CHICAGO - Tradition has become an awkward partner for the Big Ten. It has been its strength, and its debility.
The conference had historically quashed its opponents with its size, roughed them up with its brawn, and overwhelmed them with its sheer power. Then speed, quickness and innovation minimized the caliber and velocity of the Big Ten's traditional weaponry.
The very tradition that had been the Big Ten's hemoglobin, was also its anemia - tradition its charm, tradition its curse.
But then the passing game came and prospered at numerous Midwest facilities - such as at Purdue behind record-setting quarterback Drew Brees. Speedy backs and wideouts blurred across the radar - there wasn't a non-Olympian in America faster than Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr. And the linemen got more agile and athletic - Michigan's Jake Long was good enough to be the NFL's No. 1 overall pick.
As change slogged across the Big Ten landscape, the traditional run-oriented approach was no longer en vogue, and playing the spread offense became a survival skill for most. It has since mutated niche by niche, and some variation is now displayed at most of the Big Ten schools.
While there has always been talk about the need to toughen up the nonconference schedules and drop the Woffords and Eastern this and Northern that, Big Ten tradition is under fire again, and this time a lot of the rumpus is centered off the field, and focused on the Gregorian calendar.
The conference that has traditionally rolled closed the barn door on its season before Thanksgiving is now talking about December games becoming a necessity to close any gap that exists between the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference, the Big 12, and Southern California. The theory is that playing in the twelfth month would reduce the chances of Big Ten teams entering bowl games stale after six weeks-plus of not facing unfriendly fire.
Big Ten tradition, in the minds of some, has again become its torment.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, whose team has always ended its season in the middle of November and then had an extended layoff before playing in a bowl game, is as torn as anyone over the matter of stretching out the season, or possibly adding a championship game, like the SEC and Big 12 have, to the Big Ten schedule.
"Part of me is an old traditionalist in that I always enjoyed Thanksgiving weekend because my dad was a football coach, and typically his season had just ended," Tressel said. "I also have an affinity for the fact our players have a chance to be home for an extended Thanksgiving weekend. On the other side of things, certainly there are the arguments about the exposure later in the year with the conference championship games, and all those kinds of things."
At the end of the 2006 season, the Buckeyes were unbeaten and No. 1 ranked and looking mighty as they prepped to face a Florida team that needed some intense poll lobbying just to make it to the national title game. Ohio State waited 51 days after its season-ending 42-39 win over Michigan to meet the Gators in Glendale, Ariz., and play for the big glass football.
Florida was off the field just 37 days after winning the SEC championship game - a two-week difference. After a quicker, livelier, and energized bunch of Gators thrashed Ohio State, a lot of fingers pointed to the Buckeyes' extended time away from hot pursuit.
"That's been brought up a lot, and when you lose a bowl game, especially a national championship game, everybody looks for the reasons why," Ohio State senior defensive lineman Doug Worthington said. "We've had to live with the perception that the Big Ten can't win the big bowls - whatever it takes, we have to do something to change that."
The conference went 13-26 last season against teams ranked in the Top 25 nationally, including a 1-6 showing in bowl games. Over the past four college football seasons, the Big Ten is an embarrassing 9-20 in bowl games, and the inquisition to determine the root cause of that swoon dominated the dais as the conference's coaches and top players met with the media here early last week.
Illinois' Ron Zook, who coached in the SEC and was the head man at Florida for three seasons before too many losses had the masses threatening to burn his lawn and poison his dog, will take his team two games beyond the traditional close of the season in 2009, and play Cincinnati and Fresno State after completing the Big Ten schedule. Wisconsin will travel to Hawaii to play in December.
"One of the things that we've done - and hopefully this is
going to help us - we're going to end up playing December 5th, so we're extending our season," Zook said. "I think that's one of the things that can possibly help. But I think there's teams in this league that can play in any league in the country. I know the talk is that the conference has slipped a little bit, but as the coaches in this league have talked about, until we go win the bowl games, and obviously win the games out of conference, there's not really a whole lot we can say."
Even the Big Ten's resident curmudgeon, Penn State's octogenarian Joe Paterno, thinks the traditional Big Ten scheduling format is archaic.
"Illinois and Wisconsin are doing a smart thing because I think we are at a disadvantage," said Paterno, whose team got bounced by USC in the Rose Bowl after sitting for 40 days after the close of the 2008 season. "They had two games after we played - it's a tough deal for a Big Ten team to go out and play a team that's had two good tough games after we've finished and we're sitting around."
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, who regularly played into December during his days at West Virginia, is in favor of the Big Ten making such a scheduling change.
"At West Virginia, we ended in December, and I felt that was less of a time gap between practicing and playing a game. I thought that was more beneficial," Rodriguez said. "Having six weeks as opposed to four weeks before you play another game does make a difference, because there is a difference of execution and rhythm and just playing the game."
Although his team is not part of the major bowl discussion presently, Minnesota's second-year head coach Tim Brewster is planning to be in that elite circle soon. He has added a home-and-home series with USC, which begins in 2010, and he also favors extending the season.
"Playing into December, adding a team and playing a championship game, in my mind would be very positive steps for our conference," Brewster said.
Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald said he is a traditionalist "who likes where things are at," while Michigan State's Mark Dantonio sounded weary over all the chatter. "It plays the conferences against each other, and it would be great if you had the All-Conference team from the Big Ten play the All-Conference team from the SEC or the Pac-10," he said. "Maybe they can think of that next."
Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, whose team roughed up South Carolina 31-10 in last year's Outback Bowl, suggested that the power in college football rides a cyclical wave.
"I still go back to 2002 and coming into this meeting, the sky was clearly falling - that was the tenor of the meeting," Ferentz said. "At the end of the season, we had four teams in the top 13 with Ohio State winning the national championship.
"I think it's perceptions. It seems like the more we talk about things, the more we focus on things, the more pronounced they become. It's usually a pretty fine line between winning and losing in a lot of cases, and I think the balance of power tends to go around."
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Tradition has become an awkward partner for the Big Ten. It has been its strength, and its debility. The conference had historically quashed its opponents with its size, roughed them up with its brawn, and overwhelmed them with its sheer power.