Big Ten critics free to fire away

Originally Published: September 26, 2012
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has a message for all those treating his league like a piñata after the first four weeks of the 2012 season:

Swing away.

Point out the lack of a top-10 team, or even a postseason-eligible top-15 team (No. 14 Ohio State, the Big Ten's highest-rated team, is banned from the bowls this season).

[+] EnlargeHawthorne
Tim Heitman/US PresswireThe season started with Michigan's blowout loss to Alabama and the Big Ten's fortunes haven't improved much since.

Mock the Big Ten's 6-9 record against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences and Notre Dame, and note that three of those wins come from Northwestern (Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College), one of the league's few bright spots.

Ridicule the blowout losses, whether it's Michigan against Alabama, Michigan State against Notre Dame or, gulp, Illinois against Louisiana Tech. Is it too cruel to mention Central Michigan over Iowa? Nope.

Underscore the 6-6 record in Week 2 -- a week fat-cat conferences typically get fatter on weak competition -- when the Big Ten went 0-3 in Pac-12 venues, including two losses by ranked teams (Wisconsin and Nebraska) to then-unranked opponents (Oregon State and UCLA). Look for a win against a ranked opponent and find only one -- Michigan State's 17-13 victory against No. 24 Boise State in the opener.

Finally, count the years since the Big Ten last won a national title -- Ohio State triumphed in 2002 -- and prepare to add another.

The facts are fair game.

"The narrative is we've underperformed, and I can't argue with that," Delany said this week. "We haven't won big games. The narrative is about right. When you have big brands, expectations are high. I can't discount the facts, and I can't discount the critics."

The Big Ten has taken its lumps in recent years, from Ohio State's back-to-back losses to SEC teams in national title games, to the 0-for-New Year's Day bowl performance in 2011, to a near repeat on Jan. 2 of this year. The early season struggles aren't new, either. The league's combined record of 33-13 through the first four weeks is just one game off last season's pace (34-12). The Big Ten has the same number of FBS wins and just two more FBS losses than last year.

What stands out about this season is the lack of signature wins -- or even many decent wins -- and more important, the lack of elite teams. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the last time the Big Ten didn't have any top-12 teams in the fourth AP poll of the season was in 2001, when No. 16 Northwestern was the league's highest-ranked team. Illinois finished the 2001 season as the Big Ten's highest-ranked team at No. 12, the last time the league finished without a top -10 team in the final polls.

"The league obviously is down," said Joe Tiller, who coached Purdue from 1997-2008. "In my 12 years of coaching there and three years since, I don't remember it struggling this much as a conference. … It pains me to admit this, but I don't think there's a single great team in the league, and there aren't many good teams in the league, maybe four good teams out of 12."

Why has the Big Ten dropped so far, so fast? Call it a perfect storm of setbacks.

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Reid Compton/US PresswireBig Ten commissioner Jim Delany acknowledges the league's on-field performance hasn't lived up to expectations.

The Big Ten saw an unprecedented 40 coaching changes (head coaches and assistants) during the offseason, including massive overhauls at scandal-ridden Penn State and Ohio State, as well as Illinois and, somewhat surprisingly, Wisconsin. Of the league's four biggest brand-name programs -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska -- both Ohio State and Penn State have first-year coaches (Urban Meyer and Bill O'Brien), and Michigan has a second-year boss (Brady Hoke). In 2007, the Big Ten coaching fraternity included three national title-winning coaches -- Joe Paterno, Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr -- as well as Tiller and Kirk Ferentz. Only Ferentz remains, and he's the league's longest-tenured coach by seven years.

"I know there's been a lot [of changes]," Delany said. "But to me, those are excuses, not reasons. I like our coaches. Some of them are new, some of them are more senior. Over the years, we've had great leaders, and I think we still do. You don't get to these places unless you're good."

The league lost top assistants to head-coaching jobs at other colleges (Paul Chryst, Carl Pelini) and to the NFL (Bob Bostad, Ken O'Keefe). Although Big Ten schools are increasing salaries for assistants, most of the teams in the league lag behind the SEC, Big 12 and even the ACC.

"The Big Ten Conference is a traditional conference, and they're slow to change," Tiller said. "My last four years at Purdue, we struggled with retaining assistant coaches because the Big Ten just didn't pay. … As a result, top assistants leave and go to other programs. It's market-driven, if you will, but the Big Ten seems reluctant to step up there and pay. I don't disagree with that. Guys are paid way too much money today. But it is what it is.

"If you're going to hunt with the big dogs, you've got to get off the porch."

The most head-scratching part of the Big Ten's on-field woes is that they're taking place at a time when the Big Ten brand is thriving. Thanks in large part to the wildly successful Big Ten Network, the Big Ten in June reported a record $284 million in revenue, more than any other league, including the SEC. That translates to more than $24 million per school (except new member Nebraska, which doesn't yet receive a full share).

They have big stadiums, they raise money. We have terrific fan bases. We've got a great, historic brand. We've got the wherewithal to be competitive at the highest level. Between resources, coaches, tradition, we'll have our day, but it's not right at this moment.

--Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany

Although most Big Ten athletic directors distribute the revenue among more sports than their colleagues from other conferences, the league's football programs are by no means strapped for cash. The facilities are first-class around most of the league, and those lacking have launched major initiatives.

"They have big stadiums, they raise money," Delany said. "We have terrific fan bases. We've got a great, historic brand. We've got the wherewithal to be competitive at the highest level. Between resources, coaches, tradition, we'll have our day, but it's not right at this moment."

Player departures also have hurt the Big Ten, including the two quarterbacks who played in the inaugural league title game in December -- Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, now starting for the Seattle Seahawks, and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, backing up Robert Griffin III with the Washington Redskins. Key defenders like Michigan's Mike Martin and Nebraska's Lavonte David are gone, and Penn State saw its roster reduced after the NCAA imposed severe sanctions, as stars like running back Silas Redd transferred.

Former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce thinks the Big Ten's struggles can be traced to the most important position on the field.

"The thing I noticed most is a lack of great quarterbacks in the league," said Bruce, who coached the Buckeyes from 1979-87 and served as an Ohio State assistant from 1966-71. "A team can't get cut short at that position. When I was [in the Big Ten], everybody had a great quarterback. That makes the league a little tougher.

"I don't know whether the evaluation of the quarterbacks has been wrong, or they had injuries or whatever, but the quarterback position is down in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about that."

The Big Ten has only one starting quarterback, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, rated among the nation's top 30 passers. The league hasn't had a quarterback taken in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995. There have been no second-rounders since Michigan's Chad Henne in 2008.

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Cliff Welch/Icon SMIThe lack of talent at the QB position across the league this season has been highlighted by the loss of Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson.

Two of the NFL's top signal callers came from the Big Ten in the New England Patriots' Tom Brady (Michigan) and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees (Purdue). Not surprisingly, both came to Big Ten schools from far-flung states (Brady from California, Brees from Texas). Even Wilson, who turned in a record-setting 2011 season for Wisconsin, transferred into the league from an ACC program (NC State) and grew up in Virginia.

"It all starts," Tiller said, "with the recruiting issue."

The Big Ten's recruiting issue is a decreasing number of star prep players living close to its campuses. There are other factors -- population shifts to the south and the fact that southern high schools play spring football while their northern counterparts don't -- all of which increase the challenges for Big Ten programs.

"That's a theory," Delany said. "You've got to look at the results, and you've got to attribute it to something, but I'm not a demographer, nor am I a football coach."

Tiller was, for years, and he had to adjust to the changes, including mining the state of Texas for talent during his time at Purdue.

"As a young person growing up in Ohio, the Pennsylvania-Ohio ability to provide a lot of players for a lot of different teams was there," Tiller said. "Penn State, I don't think, ever had to leave the state, and if they did, they went into [New] Jersey. I can remember when Bo [Schembechler] and Woody [Hayes] were slugging it out, and Bo would come down to Ohio and get half a dozen really good players, and they'd go up to Michigan and be stars right away. I just don't know if that's true anymore.

"For a guy from the Midwest, it's painful. It's painfully obvious that they're not up to speed."

Can the Big Ten get back on course? Tiller isn't holding his breath.

"It's going to be a problem for a while," he said. "I don't think this is something you turn around quickly. Perception is reality, really."

Several Big Ten coaches have talked about the cyclical nature of the sport, how leagues rise and fall and rise again. Delany doesn't subscribe to the theory, noting that each season is unique, each team can be beat and factors like schedule difficulty change over time.

The Big Ten still has the entire conference slate to play before a chance for redemption arrives during bowl season, which has been unkind lately. Despite a treacherous postseason lineup of games that are, for all intents and purposes, road games, Delany scoffed at the suggestion the Big Ten would be better off with only one team in a BCS game (the league has had two in each of the past seven seasons and gone 5-8 with one vacated win).

"You want the opportunities to play the best," he said. "That's why the Big Ten plays who we play. If we get invited, we'll be excited to go and play the best we can play. If we win, we'll take the pat on the back, and if we lose, we'll accept that, too.

"We've been doing it for 117 years, we've had good decades and bad decades. Where we are, who we have, the resources, I'm confident that we'll have our day."