smith and Mike Riley, as well as high-profile up-and-comers like James Franklin and P.J. Fleck.

Add those names to the already-existing leaders like Meyer, Dantonio and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, and the coaching is as strong as any conference in the country.

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Northwestern and Illinois’ college football programs are ranked in the top 10 this year.

Kind of.

One esteemed name in the college football ranks has placed Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald atop the list of the all-time greatest college coaches…ranked as players. Illini coach Lovie Smith ranks at No. 10.

Rich Cirminiello, Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, compiled the list and he is an excellent follow on Twitter. He has several other noteworthy lists of interest, including the top college football players who are now coaches in the NFL. Psst…spoiler alert: several local connections are on that particular list as well, including Saints head coach Sean Payton (QB, Eastern Illinois) and Ron Rivera (LB, California).

But back to Coach Fitz, who bleeds purple and has emphatically put the NU football program on the map since the mid-90s. He was a two-time All-American in addition to receiving consecutive Bronco Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors as a linebacker (1995-96). He helped guide the Wildcats to the ’96 Rose Bowl. Since becoming the team’s head coach in 2006, he has led the program to nine bowl games (four wins).

We all know Lovie Smith’s coaching legacy with the Bears and his rebuilding of the Illinois football program, but did you know how much he dominated as a college player? He played for Tulsa from 1976-79, racking up 367 career tackles primarily as a safety. He was a three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference award winner and earned a second-team All-America mention in 1978. He was also named MVC Newcomer of the Year after he tallied 90 tackles as a freshman.

[MORE: Lovie Smith, Mike Tirico discuss systemic racism 

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who passed for over 11,000 yards in seven seasons as a Chicago Bear, ranked No. 2 on Cirminiello’s list. In a follow-up tweet, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who dominated as a wide receiver at NIU and at nearby Kaneland High School, came in at No. 20. Western Michigan’s Tim Lester —a star player at Wheaton Warrenville South HS— is in at No. 7.

Who said that the Land of Lincoln didn’t have top college football talent?

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Professional, collegiate and prep sports have been on hold in Illinois since mid-March but it looks like there may be more light at the end of the tunnel. This time, in Evanston.

Northwestern University announced Thursday that a phased reopening of the athletic department, in tandem with NU’s overall policy for a return to campus, will include student athlete workouts on Monday June 22.

The relaunch of athletics at Northwestern during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as the state of Illinois is progressing in its own planned reopening, as dictated by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The sports medicine staff, athletic trainers and student-athletes with post-injury needs were welcomed back earlier this month and other select groups will be admitted back to campus next week.

Athletes will be required to complete a full physical upon arrival in Evanston on June 22. They will be screened before entering on-site facilities by means of a wellness check and a no-touch temperature scan.

Facility access will be managed through one entrance and exit. Locker facilities and lounges will remain closed, though, along with dining centers.

[MORE: Shortened NFL preseason puts big group of players at a disadvantage]

The Wildcats football team, along with both the men’s and women’s basketball programs, are penciled in to begin those voluntary workouts a week from Monday. Each unit should have plenty of motivation once they hit the playing surface.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company are eager to put last year’s 3-9 mark behind them. On the hardwood, Chris Collins’ group needs a quick bounce-back after an 8-23 mark last season while the women’s team, under the tutelage of Big Ten Coach of the Year Joe McKeown, are looking to build off a stellar 2019-20 campaign. They won the their first conference championship since 1989-90 and boasted a school record 26 wins.

 

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