Big Ten: Luther Head

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Friday mailbag comes a day early, as I'll be taking most of Friday off and you guys sent in some real good e-mails. Keep 'em coming.

A popular issue this week seemed to be Penn State and whether the Lions would be better suited in the Big East than the Big Ten. This is a fascinating topic and one that will be discussed more on the blog in the coming weeks.

Joe from Harrisburg, Pa., writes: Hey, thanks for the post about the Big East and Penn St. It's an often over-looked point that Penn St. is a very unnatural fit for the Big 10 -- and we continue to search for an identity in this conference. Besides the new-born rivalry with Ohio State, nothing about PSU in the B10 really fits: Geographically, historically, storied rivalries, etc. It's really sad to imagine what could have been: a conference with PSU, Pitt, BC, Miami, FSU, WVU, and more all playing one another every season. Suddenly the landscape of college football would be dramatically different, because a strong unified eastern conference such as that would certainly alter history as we know it: Bowden and Paterno would go head to head every season. The PSU Pitt rivalry would still exist. Paterno may have 3 national championships. The B10 would be able to have the championship game they desperately need. Had Syracuse not spoiled the deal back in ?82, I think college football would have been a lot better off.

Adam Rittenberg: I certainly don't object to having Penn State in the Big Ten, but you bring up some pretty valid points. The geographical gap between Penn State and the rest of the Big Ten is significant. Penn State and its fans are more Northeast-based than Midwest-based, so I can understand if they feel like outsiders at times. And though a rivalry is brewing between Penn State and Ohio State, it wouldn't compare to built-in rivalries like Pitt.

Who knows if the addition of Penn State would have kept Miami and Florida State in the Big East, as Mike Tranghese said, but it would make it harder for those schools to leave. The Joe Paterno-Bobby Bowden matchups would be a lot of fun.


Derek from Baltimore writes: Re: Your piece on Penn State and the Big East... I'm taking a big leap into the deep end of hypothetical-land, but I'd trade Penn State to the Big East for ND and Pitt, provided ND plays football in the Big Ten. Quite honestly, I'd even go for a Penn State-Pitt trade with the Big East, provided we pick up Iowa St. or Mizzou from the Big 12. Then the Big 12 could grab TCU and be even again. Split into 2 divisions (Pitt, MSU, Michigan, OSU, Indiana, Purdue; Illinois, NW, Wisc. Minn., Iowa, Iowa St.) It could be done. How the mind whirrs on this issue :)

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting take, Derek, though this would once again split up Penn State and Pitt. Notre Dame is the natural fit that will never happen for the Big Ten, and I'm not so sure Pitt wants to give up its Big East affiliation in basketball. The divisions argument is always tricky in the Big Ten because of Michigan and Ohio State, but adding a school to the west (Iowa State, Missouri) seems logical. Then again, as Jim Delany said Wednesday, expansion isn't even on the back burner.


Jareth from Mount Pleasant writes: Love the blog keep it up!! I was just wondering what you think about the situation at Michigan and the quarterback position? I know that Threet is gone and he was the better of him and Sheridan but with Forcier coming in early and Robinson this summer that will help with depth and competition. The biggest thing that I think will help, even if they have a true freshmen start is the supporting staff of all the OL, RBs, and WRs returning so who ever starts will have more weapons and more experience surronding them. That should take a little bit of the pressure off of them. Just wondering what you think? Thanks.

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Jareth. I'll touch on this more in Friday's blog, but you're absolutely right in identifying the other positions as a benefit for the starting quarterback. Rich Rodriguez basically has said the position competition under the previous regime wasn't where it needed to be, and he wants to increase it everywhere this spring. There will definitely be good competition at wide receiver and offensive line, and running back might be Michigan's deepest position next fall.

This is still a quarterback's game and Michigan must get better at that position, but the 2009 starter will have a lot more help surrounding him. It should be easier to move the ball and sustain drives.


Tom from Charlotte writes: Adam, really liked the post on "Comparing Big Ten football and hoops identities." It reminded me of the LeBron James hype around playing for the Browns. What recent Big Ten hoops player would make the best transition onto the gridiron? Do you project OSU's Greg Oden at TE? Or maybe Wisconsin's Mike Flower's at CB? It almost goes without saying that Northwestern's Brett Basanez could probably dunk from the free throw line.

Adam Rittenberg: Hmmm, good question, Tom. I think most Big Ten secondary coaches would take Michigan State's Kalin Lucas as a cornerback right now. As far as recent Big Ten hoopsters, I'd take Terence Dials on my defensive line. I'm sure we could find a spot for Oden, maybe as a pass-deflecting defensive tackle. Luther Head could play wide receiver. So could Devin Harris. And Deron Williams would be a load at running back. As for Baz dunking from the foul line? I'd highly doubt that.


Jake from Hampton, Va., writes: Adam i was just wondering with all the experience we have returning on sides of the ball i think Iowa has a good shot at the big ten title this year whether you look at Jewel Hampton replacing green or Klug and Binns filling in at DT. What are your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Hampton should be able to step in nicely for Shonn Greene. I wouldn't expect another season like Greene had, but with Hampton, Jeff Brinson and a very good offensive line, Iowa should be able to run the ball. My bigger concern is the defensive tackle spot. Karl Klug won Big Ten Player of the Week honors last year, but I don't see much else returning at that position. You can't undervalue what Mitch King and Matt Kroul meant to that team, and I'd expect a pretty significant drop-off there.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

While watching Ohio State and Northwestern combine to score a whopping 40 points in the first half of Sunday's basketball game, one of my friends gave me the idea to do a blog post examining the relationship between each Big Ten member's football team and men's basketball team.

It's an interesting topic, especially since the leaguewide football and basketball identities seem to be growing closer.

For starters, both sports are constantly fighting for national respect. Even the Big Ten's mini renaissance in hoops this season hasn't increased the league's profile as much as it could have.

Both sports generally play styles that aren't sexy and seem dull at times, but defense and discipline are emphasized. Most casual college football fans would rather watch a Big 12 game than a Big Ten battle. The same can be said for college hoops aficionados who prefer the ACC and the Big East to the Big Ten. But many die-hard Big Ten fans don't mind 17-14 football scores or even 17-14 halftime hoops scores (or 38-33 finals, ugh).

How does each school compare on the gridiron and the hardwood? Here's a closer look.  

ILLINOIS

Current flagship program: Basketball

Both programs have tasted success, but only basketball has been able to sustain it over time. Football seems to be the flashier program right now, largely because of Ron Zook's and Mike Locksley's recruiting efforts, but basketball has produced more than its share of superstars, most recently guards Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head in 2004-05. Both coaches (Zook and Bruce Weber) have backgrounds in defense, but the Illini hoops squad seems to reflect it more often, while the gridders can light up a scoreboard behind quarterback Juice Williams.

INDIANA

Current flagship program: Basketball

The Hoosiers probably have the league's largest gap between football and men's basketball. One program has been largely considered an afterthought, while the other retains the mystique of a national powerhouse despite some hard times in recent years. Bob Knight coached Indiana basketball from 1971-2000. In that same span, the football team had five head coaches (football has had four coaches since 2001). Defense was a hallmark of Knight's teams, but it has been a bugaboo on the gridiron, particularly during this decade.

IOWA

Current flagship program: Football

Coaching continuity has been a theme for both programs, as men like Hayden Fry (football), Tom Davis (basketball) and Kirk Ferentz (football) have held their posts for more than a decade. Football has been the better and more likable program during the 2000s, reaching four New Year's Day bowls. Despite those incessant NFL rumors and a recent string of player transgressions, Ferentz remains popular among Hawkeyes fans, most of whom couldn't wait to see hoops coach Steve Alford leave town after several troublesome seasons. Though the basketball team hasn't broken through yet under Todd Lickliter, its style of play -- defense-oriented, focused on fundamentals -- falls in line with that of the football team.

MICHIGAN

Current flagship program: Football

It takes more than one lousy season to take football off the marquee at Michigan, but the basketball team seems to be gaining ground behind head coach John Beilein. Both programs have recruited extremely well and won national championships, but basketball has been a major underachiever this decade. Both Beilein and football coach Rich Rodriguez brought in proven systems from West Virginia, and Beilein's has caught on in Year 2. Who knows, maybe the same will hold true for Rodriguez. Football employed a more conservative style under Lloyd Carr and will appear more chic if Rodriguez's dynamic spread system clicks. Basketball seems a bit more blue collar behind Beilein.

MICHIGAN STATE

Current flagship program: Basketball

The identities of these two programs seemed miles apart years ago, but Mark Dantonio is gradually restoring respectability to the football team. Tom Izzo's hoops squad has been a consistent winner with cream-of-the-crop recruits, while football was known as a perennial underachiever, prone to midseason collapses and off-field problems, until Dantonio arrived. Both coaches stress defense and physical play, and Dantonio has upgraded recruiting for football, though it's not quite to Izzo's level in hoops.

MINNESOTA

Current flagship program: Push

Minnesota is one of few Big Ten schools without a clear flagship program, as both football and basketball have fluctuated in recent years. Formerly a football powerhouse, Minnesota hasn't won a Big Ten title since 1967. The hoops squad reached the Final Four in 1997 but then endured a crippling academic fraud scandal. Basketball got a major boost by hiring coach Tubby Smith and hopes to reach the NCAA tournament on Sunday. Football rebounded from a 1-11 season in 2007 to win seven games last fall behind energetic coach Tim Brewster. Both progams have upgraded their in-state recruiting, which should signal better days ahead.

NORTHWESTERN

Current flagship program: Football

For decades, no Big Ten program had more parallels in football and basketball than Northwestern, which wasn't a good thing. The Wildcats took losing to new lows, dropping 34 consecutive games in football and continuing to carry the label as the only major-conference team never to reach the NCAA tournament. But football broke through in 1995 and has been competitive ever since, and basketball could be getting there as well this season. Recruiting is a challenge for both programs, and Northwestern has used innovative schemes (the spread offense in football, the Princeton offense in basketball) to combat the gaps in talent. Resiliency has been a hallmark for Northwestern in football and, this season, basketball, but the oft-overlooked Wildcats generally struggle when the national spotlight is on them.    

OHIO STATE

Current flagship program: Football

Football will always drive the bus in C-Bus, though the basketball team has raised its profile significantly under Thad Matta after violations by the previous coaching staff. The Buckeyes have been the dominant football team in the Big Ten this decade, much like Michigan State in hoops, and employ a style rooted in defense, special teams, rushing the ball and limiting turnovers. Matta's teams
seem a little more dynamic on offense while placing a premium on defense as well. The biggest similarity in recent years has been the ability to land top-level recruits, whether it's Terrelle Pryor in football or Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. in basketball.

PENN STATE

Current flagship program: Football

Here's all you need to know: Penn State's hoops team has reached three NCAA tournaments since 1965, the year before Joe Paterno took over as head football coach. Paterno is the face of not only the athletic department, but the university, and his football teams have overshadowed their mates on the hardcourt. While Paterno is an icon, most casual hoops fans couldn't point Lions coach Ed DeChellis out of a lineup. But DeChellis has his best team this year, and perhaps Penn State can turn the corner in basketball (a reasonable expectation). Paterno has won 23 bowl games and two national titles and coached Penn State to five undefeated seasons, so hoops has a lot of catching up to do.

PURDUE

Current flagship program: Basketball

Football and basketball have traded off top billing at Purdue, as Gene Keady's hoops teams held the distinction before Joe Tiller got things rolling with basketball on grass. Matt Painter has Boilers hoops back among the Big Ten elite, and his coaching and recruiting ability signals good things ahead. Purdue sells itself as a blue-collar, unflashy program in both football and basketball, which made Tiller's high-powered spread offense all the more eye-catching. New football coach Danny Hope wants to keep a similar offensive system in place, so it's hard to say whether football will move closer to basketball or further away.

WISCONSIN

Current flagship program: Push

It's a close call between Badgers football and basketball, as football dominated the 1990s and part of this decade, while basketball made the Final Four in 2000 and has surged behind coach Bo Ryan. Arguably no Big Ten school has more similarities between its two programs than Wisconsin, which overcomes a smallish recruiting pool to produce competitive teams that emphasize defense, fundamentals and physical play. Few basketball coaches consistently get as much out of their talent as Ryan does every year, and Alvarez built Wisconsin from a loser into a powerhouse.

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