- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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When the Big Ten football coaches gathered in Chicago for a meeting earlier this month, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald looked over to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and joked, "Which one of us is the old man now?"
Fitzgerald was struck by the notion that at age 37, heading into his seventh year as the Wildcats' head man, he is now the second-longest-tenured coach in the league. That shows how much change the conference has experienced the past two years -- and illustrates why this spring looms as an important time for many of its teams.
Three schools -- Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois -- hired new permanent head coaches this offseason, following the three that did so last year (Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota). Add in Nebraska, and seven of the 12 Big Ten teams have coaches either in their first or second year of competing in the conference.
"That's unprecedented," said Big Ten associate commissioner Mark Rudner, who has worked for the league since 1979 and currently serves as the football coaches' liaison to the conference. "It's a whole new world."
The Big Ten used to be known as a collection of icons, the league of Woody and Bo and larger-than-life coaches. No school is less familiar with change than Penn State, which will begin a season without Joe Paterno as head coach for the first time since 1966.
All the new personalities lead some to wonder if the Big Ten will maintain its identity and culture. Already, new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has made waves with some aggressive recruiting tactics, leading Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema to criticize Meyer and caution that the Big Ten does not want to become a northern version of the SEC.
Meyer and Bielema met to hash out their differences in that coaches' meeting earlier this month. Rudner took it as a positive sign that 11 of the 12 coaches attended what was a voluntary gathering just two days after signing day. The only coach who didn't attend, Penn State's Bill O'Brien, was preparing to coach in the Super Bowl.
"Everybody seems willing to throw in with everybody else, so hopefully that will make for a lot smoother transition," Rudner said.
Transition will be the main buzzword thrown around most campuses when spring practice begins in early March.
Meyer will install the offensive system that helped the Florida Gators win two national titles as the Buckeyes begin their quest to regain Big Ten supremacy -- after the 2012 bowl ban expires, of course. Illinois is switching to a full-fledged spread attack under new coach Tim Beckman, himself a former Meyer assistant.
Jerry Kill at Minnesota and Kevin Wilson at Indiana will seek better things after disappointing first seasons, and each has brought in some junior college players to try to fill holes on the roster. Michigan won the Sugar Bowl in Brady Hoke's first year but still wants to move toward more of a pro-style offense, as long as it doesn't restrict the talents of QB Denard Robinson. Nebraska had its share of successes and setbacks in its first season of Big Ten play and now has a better idea of what it takes to compete in the league. The Huskers need to get stronger on defense but will have to do so without departed stars Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard and Jared Crick.
Even some of the most stable programs weren't immune to change. Wisconsin, which has gone to back-to-back Rose Bowls, lost most of its offensive staff when coordinator Paul Chryst went to Pitt and took several assistants with him. Purdue coach Danny Hope wasn't satisfied with making the program's first bowl since 2007 and reorganized his defensive staff. And as Big Ten dean Ferentz enters his 14th season at Iowa, he'll do so for the first time without defensive coordinator Norm Parker (who retired) or offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe (who left for the Miami Dolphins).
"We probably cheated time here a little bit," Ferentz said.
Some veteran staffs stayed intact, such as Northwestern and Michigan State. The Spartans figure to make another run at a Legends Division title if they can adequately replace QB Kirk Cousins, All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and their top three receivers.
"Players just want to have consistency in vision and consistency in expectations," Fitzgerald said. "When you've had a position coach for four straight years, you know what to expect, and there's something to be said for that.
"At the same time, when there's change, there's a newfound sense of urgency. Our big challenge is making sure our guys don't feel like we're Charlie Brown's teacher going, 'Wah-wah-wah-wah,' and start getting bored."
There's nothing boring about the transition at Penn State. Paterno's reign came crashing down in shocking, controversial fashion before he passed away in January. For the first time in decades, the Nittany Lions will have several new assistant coaches, not to mention a new style of offense and leadership under O'Brien. Players can already see the differences in winter conditioning.
"There's a lot of excitement around here right now," linebacker Michael Mauti said. "It's just a whole new way of doing things."
They'll be saying that on a lot of Big Ten campuses this spring.