Ohio State Buckeyes: Gene Smith
But for much of this century, when it came to football coaching diversity, the Big Ten lagged behind the rest of the nation.
Thankfully, things have begun to improve. Two of the last three head coaches hired in the Big Ten -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Penn State's James Franklin -- are African-American.
"That's great news, to have that diversity," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Now we just need to give them time and let them be successful where they are and develop their programs. I'm glad there is progress, and we need to continue to do more across the country."
There weren't a lot of opportunities, period, for head coaching jobs in the Big Ten during the recent diversity drought, as schools like Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State remained mostly stable at the top. But coaching turnover has increased in the league in the past few years; Penn State, for instance, just hired its second coach in three years after going nearly a half-century without a transition.
Was improving diversity a league-wide priority? Conference officials say no.
"What our schools try to do is hire the best coaches in their pool," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "We've had plenty of African-American basketball coaches.
"It's more about a commitment to opportunity and a fair process, and as long as our people are hiring the best people in processes that are open, you would hope and think that it would be sort of a broad representation of people. Whether you hire James Franklin or a new coach at any place, I'm not sure race should be the factor. Certainly people wouldn't want it to be a factor. It's really an outcome."
Still, it's hard not to note the importance of Penn State hiring its first African-American head football coach. More so than Dennis Green or Francis Peay at Northwestern or even Williams at Michigan State, Franklin is leading a flagship, blue-blood program. The timing was fortuitous, as the Pennsylvania native was ready for a new challenge after proving himself at Vanderbilt and the Nittany Lions needed a dynamic new leader.
“It’s a lot of significance," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "We hired James because of the kind of person and coach he is. The fact he’s African American is great. It’s a great testimony to opportunity. A hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have happened in this country."
"That's critically important," he said. "Historically, the opportunities in general that have gone to African-American coaches have been at programs that have been really down, and the opportunities to turn them around have been very problematic. Let's hope [Hazell and Franklin] are successful, because they will help create more opportunities for other African-American and Latino coaches in FBS conferences."
The next step for the Big Ten is to continue to develop and identify the next wave of minority head coaching candidates. Both Franklin and Hazell, who led Kent State for two seasons before Purdue hired him, had already established themselves as winning head coaches elsewhere, though Hazell was also a well-regarded assistant at Ohio State. The Big Ten sent several African-American assistant coaches to the annual minority coaches' forum between 2006 and 2010, and some athletic directors see it as their job to mentor young black coaches.
Smith saw Everett Withers leave the Buckeyes staff this winter to land the James Madison head coaching job and said he is spending time this offseason with running backs coach Stan Drayton to get Drayton accustomed to non-football issues like university budgets and policies.
"We want to have guys who are trained to hopefully win in the interview process," Smith said. "Sometimes, those are beauty contests. You've got to be able to answer the questions the right way and demonstrate an ability to lead."
That's the ultimate goal, to have more minority candidates who are ready when those opportunities do arise. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said that wasn't the case a few years ago, but the pool of potential coaches is increasing.
"We’re starting to see more and more diversity among the coaching staffs and up-and-coming diverse candidates in all various positions in the sport," Brandon said. "Now, we're seeing more representation at the head coaching level. That was bound to happen and important to have happen, and I'm glad to see that trend evolve."
To the inbox …
Jeremy from the South Carolina Cornfields writes: It has been interesting seeing the opinions of some new member fans from Rutgers and Maryland. What I found most interesting is which teams those fans seemed to fear/respect the most. Nearly all give credit to OSU and rightfully so. But I am surprised to see less concern about facing Wisconsin, Nebraska, and even Michigan State to a degree. However both Michigan and Penn State seem to garner more respect. Both have great name recognition, but both are also a shade of their former glory. Do you think that fan perception really is that regional and possibly outdated as a result?
Nebraska is more like Michigan and Penn State as a historic power, but the Huskers have been down, at least by their standards, for longer than both programs. Michigan and Penn State both have made multiple BCS bowls in the past decade, while Nebraska's last came during the 2001 season. That's a long time. Michigan State undoubtedly helped its perception by winning the Rose Bowl. The Spartans now must follow it up with another strong season (would be fourth in five years under Mark Dantonio).
Adam Rittenberg: It might not be as significant as ticket prices and schedules, but TV definitely plays a role, Husker. Fans have access to everything, and they want to be as tuned in at games as they can be at home. That's the challenge for schools. The days of simply reading out-of-town scores are over. More schools are showing live cut-ins or highlights of other games on the video board. But's it's a challenge. As Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told me, "They've got every picture right there. We have to respond to those times."
Adam Rittenberg: It's a bit puzzling, Steve, because Colter consistently has said that he had a great experience at Northwestern and harbors no ill will toward the program. I think he's under a lot of pressure to expose the problems of the system, and he's trying to paint his own experience -- one that was largely positive -- in a somewhat negative light. His testimony shocked a lot of folks in Evanston who had seem him blossom as a player.
Adam Rittenberg: Is this baseball pitching phenom Steve Nebraska? Someone call Albert Brooks. … I'm a huge fan of @FauxPelini. He's the best in the Twitter parody business, and it's not really close. When the real Bo Pelini acknowledged Faux during the national title game, it made my night. But I agree many of the parody accounts cross the line. I've had to unfollow a few that became too lewd with their comments. I prefer the coach parody accounts to the player ones because the coaches are older, in power positions and usually hear a lot worse criticism.
Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Paul, but you're not going to see all of college football move up the start date a week just so the Big Ten can wrap up before Thanksgiving. I definitely agree the relevancy argument isn't as strong with the championship game in place. One concern is having a bye week for each team, which can be hard if the season starts in early September and must wrap up before Thanksgiving. Most Big Ten schools had no bye week in 2009. While no one likes the double-byes, coaches want to have one off week so players can rest. Is it possible to go back to the old way? Sure. But I don't see it happening.
The message back then: We can do this, but we probably won't any time soon.
Last year, Big Ten coaches and administrators expressed greater support for night games, including those in November. League commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com he wouldn't stand in the way of such games.
Will 2014 be the year we see Big Ten football kick off under the lights after Nov. 1?
We won't know for sure until ESPN/ABC and BTN announce their prime-time schedules this spring, but there's momentum for more night games and later night games, and talks are underway.
"We're more amendable to that first November Saturday," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently told ESPN.com, "and I think some of us will be willing to look at that second Saturday in November if the contest is right."
Weather is still a potential deterrent for Big Ten schools to schedule night games later in the season, as it creates possible logistical problems for all involved (fans, game operations staff, police/security). But the temperature difference between late October and the first portion of November often is negligible.
The 2014 season includes Saturdays on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.
Here are the schedules:
Indiana at Michigan
Maryland at Penn State
Illinois at Ohio State
Wisconsin at Rutgers
Northwestern at Iowa
Purdue at Nebraska
Byes: Minnesota, Michigan State
Penn State at Indiana
Michigan at Northwestern
Ohio State at Michigan State
Iowa at Minnesota
Wisconsin at Purdue
Byes: Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Nebraska
The bad news: The Nov. 1 schedule doesn't feature too many big-time games, which could decrease the likelihood of a prime-time contest, especially on ESPN/ABC.
Michigan wants its night games to be major events, and facing Indiana doesn't exactly qualify. Iowa hosting Northwestern is a possibility, especially since the Hawkeyes play only one other home game (Oct. 11 against Indiana) between Sept. 15 and Nov. 1.
The Nov. 8 schedule includes arguably the Big Ten's marquee game of the year in Ohio State visiting Michigan State, a rematch of the 2013 league championship. I'd absolutely love to see this at night, and what a way to kick off November prime time in the league. It's definitely a possibility, but the game also could fill the 3:30 p.m. ET window, which many Big Ten athletic directors prefer (Purdue's Morgan Burke recently called it "the sweet spot").
The Penn State-Indiana game is another potential prime-time kickoff, mainly because Indiana has been so open to night games (six in the past two seasons, nine since the 2010 season).
"We've probably had more night games than most of our colleagues in the conference," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. "We think it's a good thing for us, it helps our attendance. We're certainly open to that, and my guess is that will be more of a trend."
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas echoes the support for night games, noting that several Big Ten ADs and coaches previously spent time in the Mid-American Conference, where playing at night and on weekdays, especially late in the season, is common.
"We experienced all of that in our past lives," said Thomas, who served as Akron's athletic director from 2000-05. "We talk about the opportunities for the prime-time windows and where we are as individual schools and as a conference in having that kind of exposure.
"I would certainly support it."
Many of Thomas' colleagues seem to be on board. Smith said the athletic directors last week spoke about moving up the timetable for prime-time selections so they can begin promoting games. Prime-time schedules typically have been announced between April 20 and May 15.
"We're putting in lights because we've realized that we can handle night games," Smith said. "In 2006, we were a little bit skittish about it. We know our fans love it, so we've shared with the conference that we're amenable to having more. There's a novelty to it. That helps us with our atmosphere.
"It makes things really exciting."
The real surprise: How much the ADs focused on a group whose devotion to gamedays rarely is questioned. They're the folks with the shortest commute to stadiums, discounted tickets and the most direct connection to the team on the field. And yet they're showing up less and less, even in regions where football resonates the most.
"How do you get the students engaged?"
It's a question Big Ten athletic departments are asking, whether their schools are seeing tangible drop-offs in student attendance or maintaining strong Saturday turnouts.
"That's your next generation of ticket buyers," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said, "so you better be paying attention."
Some Big Ten student sections have as much tradition as the teams for whom they cheer. The Block I at Illinois just completed its 103rd season. The Block "O" at Ohio State celebrated its 75th anniversary this past fall. Penn State's Nittanyville often is rated as the nation's No. 1 student section.
But almost every Big Ten school is examining how to get students to show up for games and stay until the end. Images like this and this and this have become more common. Iowa reduced its student section size by two sections last fall after sales dropped and no-shows rose.
Some challenges are local, whether it's ticket prices at Illinois or early kickoffs at Nebraska or pricing and seating structure at Michigan or tailgating space at Minnesota. But there are common issues that are getting attention, particularly from the league's newly established football gameday experience subcommittee.
"For students, something like Skull Session at Ohio State or the Tunnel Walk at Nebraska or a Whiteout at Penn State, you're never going to be able to replicate that anywhere but the game," said Big Ten associate director Kerry Kenny, the liaison to the committee. "Those types of things obviously help drive attendance and keep people interested in coming back, but it's that other piece, of how to make that experience a total immersion in the game."
Technology is part of that piece, and Big Ten schools are either implementing or exploring total stadium Wi-Fi and cellular service upgrades. Students are avid social-media users, and many would benefit from stronger in-stadium coverage.
Jake Bradley, director of football operations for the Block "O", said it's nearly impossible to communicate between the two student areas at Ohio Stadium -- at the North and South ends of the facility -- because cell service is poor. While improved coverage would be nice, Big Ten student section leaders don't think upgrades would have a dramatic effect on turnout.
"Being able to text and get on Instagram in the stadium is very difficult," said Kurt Hansen, who oversees the Block I at Illinois football games. "There are so many people on their phones. But do I think it makes that big of a deal? No."
The bigger issue at Illinois, aside from the team's on-field struggles, is the pricing structure. There's no difference between standard student tickets and Block I tickets. Because the Block I charges an additional fee for the perks it provides for students, the overall cost becomes higher.
Early kickoff times also present a challenge in the Big Ten, especially for schools located in the Central time zone. Although Wisconsin hasn't had a decline in student attendance, according to associate athletic director Justin Doherty, it's typically a late-arriving crowd.
Steve Dosskey, president of the Iron N student section at Nebraska, said students often don't filter in until 15-20 minutes after kickoff because they're at off-campus tailgates. (Nebraska's campus is dry.)
"People usually get there, but we have a difficult time filling up the student section by kickoff," Dosskey said. "Naturally, we're going to have better attendance for the [2:30 p.m.] and for the prime-time games."
Purdue used to spend half the season in the Central time zone, and Burke admits, "I feel for the schools that have 11 o'clock kicks. That's really hard."
Tailgating opportunities are very much on students' radar. Minnesota provided a new tailgating area for students before the 2013 season, and the Block I holds tailgates before each home game.
"Let's face it: Most college facilities don’t sell alcohol," Thomas said. "Do you lose kids because they'd rather go down to the local bar and hang out with their friends? That does affect some of us to some extent, but [selling alcohol is] not a place we're considering going."
One place more Big Ten schools seem to be going is more attractive nonconference schedules, which could boost student turnout.
Nittanyville president Brian Sanvido saw more empty seats for a September game against Eastern Michigan. Greg Licht of Iowa's Hawk's Nest noted that sweltering heat and an FCS opponent (Missouri State) kept students away for a Week 2 game.
"The tailgate scene in Iowa City is pretty prevalent," Licht said. "If there isn't a big-name opponent or students don't have a reason to see the opponent, they'll stay outside."
The Big Ten still has plenty of places where attending football games is woven into student culture. Penn State students take great pride in Nittanyville's ratings, camping out before games and filling the stands behind one end zone.
"You feel like you've affected the game," Sanvido said. "Students latch on."
But not as much as they used to, so Big Ten leaders are paying attention.
"There's so many options for our young people," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "The demographic is changing; their interests are changing. We have to respond."
America's two largest football venues -- Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium -- sit on Big Ten campuses, and three of the seven football stadiums with six-figure capacities are in the league (Ohio Stadium is the other). Michigan has led the nation in college football attendance for the past 15 years, and the Big Ten occupied three of the top five spots and seven of the top 23 spots in attendance average for the 2013 season.
So what's the B1G deal? Eight of the 12 league programs saw a decline in average attendance last season. Some have seen numbers drop for several years. Student-section attendance is a growing concern, and the Big Ten is tracking the troubling national attendance trends.
"We've been blessed because we haven't been hit with the significant drop-off that many other conferences and schools have experienced," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "However, we've seen it in certain games, or in not necessarily ticket sales but people actually coming to games.
"So we're concerned."
The league is taking a proactive approach, starting last season with the formation of a football game-day experience subcommittee, which Smith chairs. The committee in August announced that Big Ten schools would be allowed to show an unlimited number of replays on video boards at any speed. Schools previously could show one replay at no less than 75 percent of real-time speed.
The move drew positive reviews from fans and no major complaints from game officials.
"If people can see the replay at home on TV, you can't give them a lesser experience in the stands," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.
A "more robust" replay approach is on the way for 2014, and Big Ten leaders are looking at other ways to bolster the stadium experience, which, as Burke noted, seems to have reached a tipping point with the couch experience.
Here are some areas of focus:
Cellular and Wi-Fi Connections
In August, the subcommittee encouraged each Big Ten school to explore full Wi-Fi in stadiums as well as Distributed Antenna System (DAS) coverage to enhance cell-phone functionality. A fan base immersed in smartphones, social media and staying connected demands it.
"Everybody realizes improvements have to be made," said Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee. "People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren’t there but are watching."
Penn State installed Wi-Fi throughout Beaver Stadium in 2012 but is the only Big Ten school to have complete access. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said he hopes to have total Wi-Fi in the school's football stadium by the fall, if not the 2015 season. Nebraska's regents last month approved a $12.3 million Wi-Fi project for its stadium, and Wisconsin hopes to have full stadium Wi-Fi this season.
Most schools are focused on boosting cell service, which is more feasible and widespread. Ohio State installed more than 200 antennas in Ohio Stadium to improve cell service. For complete Wi-Fi, it would need about 1,200 antennas.
"We don't know what the cost is, but we know it's somewhere north of seven figures," Smith said. "We're studying it, as are my colleagues in the Big Ten."
Student sections aren't nearly as full as they used to be on Saturdays, both in the Big Ten and in the nation. ADs are well aware of the downturn and have tried different approaches to boost attendance.
Michigan in 2013 implemented a general admission policy, hoping to get more students to show up early, but reviews weren't favorable. Minnesota provided a new student tailgating area and better ticket packages. Illinois held a clinic for international students, who have told Thomas they'd come to games if they knew more about football.
The technology component resonates for students. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told CBSsports.com that many students didn't show up for a 2012 game against Iowa because they couldn't send text messages in the rain.
Even if Ohio State doesn't install complete Wi-Fi at The Shoe, it could do so for the student section.
"Our surveys show that less than 25 percent of the crowd actually uses their cellular device [during games]," Smith said, "but of that 25 percent, a supermajority are students. You want to be able to provide that access."
“The days of public-address announcers listing scores from other games during timeouts are over. Schools want to give fans a broader view on Saturdays, whether it's putting live feeds of other games on video boards or replaying highlights shortly after they happen.
Everybody realizes improvements have to be made. People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren't there but are watching.” Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee, on Wi-Fi in stadiums.
"I was at a game at Purdue this year," Kenny said, "and they showed a highlight of a touchdown in the Wisconsin-Iowa game within a couple minutes of that touchdown being scored."
Added Thomas: "If you're watching ESPN or watching a game at home, those are the kinds of experiences you should give people in your venue."
Big Ten athletic directors and football coaches last week discussed having more locker-room video or behind-the-scenes content that can be shown only within the stadium.
"You're in an era where people want to know what's it like before the game, after the game," Burke said. "It humanizes us if people see that side, the highs and the lows."
Burke likens Purdue's sideline to a "Hollywood production," as the band director, a disc jockey and a show producer coordinate in-game music on headsets. Several schools post tweets from fans at games on video boards to create a more interactive experience.
Ticketing and timing
Last month, Penn State became the latest Big Ten school to adopt variable ticket pricing for single games, acknowledging, "We have been listening to our fans." Attendance has dropped 11.2 percent from 2007 to 2012, while frustration has grown with the Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP) program.
Big Ten schools are getting more creative with ticket plans in response to attendance concerns. Northwestern last season implemented a modified "Dutch auction" system where a portion of tickets were sold based on adjusted price demand rather than set prices.
Purdue last fall introduced mobile ticket delivery, which allows fans to download tickets directly to their devices.
Kickoff times are another attendance indicator, as Big Ten schools located in the central time zone often struggle to fill the stands for 11 a.m. games. The Big Ten gradually has increased its number of prime-time games, and while Burke considers mid-afternoon games ideal, more night kickoffs likely are on the way, including those in early November.
Ohio State is in the process of installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium.
"I'm a big fan of evening games," Thomas said.
As attendance becomes a bigger issue, the Big Ten and its members have surveyed fans about what they want at games. Wisconsin last fall established a 25-member fan advisory council, with two students. The school has received feedback about concessions, parking and whether fans would prefer digital programs rather than the traditional magazine-style ones.
"So much of it is when somebody comes to your venue," said Justin Doherty, Wisconsin's associate athletic director for external relations, "they have an experience that makes them want to come back."
- Thanks to Russell Wilson and others, Wisconsin received some excellent pub during Super Bowl XLVIII. Badgers recruit Dareian Watkins overcame some rough obstacles early in his life.
- Doug Lesmerises projects Ohio State's offensive depth chart in 2014 following signing day. Buckeyes AD Gene Smith talks football expectations and other topics in a Q&A.
- Nebraska had a very busy weekend on the recruiting trail.
- Michigan State's recruiting profile is on the rise, Mike Griffith writes.
- Matt Daniels lists 10 reasons why Illinois fans will praise or curse Tim Beckman's name.
- Nick Baumgardner looks at where Michigan's 2014 recruits might fit in next season.
- Malik McDowell's father has some interesting thoughts on what the top recruit is thinking as signing day approaches.
- Indiana adds three more recruits, including one who flipped from Purdue, on the final weekend before signing day.
- New Penn State assistant Herb Hand makes a bigger impact off the field. A look at how the NCAA sanctions are still impacting Penn State.
- A good look at questions surrounding the Northwestern unionizing attempt.
- Former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons is apparently not facing charges for the incident that seems to have led to his expulsion from the school.
- The Wolverines have seen some of their recruiting momentum slip away. Could Michigan State capitalize on that given its strong finish on the field last season?
- Ohio State has found itself a new president, and he was a popular guy with at least one coach during his stint at UC-Irvine.
- The Buckeyes are keeping their current athletic director around for a while, and Doug Lesmerises takes a look at the contract extension signed by Gene Smith.
- Former Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson has picked his next school, and he'll be staying in the Big Ten as he heads to Rutgers.
- Should likely defensive coordinator Joe Rossi be judged for the performance of the Scarlet Knights in the bowl game against Notre Dame?
- Iowa has fired an athletic department employee over missing funds from ticket sales on the Hawkeye Express.
- Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has been on the job for a year, and he's crammed plenty into that relatively short timeframe.
- Penn State's new passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach knows better players can make for better coaches, and Ricky Rahne is set to work with another talented signal caller in Christian Hackenberg.
- A Madison-based company landed Russell Wilson for his first solo Super Bowl commercial, and it struck gold when the former Wisconsin quarterback actually led Seattle to the NFL championship game.
It's no coincidence that a historic downturn in Big Ten football has coincided with a historic stretch of instability among the league's coaches.
The Big Ten coaches that year had combined for four national championships, five Rose Bowl titles and seven BCS bowl victories.
Since 2005, the Big Ten has gone through 17 coaching changes (not counting Nebraska's after the 2007 season). Seven teams have made multiple changes, including Penn State, which introduced new coaches earlier this month and in January 2011 after not doing so since February 1966. Last season, Indiana's Kevin Wilson was the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders division. He was hired in December 2010.
As the Big Ten invests more in its coaches, it also must ensure it has the right leaders in place for the long haul.
"If you believe strongly in the person you have," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told ESPN.com, "continuity is invaluable."
Few programs value continuity more than Iowa, which has had two coaches (Kirk Ferentz and Hayden Fry) since the 1978 season. Ferentz, who just completed his 15th year at the school, has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach. He's one of only four FBS coaches to start before the 2000 season (Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Troy's Larry Blakeney are the others).
Iowa awarded Ferentz with contract extensions both in 2009 and 2010, the latter a whopping 10-year deal with a salary of $3,675,000. The Big Ten hasn't set the pace nationally in coach compensation, but Iowa's pledge to Ferentz, often the subject of NFL rumors, jumps out. Ferentz's salary is frequently debated and scrutinized, especially when Iowa struggles like it did in 2012, but Barta's loyalty to him hasn't wavered. Iowa rebounded to win eight games last season.
"Because of that commitment, we made our statement," Barta said. "We're going to fight through this with the person in whom we have great confidence and trust. There's no guarantees in life, but because of Kirk's past performance, because of his long-standing approach at Iowa and his proven success, it was a risk I was willing to take. Knock on wood, so far it has worked out terrific."
Barta sees a similar approach from Big Ten schools like Michigan State, which won Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles in Mark Dantonio's seventh season as coach. Dantonio in 2011 received a contract designed to keep him a "Spartan for life," and his newest deal is expected to more than double his salary from $1.9 million in 2013.
"Continuity breeds success," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said, "and that's the hardest part sometimes on the institutional side, to keep that commitment, keep that contract whether it's an assistant or a head coach. … It requires a high level of confidence and a high level of trust."
“There have been similar long-term commitments at other Big Ten schools. Northwestern awarded coach Pat Fitzgerald a 10-year contract in 2011. When Indiana hired Wilson, it gave him a seven-year contract, longer than the initial deals new coaches typically receive. Athletic director Fred Glass links Indiana's lack of continuity -- the school has had five coaches since 1996 -- with its on-field struggles (only one bowl appearance since 1993) and knows the school needs a more patient approach.
The day of playing musical chairs with coaches, of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right.” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon
"Stability is an important thing in our league," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who applauded recent moves like MSU retaining Dantonio and Penn State hiring James Franklin. "The best example I'll use is men’s basketball where we're having tremendous success, in large part, because of the stability we have in a number of our programs. I think we need to get that in football."
While Big Ten football has struggled in recent years, the league is surging on the hardwood, in large part because of veteran coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo (19th year), Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (13th year) and Ohio State's Thad Matta (10th year). Six of the league's 12 basketball coaches have been in their jobs for at least five seasons.
Continuity doesn't guarantee success, but it often correlates. Barta has tried to create "an environment of longevity and long-term commitment" at Iowa, while also recognizing the pressure to win and, in some cases, the need to part ways with a coach.
"The day of playing musical chairs with coaches," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said, "of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right."
After several years of transition, the Big Ten hopes it has the right men at the top -- and the ability to keep them there.
When Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in December 2012, it sent shock waves throughout the Big Ten.
Why would a guy who had led his program to three straight Rose Bowls and Big Ten titles, one who was a Midwesterner through and through, decide to bolt for a mid-level SEC program? And if the Big Ten couldn't keep a guy like that from heading south, did it have any hope of keeping its best coaches around?
Bielema's exit wasn't the only example of coaching talent bred in the Midwest flocking to the SEC, after all. Nick Saban famously left Michigan State for LSU back in the day. Michigan man Les Miles coaches LSU. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is a Purdue grad. Tennessee's Butch Jones is a Michigan native, while Georgia's Mark Richt was born in Omaha, Neb.
But offseason hires in the Big Ten this winter should alleviate fears that the league will always suffer from an SEC brain drain. Conference teams looked south to fill several high-profile openings:
- Penn State hired James Franklin (and just about all of his staff) away from Vanderbilt. Sure, Vandy is no powerhouse program, but the Commodores reportedly offered him a 10-year, $50 million contract to stay in Nashville.[+] EnlargeMatthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsLuring "Pennsylvania boy" James Franklin from the SEC to Penn State could be the start of a trend to get coaches with Midwestern roots back home.
- Michigan lured Doug Nussmeier away from Saban and Alabama and hired him as the Wolverines' new offensive coordinator. While there were some rumblings that Saban wasn't exactly sorry to see Nussmeier go, the Tide did average 38.2 points per game last season.
- In a bit of sweet irony, Ohio State swiped Bielema's Arkansas defensive coordinator, Chris Ash, naming him the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach.
It makes sense that Big Ten schools with important vacancies would turn their attention to the SEC. If you can't beat 'em, become 'em, after all. But those in charge of the hiring say that poaching the SEC wasn't really at the forefront of their minds.
"We were trying to get the very best person who fit within how Penn State is and what we do who was available," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "It just so happens that this great coach had a great experience in the SEC. If you just look at the football piece of it, having the success that he had in the SEC -- obviously the most successful conference over the past eight or nine years perhaps if you look at national championships -- that was a very strong positive."
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon noted that Nussmeier was born in Oregon and has coached at Washington and Michigan State, while only spending the past two years in the SEC with Saban.
"To me, it’s more coincidental than anything that’s more strategic," Brandon said of the recent Big Ten hires. "You're going to see Big Ten coaches moving around and the same for coaches from other conferences. I don’t think where they're from is as relevant as how we view their talent and experience and how well prepared they are to come in and help us at Michigan."
Still, it's good for the league and its image that high-profile coaches are willing to leave the bright lights of the SEC and take their talents to the Midwest for essentially the same positions. Ash accepted a small pay cut to abandon Bielema's ship, going from a sole coordinator's role to a job where he is officially, at least, sharing coordinator duties. Ash, tellingly, was born in Iowa and spent most of his career coaching in that state and Wisconsin before going to Dixie.
"He's kind of a Midwest guy," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "He has Midwest values. He's coming home, in my opinion."
And maybe that's the best selling point and best hope for the future of the Big Ten. With so many coaches having deep ties to the region, perhaps the league can bring some of them back home. It sure worked for Ohio State when native son Urban Meyer became available. Penn State scooped up self-described "Pennsylvania boy" Franklin. Both were considered stars in the SEC.
"If you’re not competing for great coaching talent, it’s going to be very hard to win the Big Ten title, it’s going to be very hard to appear in Rose Bowls, and it’s going to be very hard to compete for national championships," Brandon said.
Big Ten teams can do all of those things by first making sure they clot the Midwest brain drain.
The school announced that Smith will be promoted to vice president while still handling athletics director duties until 2020. His current contract was set to end in 2016. His pay will rise about $100,000, to a base salary of $940,484 per year. Including bonuses and incentives, Smith -- who was quoted in my story earlier today about $1 million coordinators -- will likely make seven figures himself at times during the life of the deal.
“Gene Smith is one of this country’s most accomplished collegiate athletics directors, with an exemplary record of national leadership and service,” interim Ohio State president Joseph A. Alutto said in an official statement. “Thanks to his dedication to student success, graduation success rates of Ohio State’s student-athletes have risen by 11 percentage points, to 89 percent. His vision and commitment to excellence have made Ohio State’s department of athletics one of the strongest in the nation.”
Smith has been the Buckeyes' athletics director since 2005, and he has overseen a department that has had numerous successes, especially in the cornerstone programs of football and men's basketball. He was embroiled in the Jim Tressel tattoos-for-memorabilia scandal that ended up costing Tressel his job, and Smith made some public comments during that time that seemed shortsighted at best. He also might have made a mistake by not self-imposing a bowl ban in 2011 that could have potentially helped the 2012 Buckeyes play for the national title.
But Smith got through that controversy, and he helped make the football program arguably even stronger by hiring Urban Meyer. His voice and opinion matters when it comes to Big Ten issues large and small. Overall, Smith has done a great job leading one of the nation's largest and most profitable athletic departments, and the Buckeyes should continue to thrive with stability at the top.
In the days leading up to the Discover Orange Bowl earlier this month, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris received nearly as much attention as the head coaches in the game.
That was because of Morris' ties to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and the high-powered Tigers offense he engineered. Plus, Morris was already being paid like a head coach.
In part because of Meyer's reported interest in hiring Morris in December 2011, Morris is the nation's highest-paid assistant coach at $1.3 million annually. But he's not alone in the $1 million coordinator club. LSU's John Chavis and Alabama's Kirby Smart also made more than seven figures as assistants in 2013, and Louisville recently lured defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Georgia with a five-year contract worth $1 million annually.
"I think it’s imminent," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I don’t know when, but I think it’s imminent. Whether that's two years from now or four years from now, it’s highly possible you'll see that in our league."
Some are not that far away now. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant at $851,000 per year. The Wolverines recently hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama as their offensive coordinator, and while his salary hasn't been disclosed yet, athletic director Dave Brandon has said it won't exceed Mattison's. Nussmeier was making $681,500 at Alabama.
Those numbers are compiled through open records requests and public information. But Brandon told ESPN.com that because contracts often include things like performance and longevity bonuses and deferred payments, "under certain scenarios, we've got coordinators now who could make over $1 million [in 2014]."
The $1 million mark is an arbitrary one in many ways. Brandon does not see an issue with surpassing it.
"Coordinator positions are very important, and when you look at what they are being paid in the pro ranks and in other conferences, the market has taken those positions up," he said. "If you're going to make a big investment in your head coach, you’ve got to back that investment up with the people around him to really bring it all together."
The arms race in college sports used to center on facilities. But now that just about every campus has upgraded every building imaginable and the construction crews are running out of projects, pay for assistant coaches seems to be the new frontier.
Consider that in 2010, the highest-paid Big Ten assistant coach was Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, at just more than $475,000. The increased commitment can really be seen at Ohio State, where in 2008, the Buckeyes did not pay a single Jim Tressel assistant more than $275,000. Now, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell makes $610,000 and offensive coordinator Tom Herman earns $555,000. The Buckeyes just hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas as their co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at a salary of $520,000, and they're paying new defensive line coach Larry Johnson $400,000.
"It’s crazy," Smith said. "Stakes are higher. The revenue’s gotten bigger. So you see those assistant coaches who are extremely talented being compensated consistent with their skills. It’s blown up. And I’m not so sure it’s going to slow down.
"It’s just market-driven. It's really not unlike any other industry. Any industry or large corporation is going to pay whatever the market is for their top CFO or top COO or whatever the top positions are that they're trying to fill on their executive team. A head football coach is a CEO. And his executive team is his assistants."
That's fine for rich programs such as Ohio State and Michigan. Or Nebraska, which paid offensive coordinator Tim Beck $700,000 last year. But can every Big Ten school afford to reward its assistants like captains of industry? Consider that Clemson's Morris made more in base pay in 2013 than two Big Ten head coaches (Minnesota's Jerry Kill and Indiana's Kevin Wilson). Incoming Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood makes only $9,000 more per year than Mattison.
"It’s challenging, especially for a program like Indiana, where we have a smaller stadium, we don’t fill it," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told ESPN.com. "So it’s tough to compete."
"I guess one of the questions is, where does it level off?," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner told ESPN.com. "It depends on the revenue structure. If the revenue goes up and the investment causes a return that’s worthwhile, maybe things do continue to escalate, and particularly at schools that are able to financially support their programs so that it’s not a burden on the general funds."
Then again, few investments can have a more direct impact on the actual football product than paying top dollar for a truly elite coordinator. Michigan State surely doesn't regret the $558,000 it paid to defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi last year; one could argue he would be underpaid even at $1 million.
It won't be long until a Big Ten assistant gets there.
"We’re going to see it," Smith said. "Especially at places like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State -- the big stadiums, so to speak. It’s going to end up being here at some point. "
Two days before Michigan State ended its best season in nearly a half-century with a Rose Bowl victory, Mark Hollis stood outside a Los Angeles conference room and described the dilemma he and other athletic directors face with football coaches' salaries.
"I get concerned sometimes about where we're going with coaches' salaries as an industry," Hollis said, "but at the same time, you need to ensure that continuity is in place."
The recent moves underscore a greater willingness throughout the deep-pocketed Big Ten to invest more in the men charged to coach its flagship sport, one that has struggled for the past decade. The Big Ten didn't set the market for soaring coaches' salaries, but after some initial reluctance, the league seems more willing to join it.
"When you see an institution like Penn State and Franklin, it says we're going to attract the best talent that we can and in order to do that, we have to step up financially to procure that person's services," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I think that's great for our league. ... We need to have the best coaches, we need to retain the best coaches."
Ohio State in 2011 hired Urban Meyer for a salary of $4 million per year. At the time, the Big Ten had no coaches earning more than $4 million and only two making more than $3 million. Purdue was one of the few major-conference programs paying its coach (Danny Hope) less than $1 million. Bret Bielema cited the difficulty of retaining top assistants at Wisconsin as one reason he left for the Arkansas job in 2012.
The landscape has changed. Last year, both Meyer and Michigan's Brady Hoke made more than $4 million, while Iowa's Kirk Ferentz made just less ($3.985 million), according to USA Today. Franklin's deal at Penn State includes an annual salary of $4.25 million. Terms of Dantonio's new contract at Michigan State have yet to be announced, but it will put Dantonio, previously among the lowest-paid Big Ten coaches ($1.9 million), in the top salary tier. His staff also will receive nice pay bumps.
"I don't think we've been woefully behind," Smith said of the Big Ten. "We were not the first ones to drive the salaries up, but we weren't far behind in responding. Whenever we can attract someone who is really talented, we pay them."
They also must pay top assistants, many of whom command salaries well above those of head coaches from smaller leagues. The Big Ten, after lagging behind nationally in assistant coach pay, is catching up.
"The offensive and defensive coordinators, those decisions become critically important," Michigan AD Dave Brandon said. "You can have the greatest head coach in the world, but if you're not providing him with those leaders who can manage those smaller staffs ... it's hard to believe that the head coach is going to be successful."
There has been no Big Ten mandate to increase salaries, and athletic directors don't discuss financial specifics when they meet. These are institutional decisions, and Hollis, upon realizing Dantonio and his aides deserved an increase, first looked at what MSU could provide before surveying the Big Ten, the national college scene and the NFL.
Part of his challenge is verifying data, as some numbers, even those available through records requests, aren't always accurate.
"Every school pays individuals in different ways," Hollis said. "There can be longevity payments put in there, different bonuses."
Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner expected to make a strong financial push for O'Brien's successor but didn't know exactly where the numbers would fall. Among the metrics Joyner used was the potential attendance increase a new coach could bring.
Despite PSU's on-field success the past two years, average attendance at Beaver Stadium has dropped by about 5,000. An increase of 1,000 fans during the season, including parking and concessions, adds about $500,000 in revenue, Joyner said.
Indiana AD Fred Glass also wants to fill seats, but he's in a different financial ballpark from schools with massive stadiums like Penn State, despite competing in the same conference. Glass notes that while Michigan made $147.5 million in football revenue last year, Indiana made only about $4.5 million.
But it didn't stop IU from doubling its salary pool for assistant coaches when Kevin Wilson arrived, or awarding Wilson a seven-year contract worth $1.2 million annually, or increasing the number of full-time strength coaches devoted to football from two to five, the NCAA maximum.
"There's a reason IU traditionally hasn't been where we want to be in football," Glass said. "We haven't really made the investments in it. We haven't stuck with continuity. We haven't stayed with a staff over a long period of time. That's what we need.
"Kevin understands we're making resources available, but it's not a bottomless pit."
Glass' last point resonates in the Big Ten, which generates record revenues but also sponsors more sports, on average, than any other major conference. The league believes in broad-based programs, which makes it harder to sink money into football, despite the superior return.
"We are a college program versus just a football franchise, and I think our football coaches not only understand that but really embrace it," Hollis said. "I believe in the Big Ten, maybe more so than others -- I've had the opportunity to see East and West -- [coaches] feel that the athletic department is part of their family."
But they also have to take care of their own families, and their assistants. They know salaries are rising everywhere.
Big Ten athletic directors know this, too. To keep up, you have to pay up.
(We'll pause here to let SEC fans pick their jaws up from the floor and clean off the spittle.)
Friday's Discover Orange Bowl will mark Ohio State's 10th BCS appearance. No other program reached double digits in BCS bowl game appearances in the 16-year history of the system. The Buckeyes also have won six BCS bowl games, tied for the most with USC. Since the Trojans aren't in the BCS this year, Ohio State would finish alone atop the wins category by beating Clemson. (The Buckeyes' 2011 Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas was later vacated by the NCAA, but it actually happened, so we are counting it.)
"No system is perfect, and the BCS has had its challenges," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "But it's been good to us. We've won games. We've enjoyed it."
Ohio State beat Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl in the first year of the BCS system, and Urban Meyer is the third coach to lead the Buckeyes to a BCS game. With their first trip to the Orange Bowl on Friday, Ohio State will have played in every BCS landing spot during the era: the BCS title, Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Orange bowls.
Though the Buckeyes have been the Big Ten's pre-eminent program during the BCS era, they have played in the Rose Bowl only once in that time, beating Oregon on New Year's Day 2010.
"We've had outstanding fan support, and the bowls know our fans come and have an economic impact in those communities. And so the system has benefited us because of our total package. But at the end of the day, we won games, and that's really what put us in that position to be considered."
Yet for all its success, Ohio State often receives more scorn than admiration from a national perspective. The Buckeyes sometimes get labeled as big-game chokers. That sentiment was evident late this season, when the team climbed the BCS standings and appeared on the verge of playing for a national title.
In many ways, the program is still paying a public-relations price for losing the 2007 and 2008 national title games to Florida and LSU, respectively, in lopsided fashion. Hardly anyone ever mentions that the Buckeyes were the last team to beat Oregon in a BCS game or that they took down an SEC team in their last BCS appearance or that they squeezed past a supremely talented Miami squad to win the BCS title in 2003.
That kind of selective memory is not just limited to Ohio State. The team with the second-most BCS appearances is Oklahoma with nine. The Sooners usually are more associated with their BCS losses than they are praised for their triumphs.
"That's understandable," Smith said. "That's our society.
"We've had great success against great opponents in the BCS system in some outstanding bowls. But everybody puts so much emphasis on the national championship game itself. That's just the way it is. It's that finality."
Smith said that at a program like Ohio State, the goal is always going to be winning a national championship. Falling short of that brings disappointment. But he said he also tries to remind his coaches and players to take pride in their accomplishments.
That applies to this year's Buckeyes, who lost a shot at playing for the final BCS championship when they were upset by Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Players and coaches couldn't hide how crushing that defeat was in its aftermath, but they have tried to refocus.
"We're just as happy to be in a major game," linebacker Ryan Shazier told ESPN.com. "Not one team in the NCAA could be mad playing in this game, because it's a BCS bowl. I think it's really big just to finish the BCS era with the most wins."
Ohio State's final BCS bowl will be its first under Meyer, and it's a fitting marriage of achievement. Meyer is 4-0 in BCS games, including two national championships. That's the best record for any coach who has led a team to at least three BCS games.
"We have all the confidence in the world in Coach Meyer," Shazier said. "Everybody understands how much he has done to get teams in position to win these types of bowl games."
The Buckeyes have put themselves in position to win more BCS bowl games than any other school. Closing it out with one more victory would be their perfect end to an era.
The slate is the main reason why Urban Meyer's team sits at No. 3 in the BCS standings, despite a 9-0 record and a 21-game winning streak. It's also the reason why the Buckeyes soon could be behind a third unbeaten in Baylor, or even a 1-loss team in Stanford.
The Buckeyes have faced just one team in the current BCS standings, No. 22 Wisconsin. Barring a surprise, the only other ranked team they'll face before the BCS selections are announced will be in the Big Ten championship game.
How did this happen? Although Big Ten teams have shied away from tough schedules, Ohio State hasn't been one of them. In fact, the Buckeyes used a scheduling model that featured at least one marquee matchup per season, whether it was Texas in 2005 and 2006, USC in 2008 and 2009, or Miami in 2010 and 2011.
It's shortsighted to suggest, as many have, that Ohio State tried to avoid challenges in the schedule. For several reasons, the slate hasn't panned out, and it could keep Ohio State from playing for the crystal football.
1. The Cal series
Ironically, Ohio State's title hopes were impacted by a decision made in the Buckeyes' last championship season, 2002, when the school added a series with Cal. Scheduling games so far in advance is common, but it carries risks.
As Cal blossomed under Jeff Tedford from 2003-08, the series looked like a good one. But the Bears began declining in 2009. By the time the first game rolled around last fall, Cal was headed for a 3-9 campaign and a coaching change. The Bears, whom OSU defeated 52-34 on Sept. 14, are 1-9 this season.
"It just didn't work," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "You know, Cal had a run where they were rolling. Scheduling nonconference opponents is a little bit of art and a science. We have Oregon in the future, Oklahoma in the future, Texas in the future, TCU in the future. You hope that they stay great."
It would have been tough for Ohio State to back out of this year's return game at Cal, and even tougher to replace the Bears with a marquee foe.
"The only thing you could do is cancel it and take the financial hit that you pay in the penalty," Smith said. "But then you still have to find someone to fit that date. It's a supply-and-demand inventory issue, so sometimes the dates don't line up."
2. Vanderbilt mails it in
Many forget that Ohio State was set to face two major-conference teams this season, but Vanderbilt opted to cancel its game at The Shoe, informing Ohio State by snail mail last October.
Ohio State replaced Vanderbilt with San Diego State, which went 9-4 in 2012 and shared the Mountain West championship. But the Aztecs struggled to a 0-3 start this fall before righting the ship.
According to Smith, the level of opponent and the Big Ten's scheduling moratorium during its short-lived scheduling pact with the Pac-12 also limited the options.
"There was really no one we could get, a major-major, to do a one-game [series]," Smith said. "We could have got some neutral-site games, but I can't take one of our games out of Columbus unless it's a huge [financial] number, and nobody can do that but Dallas."
AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, hosts marquee season openers between major-conference teams, but was booked this year (LSU-TCU). Ohio State home games bring in $6.5 million for the athletic department, not to mention major gains for the Columbus community.
"The hotels, the restaurants, the taxi drivers, all those people count on those seven games a year," Smith said. "That's important to me. I have a social conscience. The neutral-site game has to be a big one."
3. The B1G drag
Florida State's non-league schedule consists of Nevada, Bethune-Cookman, Idaho and an unusually weak Florida team. Baylor's is even worse: Wofford, Buffalo (also a Buckeyes opponent) and Louisiana-Monroe.
So why is Ohio State's schedule criticized more? Because the Buckeyes receive little help from their conference.
The strength of the ACC and Big 12 -- real or perceived -- helps Florida State and Baylor. Some view the Pac-12 as the nation's strongest league, which could help one-loss Stanford leapfrog Ohio State. The Big Ten, meanwhile, remains a national piņata.
Michigan's struggles hurt. Northwestern, ranked 16th when Ohio State visited Evanston, is now in a five-game tailspin.
Even Ohio State's crossover schedule has been a detriment. The Buckeyes don't play 8-1 Michigan State, 8-2 Minnesota or 7-2 Nebraska during the regular season and will face only one in the Big Ten championship.
"We were hopeful," Smith said, "that the Big Ten would be a little stronger."
But he adds that perception is the biggest issue.
"Michigan State is one heck of a football team, Wisconsin is one heck of a football team," Smith said. "Just to dismiss our league says people haven't really looked at it. They haven't studied it. To dismiss our team means you haven't studied it."
Meyer didn't spent much time scrutinizing the schedule before the season, but he's aware of the Big Ten's perception problem.
"There's one way to eliminate all that talk: go win a bunch of bowl games and keep improving," Meyer said. "There's a lot of really good teams in our conference."
Still, it's hard to see the Big Ten helping the Buckeyes' chances. Ohio State needs help to get to Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6. The Buckeyes could be in Pasadena five days earlier for the 100th Rose Bowl game, which Smith calls "a heck of an accomplishment for our kids."
Ohio State likely won't have this problem in the future with marquee opponents lined up, and a nine-game league schedule beginning in 2016.
"You deal with what’s in front of you, because you can't control public opinion," Smith said.
"Still, at the end of the day, anybody who's won 20-plus games in a row, that's pretty strong."
And while the senior safety and the rest of the Buckeyes have consistently stressed the importance of maintaining focus this week, the unpredictable nature of college football and simply embracing another chance to play in their home stadium and win another game, they're certainly aware of the stature of the opponent coming in for a visit.
"I like to showcase our talent," Bryant said. "I would like to play bigger games, but I mean, it’s really out of our control. I’m not really sure who makes the schedule, but we still just have to go out there and face whatever team is put in front of us.
"I mean, we know the type of opponent we’re about to face this upcoming Saturday, but that really doesn’t give us any reason to lay off or slow down any of our tempo. In practice, we’re still going to go out there and practice like we’re facing a top-10 opponent."
Not counting its own scrimmages, the No. 4 Buckeyes will wrap up nonconference play on Saturday without having tangled with an actual top-10 opponent. And based on the latest rankings, they're not even slated to see one at all during the regular season with No. 14 Michigan currently the highest-rated team on Ohio State's schedule.
That relatively soft-looking schedule has its benefits, starting with what has long appeared to be a reasonable path to another undefeated mark at the end of November and a potential spot in the national title game. But the strength of schedule can also work against the Buckeyes if there's a logjam at the top of the polls and voters are left to compare the merits of either unbeaten or one-loss teams based on who they played.
Of course, there's nothing the Buckeyes can do now other than handle their business regardless of the opposition. But moving forward, the program has taken steps to beef up the schedule and avoid likely pushovers like Florida A&M in the future, particularly with strength of schedule expected to play an even more significant role in selecting participants for the four-team playoff set to debut next season.
Ohio State already has deals in place with powerhouse programs like Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Texas, TCU and Oregon in an effort to put at least one marquee showdown on the slate every season. And even with two other nonconference spots available when the Big Ten moves to a nine-game schedule within the league, athletic director Gene Smith has made it an emphasis to keep those filled with FBS-level squads.
That approach, even when it doesn't yield primetime matchups like a home-and-home series with the Sooners, sets up interesting, competitive games with programs like North Carolina, Boston College or Cincinnati.
And whether the Buckeyes have had any trouble getting locked in for the Rattlers or not this week, putting more recognizable names on the schedule should help them avoid any questions about their ability to do it down the road.
"These players are smarter than the coaches, so we need to do a very good job of coaching them and not looking past a team," coach Urban Meyer said. "You see it all the time, there's going to be one [upset] every year, maybe two, and there can't be one this week."
"It does make a difference. I could give you some coach-speak, but [the opponent] does make a difference."
For seniors like Bryant, they have no choice but to prepare as if a ranked opponent is coming to the Horseshoe. But the next wave of Buckeyes behind them shouldn't have to pretend as much as they gear up for Big Ten action.
Braxton Miller, Ohio State Begin Spring Drills
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35