NCF Nation: Kirk Ferentz

On Thursday, the NCAA Division I board of directors is expected to pass legislation that will allow schools in the Power 5 conferences to set many of their own rules.

Autonomy, as it's being called, could bring a seismic shift in the landscape in college sports. Many Big Ten coaches are hoping it leads to changes in recruiting, as colleague Mitch Sherman details in this piece. It might or might not. But many league coaches told ESPN.com that a more streamlined governing process is what is ultimately needed.

"This gives you a lot better chance of getting things done," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "[What we have now] would be like if Microsoft had to operate under the same restrictions as the mom-and-pop store down the street. It's ridiculous, and it doesn't work."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern's Pat Fitzgerald on college football's need for a streamlined governing process: "Right now, when we want something changed, we have to wait for a vote nine months from now because that's when the cycle says it should happen."
Here is one example: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was one of the first to propose offering players full cost-of-attendance stipends way back in the spring of 2011. All other power conferences were on board with the idea, and NCAA president Mark Emmert championed it. Yet autonomy is now needed to actually allow schools to offer those stipends, as smaller programs eventually balked at the cost and killed it.

Pelini has proposed eliminating signing day, and says he's heard from many coaches who agree with him. He said it should be easy to just get everyone in the same room and decide on what is right. But that is not how it works.

"You have all these committees made up of people with different agendas that meet like twice a year," Pelini said. "It was broken before it ever got started."

Under the new legislation, an 80-member panel would be set up to vote on issues, with a 60-percent majority and three of the Power 5 leagues needing to agree to make changes on autonomous issues. Power leagues would also have a bigger weight in the vote on general matters.

"It's tough for an organization as large as ours to keep up with everything," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "My hopes are that maybe we can streamline some policies, re-evaulate some things and come up with a little more efficient way of operating."

Maryland coach Randy Edsall, who has proposed his own radical changes to recruiting, wants more than just a bigger say in voting. He says that for college football to really make necessary improvements, it needs true, dedicated leadership for the sport. Athletic directors and conference commissioners are pulled in too many directions, Edsall said.

"We don’t have anybody working on college football 365 days a year, seven days a week," he said. "We need a structure where people are sitting down going, 'Here’s our game, how do we make it the best?' Those people have to be working on that every day. Because if not, we get what we’ve got."

Several Big Ten coaches said they would favor a college football czar or commissioner to look out for the best interests of the game. Or at least a small group of people who would do that.

"If not [a czar], then there should be an assistant commissioner in each conference where all they do is work on football, period," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "However you want to structure it, when they wake up, all they do is work on football and when they go to bed, they dream about it.

"Right now, when we want something changed, we have to wait for a vote nine months from now because that’s when the cycle says it should happen. These people should have a much better pulse on the reality of what day-to-day life is like in college football."

Ferentz said the makeup of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which includes former coaches, athletic directors and others, could be a usable model for a leadership group.

Having a commissioner or a leadership committee would set college football apart from other sports, which is why the NCAA probably wouldn't go for the idea. But as Fitzgerald noted, "we’re not talking about this autonomy because of any other sport. We're talking about it because of football."

And autonomy gives the coaches hope that maybe things are about to change for the better.

"We've got to try to get rid of the aircraft carrier and get to a speedboat," Fitzgerald said. "Get to where we can get some real things solved, quit looking at one variable at a time and look at the big picture. Through this, hopefully we can find some solutions to make our sport the best we possibly can."
CHICAGO -- Nebraska Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini caused a stir last month when he brought up the idea of eliminating national signing day altogether.

Several coaches in the Big 12 and Pac-12 told ESPN.com last week that they liked Pelini's proposal, which would give recruits a chance to sign as soon as they were offered a scholarship. The intent would be to slow down the recruiting process and make coaches accountable for offers, which currently are extended with zero consequences.

"It makes so much sense," Pelini told ESPN.com on Monday. "People say, 'Oh, let's just have an early signing day.' Why have a signing day at all? It would solve a lot of problems. I haven't heard a lot of reaction from conference administrators and people like that, but I would love to see it, at least start talking about it."

But getting a radical recruiting idea -- or any recruiting proposal -- through the convoluted legislative process isn't easy. It's downright impossible.

"That's the frustrating thing," Pelini said. "We as coaches talk. I just think for this to move forward, you've got to get everybody in the same room. There has to be a willingness to change. Why does everything take so long? You have to go through this committee and that committee and then you get the feedback."

Several Big Ten coaches recently have made recruiting proposals to reform a process that seems to be getting increasingly flawed. The Maryland Terrapins' Randy Edsall would like to prevent scholarship offers from being extended until a prospect's senior season. The Michigan Wolverines' Brady Hoke would like official visits to be allowed at the end of a prospect's junior year to ease the financial burden on players' families.

Most Big Ten coaches favor an earlier signing date -- Hoke wants it on Aug. 1 -- and earlier official visits, ideally during a short window in June when they're conducting high school camps. But coaches from other leagues don't want any changes to the calendar.

"I don't want to expediate recruiting any more," Auburn Tigers coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com last week. "It's too fast now."

Iowa Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz calls that "a laughable excuse."

"Is anybody paying attention to anything?" Ferentz said. "The facts are recruiting is accelerated, and the facts are people and families are traveling at record amounts.

"But we choose not to address it."

Ferentz and his Big Ten colleagues will continue to push for changes to the recruiting calendar. But they're not holding their breath.

"Get everybody in the same room and let's figure out what works," Pelini said. "I don't think it's that difficult."
Anyone who follows Iowa football, even casually, knows the Hawkeyes are a developmental program -- and damn proud of it. They've repeatedly taken the overlooked and underappreciated and made them into excellent college players, and NFL draft picks.

But there has been debate whether Iowa aims high enough and far enough on the recruiting trail. Iowa caused a stir last winter when head coach Kirk Ferentz said he no longer assigned an assistant to Florida and Eric Johnson, then the team's recruiting coordinator, said Florida, annually one of the top states in producing FBS players, wasn't a huge priority for the program.

Despite several recent misses in the Sunshine State, the Hawkeyes' approach seemed provincial at best and irresponsible at worst. But perhaps it's just different.

Colleague Jeremy Crabtree explores Iowa's recruiting strategy, which focuses almost entirely on the Midwest and on bringing in under-the-radar prospects.

From the story:
Most coaches believe that if you want to win big, you have to own the South. Not Iowa.

"Iowa just does things differently than anybody else in our league, and virtually everybody else in the country," one Big Ten recruiting coordinator said. "I don't think you'll ever see us focus only on the Midwest like [Iowa has] done, because it won't work for us. But for them it does. It's kind of like what you see in baseball with Billy Beane. The way Iowa recruits is kind of like 'Moneyball' on the recruiting trail. They have their formula, and a lot of people think they're crazy for doing it that way. It's produced a lot of good results, though."

Iowa has been a consistent bowl team during Ferentz's tenure with success spikes from 2002-04 and again in 2009. Given the small local recruiting base, it has been an impressive stretch.

While every Big Ten coaching staff talks about first securing its local territory in recruiting, Iowa seems to take it one step further. The Hawkeyes' coaches are always seeking the underrated Midwest prospect, who fit better with their culture.

Check out this quote from Johnson in Crabtree's piece:
"You have the guys from places like Illinois, and now especially Ohio and Indiana, that were overlooked because Ohio State and Notre Dame are recruiting on such a national level. Those kids play so much harder because they have a chip on their shoulder. Ohio State and Notre Dame told them they weren't good enough to play there, and recruits like to prove they were wrong."

That's certainly true in many cases, and Iowa has benefited from bringing in chip-on-their-shoulder recruits from the heartland. But it leaves me with two questions:

1. Will the "Moneyball" approach help Iowa reach its ultimate peak as a program?

2. Is Iowa too accepting of its place in college football's hierarchy?

I'm big on understanding who you really are as a program -- not enough fans do this -- but I've sat in Ferentz's office and heard him say, "We're not USC." While it's true, it also sounds a bit defeatist -- and tough to reconcile given that he's making a top-10 salary.

The population trends don't lie, and while recruiting rankings can be subjective, it can't be disputed that more elite players live outside the Big Ten footprint. Iowa has shown it can reach a certain level with try-hard, local and regional types, but can it reach the next level -- competing for a college football playoff spot -- without branching out and pursuing more nationally elite prospects? Because any program that pays its coach what Iowa pays Ferentz should be aiming for the playoff, period.

It's great to see Iowa making overdue facilities upgrades. There are other things the program can do to promote itself and become more appealing to top recruits, like Michigan State has done.

But I don't see a path to the playoff without making national recruiting, and particularly the Southeast, a major priority. I'm encouraged that Iowa's most recent 2015 recruits come from Texas (LB Justin Jinning) and Florida (WR Adrian Falconer). We'll see if more prospects follow from those fertile states.

How do you feel about Iowa's approach? Let me know.
C.J. Fiedorowicz was named to the All-Big Ten first team by the league coaches last season and was drafted at the start of the third round by Houston last month.

Most teams might struggle to replace a three-year starting tight end with Fiedorowicz's talent. Then again, most teams don't have Iowa's tight end tradition.

[+] EnlargeRay Hamilton
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIRay Hamilton will get his chance in the tight end spotlight for Iowa this fall.
From the just-retired Dallas Clark to Tony Moeaki to Scott Chandler and others, the Hawkeyes have thrived at producing top-flight tight ends under Kirk Ferentz. ESPN.com's recent Position U series ranked Iowa No. 2 among all programs for the title of Tight End U, and the school has had much more recent success at that spot than the No. 1 team on the list, Miami.

So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that Iowa isn't sweating the loss of Fiedorowicz too much. Plenty of others are ready to carry on the tradition.

"We're going to miss him," senior Ray Hamilton told ESPN.com. "But that just means more opportunities for the rest of us. And we've got the talent, from top to bottom."

Ferentz can still call on a deep stable of capable tight ends, beginning with Hamilton. He mostly sat behind his close friend Fiedorowicz the past three seasons, yet Hamilton was a highly-ranked recruit himself with offers from several marquee programs coming out of Strongsville, Ohio. He has 11 catches for 130 yard in his career, but often he has been asked to come in as a blocking tight end.

"The coaches had a role for me every game, each year, and I came in to do my job, which was to raise hell every play I was in there," he said. "I did a lot of run blocking, which was all right because I love blocking. There's no better feeling than moving a grown man off the ball against his will. That's all that matters."

That role doesn't come with as much glory as, say, catching six touchdown passes, as Fiedorowicz did a year ago. But the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Hamilton has performed his job well.

"Ray’s always been one of those underappreciated guys in some ways at times, even by us," Ferentz told reporters this spring. “He made a lot of clutch plays during the season. He makes them during practice. He’s a pretty good all-around tight end, in our opinion.

"We’re losing a pro guy, and when you lose a pro guy, it’s not fair to measure it ... to a guy who hasn’t played. The good news is, I think, that Ray has improved his game, and I thought he was pretty good last year.”

With Fiedorowicz gone, Hamilton could be looking at a starting role, along with more targets from quarterback Jake Rudock.

"I haven't really proven too many times that I can catch a pass and then do something with it," he said. "So I'm anxious to go out there and catch some balls, try and break some tackles and make some plays for this team."

He's not the only tight end capable of those things. Junior Jake Duzey is the leading returning pass-catcher in the group and had the memorable 85-yard touchdown reception at Ohio State last season. Sophomore George Kittle, Hamilton said, "may be even faster than Duzey," while junior Henry Krieger-Coble "has some of the best ball skills and hands you're going to find."

That depth gives Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis options. They used those to their advantage in the second half of last season while breaking out a three-tight end look, starting with the Ohio State game.

"That's a blast for us," Hamilton said. "There's no better feeling than having three guys from your own position group on the field at the same time and moving the ball down teams' throats."

Hamilton is embracing the leadership role with the group as its only senior. The tight end tradition at Iowa is one reason he chose to go there, and he's mindful of keeping that torch lit. Maybe he'll be the next guy to enter the spotlight. If not, he'll continue to play his role.

"I just love blocking, period," he said. "I love getting down and nasty with it. That's just the kind of player I am."

There will always be room on the Hawkeyes for a guy like that.
Unlike the ACC or SEC, the Big Ten hasn't taken an official position on an early signing period. Many Big Ten coaches see the benefits, but there has been no united front.

Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.

The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.

If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikEarlier official visits would be a boon to Bo Pelini and Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers have to recruit nationally because of a limited local talent base.
"The first thing we have to do is get kids on campus earlier," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com. "I'm sure our friends in the Pac-12 and the SEC would rather not that be the case. They'd rather have kids come in to Ann Arbor if it's winter.

"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."

NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.

The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.

"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"

DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."

"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.

"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."

DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.

It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."

Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.

Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.

"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."

Coaches say the parental component is critical.

"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio wants an early official-visit period, but would prefer for it to be in a limited window instead of spanning the entire spring and summer.
Both Pelini and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio want a limit on the number of official visitors schools could have in the spring. FBS teams can provide up to 56 official visits, but Dantonio rarely uses more than half of the allotment.

"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."

Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.

"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."

Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."

The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.

It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."

Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.

"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."

That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.

"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."

The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.
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Momentum seems to be building for creating an early signing period in college football. The Conference Commissioners Association will discuss the idea as part of its agenda at a meeting later this month.

As with many things in life, the devil is in the details. The ACC recommended an early signing date of Aug. 1. The SEC at its meetings last month came out against changing the recruiting calendar, but would like to use the Monday after Thanksgiving if an early signing period does happen.

The Big Ten has not endorsed a specific stance on an early signing date as a conference. Based on interviews given to ESPN.com and other media outlets, most league coaches are in favor of it. Again, though, preferences on the when and the how differ.

Several coaches support the junior college signing period of mid-December as the right time to allow high school prospects who don't want to wait until February to sign their national letters of intent.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa's Kirk Ferentz is among the Big Ten coaches who favor an early signing period after the regular season.
"To me, that would be the perfect time," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said last summer. "I still don't understand the resistance. All it is is an opportunity to sign. They don't have to sign. I don't think anyone is going to lose a scholarship. It just gives everyone a chance to lay their cards on the table and say, 'I'm 100 percent sure now' or, 'Still not quite there.' That would be great for both parties, I think."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio are among others who back an early signing period in December.

"It sure would clear up recruiting for a lot of us," Andersen told ESPN.com. "In my opinion, if a kid's committed, let's have him go to the school where he wants to go, and we'll move on in recruiting and get the guys we want. I think it's the most logical answer."

A possible downside of having the early signing period in December would be that it puts more pressure on coaches to concentrate on recruiting late in the season, when championships could be on the line, or during bowl preparation. In-season recruiting pressures would grow even higher with the SEC's post-Thanksgiving recommendation.

Most who favor an early signing period say their schools and coaching staffs are spending too much valuable time, money and energy trying to re-recruit players who might have signed earlier. That's why some coaches, such as Indiana's Kevin Wilson, support a signing date before or right at the beginning of the season.

"I had guys who were committed in the summer who in the last weekend [before the February signing date] changed their minds," Wilson told ESPN.com. "It would be nice if there was an early signing period on the first of September. I don't know if we've got to move the calendar up, but we waste a lot of time and a lot of money babysitting kids who have made their decisions."

Michigan is one school that could have benefited in recent seasons from an early signing period. The Wolverines have sewn up the majority of their classes under Brady Hoke in the summer before the prospects' senior year of high school. Hoke's staff could have locked up those commitments and focused on filling out the final few spots or moving on to the following year's class.

Hoke would like to see an early signing date, but with a caveat.

"If there's an early signing period, there probably needs to be an early visitation period for those kids," he told ESPN.com. "Maybe the first two weeks in June to get on your campus."

That's a big deal for Big Ten coaches, who would love to see prospects be able to take official visits before the start of their senior year. An early signing date without an earlier visit calendar could put the league at a disadvantage against schools in more talent-rich areas. (We'll look more closely at this issue on Thursday in the blog.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNebraska's Bo Pelini says allowing earlier official visits must be a part of any move toward an early signing period.
Nebraska's Bo Pelini has said he would not support an earlier signing date without those earlier visits (and even then, he said he would need more time to study the issue). Schools such as Nebraska and Minnesota, which are farther away from talent-rich hubs, simply wouldn't see many benefits to an early signing day if the rest of the recruiting calendar remained the same. Players in blue chip-heavy areas -- such as the South, Texas and California -- would be more apt to take unofficial visits at schools closer to home and then could get pressured into signing before they ever made a trip up north.

Ohio State under Urban Meyer has thrived during the final weeks of recruiting before the February signing day, as his staff has built a reputation of being great "closers." So it's no surprise that Meyer was one of three SEC coaches to vote against a proposal to support an early signing date in 2008, when he was still at Florida. Meyer said at the time that "recruiting should be done in December, January and February. I think [an early date] speeds up 17- and 18-year-olds to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives."

Maryland's Randy Edsall has proposed that schools shouldn't even send out any type of scholarship offer until Sept. 1 of a high school prospect's senior year in high school, and then those offers would come from the university's admissions office, not the coaches. That would slow things way down and make sure prospects have achieved the necessary test scores and admission standards. Yet Edsall also said this spring that if recruiting continues at its current accelerated pace, that "there definitely has to be an early signing period."

There are other issues with the early signing date, including what protection the players would have if the coach left for another job after they signed. Plus plans change in recruiting all the time.

"I see the pluses and the minuses with it," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "If you have a committed guy and he signs with you, he truly is committed. That’s a positive. I also think if you take one quarterback and he thinks he’s the only one, and all of a sudden you take two, how does that all play out?

"I do think it keeps people from poaching off you, whether it be us poaching off somebody or somebody else [poaching]. It makes people hold to their word. If they don't want to sign then, they’re still open, and you know they’re open. But I would make it a mid-December type deal. I’m not in favor of August; I'm not in favor of September. I'm in favor of, ‘They've had a chance to at least visit and be on campus a couple places, so they have a feel.’”

College football does appear headed for an early signing date soon, if only the details can get ironed out.

"We get into these discussions, and everybody kind of has their own agenda of what's in the best interests for their school," Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN.com. "But for a lot of different reasons, an early signing period makes sense for everybody."
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Let's explore Jake Rudock's football smarts, shall we? You already know about the book smarts, at least if you've been paying attention.

Anything written or said about Rudock notes that he's a brain. The Iowa junior quarterback is a microbiology/premed major and an academic All-American who, before making his Hawkeyes debut last fall, broke down his organic chemistry class for a group of reporters whose chosen profession had steered them as far away from classes like organic chemistry as possible. He mentioned stereoisomers and other head-spinning terms.

Most football players want nothing to do with team doctors. Rudock, who wants work in pediatric medicine, picks their brains and hopes to shadow some of them. It doesn't hurt that Iowa's Kinnick Stadium is located across the street from University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, one of the nation's 50 largest public hospitals. Rudock wants to volunteer there in pediatrics this summer.

"He's a very bright guy who has taken classes that I certainly can't tutor for him," Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com. "I'm not sure anybody on our team or staff could tutor for him."

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJake Rudock's smarts in the classroom started to translate on the field in 2013, something Iowa hopes continues this season.
But enough about Rudock's academic aspirations and achievements. Iowa fans care mainly about the 12 exams that await Rudock this season, his second as the team's starting quarterback.

If Rudock excels on the field like he does in the chem lab, more tests could come for a Hawkeyes team with high expectations in 2014.

"He's a really intelligent guy," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's a football-intelligent guy, too. Sometimes there's not always a correlation. In his case, he's good both ways."

Rudock's football wisdom should help as Iowa expands its offense in Davis' third season. Iowa averaged nearly five more plays per game in 2013 than it did in 2012, and Davis intends to further ramp up the tempo and broaden the playbook.

There's little Davis can throw Rudock's way that Rudock hasn't seen before. He operated from numerous formations as a quarterback for Florida prep powerhouse Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.

"We'd go three receivers wide," Rudock said. "Then we'd run the veer out of the gun, the option under center, zone schemes, lead schemes, pulling guards, pulling guard and tackle, all that stuff. We used a lot of different screens, all that good stuff."

Bryan Baucom, the offensive coordinator at St. Thomas Aquinas, adds a few more to the list: classic pro set, shotgun empty, Oklahoma-style wishbone.

"If it was invented," Baucom said, "we were running it."

Rudock ran it well, setting a host of records at St. Thomas Aquinas, including career touchdown passes (73), single-season passing yards (2,827), career completion percentage (64 percent) and, most important, career victories (31). Davis didn't recruit Rudock to Iowa but was impressed watching how his high school moved seamlessly from a spread formation to two backs to something else.

Iowa might not be known for multiplicity on offense, but things could be changing with Davis calling plays and Rudock calling signals.

"He's pretty comfortable with a bunch of different ways to play the game," Davis said.

Rudock's comfort level showed this spring after a season where he put up first-year starter numbers: 2,383 pass yards, 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 59-percent completions. He had highlights, like a game-winning touchdown strike to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime against Northwestern, but also plenty of mistakes.

Being good but not great might seem alien to a high achiever like Rudock. But he not only put in the work to improve, but embraced the grind.

"In the classroom, it all doesn't just come to me," he explained. "Just like in football, it all doesn't just come to you. You have to put the effort to watch that film, meet with coaches, try to further understand things and not just understand the first layer but the second and third tiers."

Baucom never remembers yelling at Rudock because the quarterback knew right away if he missed a read or a coverage. Rudock started practicing with the Aquinas varsity as a freshman after his junior-varsity season concluded. The strong-minded, skinny quarterback was a "great huddle guy," Baucom recalled, who teammates easily followed.

"He's a smart kid, down-to-earth kid, never too high, never too low," Baucom said.

How even-keeled is Rudock? Consider how he reacted to the news that Iowa first team All-Big Ten left tackle Brandon Scherff would return for his senior season even though he likely would have a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

"I remember finding out and being like, 'Well, that's good,'" Rudock said.

Well, that's good? No primal scream? No backflip?

"It was more a sigh of relief," Rudock said. "It makes you feel safer back there."

Rudock should feel fairly safe as Iowa's starter, but the coaches also see a role for C.J. Beathard, who appeared in five games last season and stood out in spring ball. Davis came away "extremely pleased" with Beathard this spring, noting his big arm and his lateral quickness.

Iowa historically has been a one-quarterback team, but Beathard could be used in a package of plays built around the zone read.

"I wouldn't rule it out," Ferentz said.

The competition shouldn't faze Rudock. Few things do.

"If you're not working, somebody else is," he said, "so it's important not to ever be satisfied with where you're at."

Rudock committed to Iowa in July before his senior year of high school, picking the Hawkeyes ahead of Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, among others. When Miami hired Al Golden that December, the new Hurricanes coach pursued Rudock, but the quarterback stayed firm with his pledge.

He hasn't looked back.

"He knows what he wants to do with his life," Baucom said. "He had a plan in place and he's following that plan. He wanted to go to one of the top medical schools, That’s why he picked Iowa. He wanted to play Division I football. He accomplished that."

It doesn't take a microbiology major to identify the next item in Rudock's plan -- a Big Ten championship.
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If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."
The month of March arrived in Lincoln, Neb., with sub-zero temps, snow showers and no word from Nebraska on a contract extension for Bo Pelini.

The forecast calls for a warm-up. Nebraska weather, though, is always hard to figure; same goes for the football program of late.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsWill Bo Pelini's contract become an issue at Nebraska?
Since New Year’s Day, the Huskers have been on a nice run. Starting with a win over Georgia, Pelini has scored well with recruits and fans alike. The sixth-year coach has shown a sense of humor and an open-minded attitude toward social media and the press. He plans to let reporters watch practices this spring, quite a departure from the Bo status quo.

But March is the time in any new year to set aside talk and look for progress in the actions of those who matter most.

Pelini, as scheduled in the contract he signed in 2011, received a $100,000 bump in salary on Saturday to $3.075 million, among the top-20 coaches nationally.

He did not -- at least not yet -- get an extension similar to the one-year deals awarded by former athletic director Tom Osborne after the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

An extension may still be in the works. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst was set to complete a review of Pelini’s performance in February.

But for now, the coach is operating on a four-year contract. In and of itself, that’s no big deal. The conditions under which he works are far from averse.

Earlier this offseason, Eichorst awarded raises to just two of Nebraska’s eight assistant coaches. Again, in a vacuum, it’s not much of a headline.

Like Pelini, they’re paid well, each earning at least $200,000 annually, and let’s face it, the Huskers aren’t exactly a well-oiled machine.

Eichorst goes out of his way to say next to nothing in public about Pelini. The second-year AD issued a statement of support after the regular season as speculation ran wild about the coach’s job status. Since then, all has remained quiet from Eichorst’s office.

That’s his way. It works for him.

Put everything together, and perhaps it means little. Still, an undercurrent of sentiment exists that Eichorst does not back Pelini with the full support required for this football program to best work in harmony and achieve the goals that its administration and coaches, no doubt, share.

Pelini, for his part, is saying all the right things. He told the Omaha World-Herald last week that Eichorst has been “very supportive.”

“His style is to give people room,” Pelini told World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel. “He doesn’t want to micromanage.

“Everybody’s got to do it their own way. You can’t judge that. You have to respect it. There’s no one way to do it. There’s no one way to manage. Shawn didn’t come in here trying to be Coach Osborne, just like I didn’t come in here trying to be [Frank] Solich or Pete Carroll.”

Eichorst’s actions speak louder than Pelini’s words.

Sure, Bo can coach and recruit just fine with four years on his contract. But if full support exists from the administration, why not keep him at five?

Really, if he’s not extended, it’s more about power than money. No matter the circumstances, the cost of business is high in the Big Ten, where coaching salaries are outpaced only by the Southeastern Conference.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio recently signed an extension that keeps him under contract for six years. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill was extended through the 2018 season. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is signed through 2020.

Spring football starts on Saturday at Nebraska. Big news, as always, around here.

Old habits die hard, I know, but let’s try, for once, not to read too much into the little dramas.

Otherwise, football is no different than the weather in Nebraska: Cold one day, hot the next, with no idea from where the next storm is coming.
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. We wrap up the series today with a look at the importance of coaching continuity in the Big Ten going forward.

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.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesIowa's Kirk Ferentz has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach.
Think back to 2005, a season that ended with two BCS bowl wins and teams ranked No. 3 (Penn State) and No. 4 (Ohio State) in the final polls. Seven of the league's 11 coaches had been at their schools for six or more seasons. Ohio State's Jim Tressel, three years removed from a national title, logged his fifth season in Columbus. Three coaches -- Penn State's Joe Paterno, Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and Michigan's Lloyd Carr -- all had held their jobs for more than a decade (in Paterno's case, four decades).

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."

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
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.

"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.
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. First, a closer look at the increased investments Big Ten schools are making in their football staffs to keep up with the national market.

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."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/ John BealeNew Penn State coach James Franklin will make about $1 million more than his predecessor Bill O'Brien.
Michigan State ensured continuity by making major financial commitments for coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants. Penn State, meanwhile, is paying new coach James Franklin about $1 million more than a coach (Bill O'Brien) it lost to the NFL. Michigan used its financial resources to attract an offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier) from national power Alabama.

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.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AJ Mast/Icon SMIIndiana has put more resources than ever before into coach Kevin Wilson and his staff.
"If you believe [the coach is] going to have a very positive effect on your fan base and on your program and on your ability to put bodies in the seats," he said, "it doesn't take a lot of seats to cause a return on that investment."

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.

Outback Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
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Iowa (8-4) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) will meet Wednesday for the first time since the Hawkeyes shocked LSU with a last-second touchdown to win the 2005 Capital One Bowl in Nick Saban's final game as the Tigers' coach. Here are a few players and matchups to watch for in their rematch nine years later at the Outback Bowl (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Who to watch: This will likely be the last time we see LSU's exciting offense in its current form. We already know resurgent senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger is out with a knee injury, and it's highly possible that some of the Tigers' most impressive offensive players could make the leap for the NFL after the Outback Bowl. Receivers Jarvis Landry (75 catches, 1,172 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (57-1,117, 8 TDs), running back Jeremy Hill (1,185 yards, 14 TDs) and offensive tackle La'El Collins (plus defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) could follow the lead of the 11 Tigers who jumped to the pros last year before exhausting their college eligibility. On the Iowa side, the defense leads the way – we'll discuss that group in a moment – along with a run-heavy offense. Mark Weisman leads the team with 937 rushing yards and seven TDs, and the rushing attack is led by All-Big Ten offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, with Florida native Jake Rudock (2,281 passing yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs) at the trigger.

What to watch: The most intriguing matchup of the day is probably LSU freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings against Iowa's stout defense. Jennings did a great job in taking over for an injured Mettenberger against Arkansas in LSU's comeback win, but Iowa presents a different challenge. Led by senior linebackers James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFL, five sacks), Christian Kirksey (97 tackles) and Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 TFL), Iowa has arguably its best defense since Kirk Ferentz became the Hawkeyes' coach. They are No. 7 nationally in total defense (303.2 yards per game) and No. 11 in scoring defense (18.8 points per game). Jennings obviously has some talented weapons at his disposal, but he's a rookie starter and that can be a scary proposition.

Why to watch: Aside from the classic offense-versus-defense matchup, we could also see Les Miles' LSU program establish a team standard for consistency. The Tigers can win 10 games for the fourth consecutive season, which would be a school record. LSU has done it in three consecutive seasons twice: 2005-07 and the current streak. On the other sideline, Iowa can complete a surprising bounce-back season with a victory over one of the nation's elite programs. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 against ranked opponents this season, but with a victory, could finish as a ranked team a year after going 4-8.

Prediction: LSU 28, Iowa 21. Despite Jennings' youth, Las Vegas still favors LSU by 7.5 points at most sites. That's largely because the Tigers simply have more offensive firepower than the Hawkeyes. Iowa's defense is good enough to make LSU sweat, but the Tigers have too many weapons to remain quiet for long.

'The Catch' sticks with Iowa's Holloway

December, 30, 2013
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It's been nine long years, but Warren Holloway still can't go a week without hearing about "The Catch."

The former Iowa wideout became a household name in the Hawkeye State after a single play in the 2005 Capital One Bowl, when he caught a last-second Hail Mary touchdown from Drew Tate to stun LSU 30-25. Ever since then, that moment's never really left him.

Sometimes, the co-workers inside his Chicago office will tease him in front of clients or customers: "You see this guy on YouTube? He's all over the place." Sometimes, his family or friends will bring up the play, maybe the most unlikely game-winning play in Hawkeyes history.

[+] EnlargeWarren Holloway
Matt Stroshane/Getty ImagesWarren Holloway is still getting praise from his game-winning catch against LSU as time expired in the 2005 Capital One Bowl.
But without fail, Holloway said, it'll get brought up at least once every week. And with LSU set to take on Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 -- the first time the teams have met since Holloway's catch -- he's had to deal with a bit more talk than usual about "The Catch."

"Honestly, it still plays a pretty good role in my life," Holloway said. "Anyone who knows me, if they know me long enough, they tend to come across that information. It's one of those cool little facts. They're like, 'You never told me.' It's kind of cool to have that in your backpocket -- and it's absolutely a blessing."

Holloway was an unlikely hero in that last meeting between LSU and Iowa. He entered that game, his final game, with no touchdown catches and just 256 career receiving yards. But, as his friends and co-workers found out, no one played a bigger role in that bowl victory.

The 31-year-old can still recall that play with great clarity, as if it happened yesterday. He answers most questions with a sentence or two but, when asked about that play, he dives into a 5-minute soliloquy that's so detailed you can still hear the chills in his voice.

Most Iowa fans probably remember it just as well. The Hawkeyes took over at their own 30, trailing 25-24, with less than a minute left in the game. Tate and Co. were just trying to get into field goal range but, after back-to-back completions, time started to slip away. With the time about to expire -- unbeknownst to Tate -- he decided to fire the ball downfield on one more play from the Iowa 44 -- a play that'd be forever etched in Hawkeyes history.

The prayer of a pass veered to the sideline, as Holloway initially thought the intended receiver was Ed Hinkel. But, luckily for Tate, Holloway figured he might as well try to catch up to the pass that drifted over his head. As Hinkel got in the way of one defensive back the ball slid into Holloway's hands, and he sprinted 15 more yards into the end zone to complete the 56-yard TD play.

"That was the fastest 15 yards in my life," Holloway said. "I feel like I only took three steps."

That touchdown, one which is sure to replayed over and over in the days leading up the Outback Bowl, felt like a movie to Holloway. Time literally slowed down on Holloway's route, he said, until time seemed to speed up faster once the ball was in his hands -- as if it needed to catch up to itself.

Once he crossed the end zone, he didn't even know time had expired. He still remembers standing there for a moment, not fully realizing the enormity of what he had done. His helmet began to vibrate -- the result of a dazed-but-screaming crowd -- and the earth literally began to shake beneath his cleats, "like a stampede." Every one of his teammates had left the sideline, sprinting straight toward him, and he still remembers what felt like an earthquake before they reached him.

He remembers some of his teammates -- he won't say whom -- openly weeping. One of his sobbing teammates just turned to him and said, "I love you, man." It was Holloway's first -- and only -- career touchdown catch.

"As far as being overcome with emotion, I don't know what else'd come close," he said, pausing. "Maybe having a kid."

Holloway will likely be reliving that moment quite a few times in the coming days. He hopes to be on the sideline when the Hawkeyes take on LSU at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Tampa, Fla. And, even if he might have to endure some more ribbing from his co-workers, he's looking forward to this LSU-Iowa matchup -- and reminiscing about the last one.

"It's something I'll always remember and appreciate," he said.

Senior LBs lead the way for Iowa

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
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James MorrisMatthew Holst/Getty ImagesIowa linebacker James Morris pressures Michigan QB Devin Gardner during the Hawkeyes' win.
Anthony Hitchens switched positions and joined fellow true freshmen James Morris and Christian Kirksey at linebacker just before Iowa played in the 2010 Insight Bowl. The seeds of something special had been planted.

“We knew we were going to have a great opportunity to be a great linebacking corps,” Kirksey told ESPN.com, remembering that moment. “We came in together, and we were going to leave together.”

As the Hawkeyes prepare for the Jan.1 Outback Bowl against LSU, that long-ago promise has been fulfilled. All seniors now, Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens are major reasons why Iowa went from 4-8 last season to 8-4 this year, finishing No. 7 nationally in total defense.

During the preseason, the three set a goal to become the best linebacker group in the country. After a year in which they each finished between 97 and 102 tackles while improving their big-play capabilities, they at least have a claim to that title.

“It’s a hard thing to determine,” Morris said. “Stats don’t determine it, and you can’t just tell by watching film. But it’s something we strive to be, and I’d be lying if I told you we didn’t want to be the best linebacker corps in the Big Ten and the nation.”

They put up similar tackle numbers a year ago, but none of the three made first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012. So they came into this year determined to improve. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said all three brought “the right edge” into the preseason and have been “exemplary” ever since.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Hitchens
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallAnthony Hitchens led the Big Ten in total tackles in 2012 but got even better by becoming a student of the game.
Their value was apparent all year but especially so at season’s end.

On senior day against Michigan, Hitchens shed a block and forced a fumble from quarterback Devin Gardner to seal a 24-21 win over the Wolverines. Then the finale at Nebraska turned into a wrecking ball party for the threesome. They combined for 28 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in the 38-17 win.

"That was one of the most fun games I've ever played in," Morris said. "It's one I won't soon forget."

The group saw a big increase in its turnovers, sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage this season. Morris led the team with 14.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and four interceptions. Hitchens collected the most tackles, along with 13 tackles, two sacks and an interception. Kirksey scored the lone defensive touchdown of the three (against Northern Illinois) and was named Walter Camp national defensive player of the week for his performance at Nebraska.

Linebackers can't succeed solely on their own, and Iowa's vastly improved defensive line gave the trio more freedom to go make plays instead of cleaning up messes. Hitchens also helped elevate the entire unit's play by making major strides in his second year as a starter.

Though he led the Big Ten in total tackles in 2012, Hitchens accomplished most of that through his quickness, and he wasn’t always in the right spots. This offseason, he spent time working with linebackers coach Jim Reid on becoming more of a student of the game.

“My tackles for loss are a lot better this year because I can see stuff faster,” he said. “I can read my keys and get in the backfield faster. I can see guards pulling. Coach Reid helped me out a lot on that.”

After four seasons together, the three have grown tight. They'll occasionally get a home-cooked dinner from Morris' parents, who live right outside of Iowa City. Kirksey and Hitchens like to tease Morris by saying he’ll be governor of Iowa someday.

“Yeah, that’s real creative on their part,” Morris said. “I’m a political science major. But I don’t know enough rich people to run for office. That’s the truth.”

Morris said Kirksey likes to talk in silly voices and loves to impersonate the Pillsbury Doughboy. They both agree that Hitchens is the goofiest of the three.

“We've got similar characteristics, but we're all different at the same time,” Kirksey said. “Anthony is probably the most consistent. He always makes both of us laugh."

The three compete with each other for sack numbers, in the weight room or at anything, really. Rock-paper-scissors has become their latest craze around the football complex. That closeness carries over onto the field.

“There’s certainly a chemistry there,” Morris said. “Communication is easier because we know how each other thinks, we know how each other plays. In certain situations, we know exactly where each other is going to be on the field. That’s a luxury.”

Iowa will greatly miss their leadership and production in 2014, but they express confidence that current backups like Reggie Spearman, Quinton Alston and Chad Gilson can pick things up next year.

But first, the three senior linebackers want to finish strong and cement their legacy with a win over LSU.

“If you beat a team like that, it would probably do wonders for the status of Iowa football and how it’s perceived, not only in the Midwest but across country,” Morris said. “As a player, you can’t really ask for more than that.”


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