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Archive for February, 2014

Friday night TV lights

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
Several years ago, Jim Delany apologized when the Big Ten was forced to move a Minnesota home football game to a Friday night because of Major League Baseball playoffs. That was then. This is now. The Big Ten commissioner is testing the waters, attempting to gauge public opinion about the possibility of scheduling a handful of conference football games on Friday night. There are already some college games being played on a night traditionally reserved for high school football, but nearly all are made-for-TV match-ups that are being playing by outside of the power conferences. What Delany is attempting to learn is how interested Big Ten institutions and the fans of those institutions might be about attending an occasional game on a Friday night in the fall. He's not talking about the Friday before Labor Day where the prep season has not started in some states or the annual Iowa-Nebraska game played on the Friday after Thanksgiving. His curiosity has more to do with late September and October and the possibility of providing the Big Ten Network with live game action on those Friday nights. He's not talking about doing this anytime soon. It's more of a thought as the Big Ten prepares for its next round of negotiations with its TV partners once the current contract with ABC and ESPN expires following the 2017 season. Among his reasons? With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten beginning this fall, the conference will have more product than ever to peddle to television networks including its own. Delany is wise to test the marketplace and attempt to learn if there is an appetite for Big Ten football on a Friday or if even a small taste of that would be unappealing to fans. The idea was first floated yesterday through writers who work for the Big Ten Network. It's been a launching pad for other ideas in the past, including the geographical division names that will be used in football starting this fall. There are risks involved in playing on Friday nights during the heart of the high school season, a spotlight traditionally reserved for high school heroes throughout the heartland. There are logistical issues as well in bringing thousands of fans to a campus on a workday when in many cases parking is already an issue. Delany appears ready to take his time with this idea, weighing the positives of added exposure and potential additional television revenue against logistical challenges which would impact every campus once every handful of years. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the idea and in states like Iowa where a number of fans travel a great distance to attend Saturday games, even an occasional Friday home date will be a difficult idea for many fans to swallow long before they face the prospect of getting tangled up in 5 o'clock traffic on a Friday on the Coralville strip.

Welcome ashore

Monday, February 24th, 2014
After spending a week at sea with fans on the 28th annual Hawkeye Cruise, Iowa football coaches and administrators returned to land Sunday to a changing landscape. As the group soaked up the warm Carribean sun from San Juan to St. Thomas to Aruba, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald found himself defending under oath how his program operates in response to testimony from one of his starting quarterbacks who is attempting to unionize college football players, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill received a nice salary increase and Iowa basketball players found out what Kirk Ferentz has known all along that social media can work in multiple ways. Not exactly smooth sailing on the college athletics homefront. The Northwestern situation is an interesting one although an outcome will not likely be determined until all sorts of appeals have been exhausted. At a National Labor Relations Board hearing, lawyers for the College Athletes Players Association have argued that the player-coach relationship is more of an employee-employer relationship since coaches control their compensation by scholarship. Fitzgerald spent part of his Friday on the witness stand, presenting testimony that frequently opposed what quarterback Kain Colter had said earlier in the week. Their words illustrated the multiple sides of this issue. Colter talked about an inability to get into the classes he needed in hopes of leading him to a career in medicine. Fitzgerald countered with a scenario that played out last fall when a player asked to sit out a practice to catch up on course work. Fitzgerald obliged, and the player did not travel to a game at Nebraska that week because he had not gone through a full week of preparation. Northwestern attorneys argued that situation supported the notion that the school made its football players students first and athletes second. Fitzgerald was not initially expected to testify at the hearing, but the hearing officer insisted that if neither side called him in to testify that he would do so and thus, Fitzgerald testified. The hearing continues this week, resuming Tuesday, and Northwestern will be given time call more witnesses. Once that concludes, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board will reveiw the case and a ruling is not likely until after the tans from that cruise have faded. Also in the neighborhood and also illustrative of the dollars at play in the college game today, Minnesota has extended Kill's contract through the 2019 season. Kill was paid $1.2 million last season, the lowest salary of any coach in the Big Ten. After leading Minnesota to a second straight bowl game, his compensation will average $2.3 million over the five-year life of the contract. That puts him in the middle of the pack among his peers in the conference, although Kill's salary is expected to slip from sixth to seventh in the league once Michigan State finalizes its deal with Mark Dantonio. The Spartans coach made $1.95 million last season, but has been told by university officials that they expect his salary to rank among the top four in the Big Ten when the Rose Bowl-winning coach's new deal is complete. That would put him in the $4 million range, with Ohio State's Urban Meyer ($4.61 million), new Penn State coach James Franklin ($4.5) and Michigan's Brady Hoke ($4.15) currently leading the way. Closer to home, Hawkeye basketball players have been told to shut their Twitter accounts down after a weekend war of 140-characater words between irritated fans and frustrated player Zach McCabe. Coach Fran McCaffery said this morning he wants his team to focus on basketball and will allow his players to Tweet away once the season ends but he doesn't want any more of the distractions that he had to deal with Saturday when a handful of fans - it's always the 5 percent that ruin things for the 95 percent - lobbed hate- and profanity-filled tweets in the direction of Zach McCabe, who missed an open late-game shot and didn't have one of his better games in a close loss to Wisconsin. Already frustrated by his performance, McCabe returned the favor on fans and lashed out in his own hate- and profanity-filled tweet. The tweet was shortlived, removed from his Twitter account and followed by an apology which preceded the shutting down of McCabe's account. It was an example of why some coaches - including Iowa's football coaches - don't allow their players to express their feelings on social media. It's simply a way to avoid unnecessary distractions. Might it be a bit too controlling? Perhaps. Certainly the attorneys representing players at the hearing in Chicago last week would see it that way. Welcome ashore.

A look ahead

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014
With the 2014 recruiting class nearly in the books -- Iowa expects to receive its 19th letter of intent Thursday from snowbound running back Markel Smith of St. Louis Vianney -- coach Kirk Ferentz and the newest Hawkeyes begin a new chapter in the program's history. Signing day also provides coaches with a chance to catch their breath and enjoy a little time off of the snow-covered roads of the upper Midwest. That doesn't preclude them from taking a look ahead to future recruiting needs. The Hawkeyes already have two verbal commitments for their 2015 recruiting class, 6-foot-6, 190-pound quarterback Jack Beneventi of Glen Ellyn, Ill., and 6-2, 271-pound offensive lineman Jacob Newborg of Inwood, Iowa. Newborg won't be the last offensive lineman to be part of the Hawkeyes' next class. Ferentz said today that the offensive line is an "area that really needs to be addressed'' in Iowa's next recruiting class. "I think we have a good opportunity to do that,'' Ferentz said. Depth on the offensive line has been a concern of both Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis, with Ferentz saying today that the number of line recruits Iowa has added in recent recruiting classes has led to that issue. "I don't want to say that we've been stealing from our offensive line pool (to fill other needs), but we've been cutting it pretty close,'' Ferentz said. He calls offensive line "a critical area'' for Iowa in its 2015 class. The Hawkeyes signed two instate offensive linemen today - Lucas LeGrand of Dubuque Senior and Keegan Render of Indianola - and Ross Reynolds of Waukee is expected to join the group either as a grayshirt next January or for fall camp if a scholarship opens up. Iowa is involved with some several other top offensive line prospects close to home as well for 2015, a group led by 6-6 twins Landan and Levi Paulsen of Woodbury Central High School in Moville, Iowa. Beyond offensive line, Ferentz expects more balance by position in next year's recruiting class. ":We've gone pretty hard with the defensive positions the last few years. I'm not saying we won't take players, but I don't expect us to sign five at each position,'' Ferentz said.

A familiar look

Monday, February 3rd, 2014
When the dust settles on Wednesday's signing day for Big Ten football programs, Iowa's 2014 recruiting class will have a familar look. The 19 players expected to sign this week with the Hawkeyes - junior college transfer defensive end Torey Hendrick isn't expected to sign until June - are part of a class which mirrors many of the ones Kirk Ferentz has signed in his previous 15 recruiting classes. Instead of loading up on five-star recruits, something you won't find in this year's class, the Hawkeyes' class is loaded with potential. Four-star prospects Jay Scheel and Tyler Wiegers -- an instate athlete from LaPorte City Union and and a quarterback from Detroit Country Day in Michigan, respectively -- headline a group consisting primarily of three-star prospects which fit both Iowa's needs and its system. From the bruising potential in running back Markel Smith to the quickness recent addition Miles Taylor brings to the defensive backfield, this has the appearance of being a typically-solid Iowa class. And as it typical, it won't rank among the elite in the Big Ten. The usual suspects - Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State - have classes which are expected to rank as the league's best. Rivals.com ranks the Buckeyes' recruiting class as the second best in the country, trailing only Alabama. Ohio State, which is expected to sign at least 15 four- or five-star recruits in its 22-player class, has a group that includes the nation's top-rated inside linebacker prospect in Raekwon McMillan, a Georgia prep who has already enrolled at OSU after picking the Buckeyes over Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Flordia and Georgia. Ohio State also will add five offensive linemen, five-star cornerback Damon Webb from Detroit Cass Tech and Johnnie Dixon, a Florida wide receiver who opted for the Buckeyes over Alabama and Miami. Michigan's class makes up for a lack of numbers with talent. High school teammates at Paramus (NJ) Catholic, cornerback Jabrill Peppers and offensive tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty, are among the top-rated players in the Wolverines' 16-player class. Penn State and Nebraska have both made significant gains in recent weeks. The Nittany Lions' recruiting class has benefited from the hiring of James Franklin from Vanderbilt. Five players who were initially committed to the Commodores have followed Franklin to the Big Ten. Wide receiver Saleed Blacknall, one of number of players who were initially committed to B1G newbie Rutgers, is now among the Nittany Lions' top preopsects. Nebraska added six commitments to its 2014 recruiting class over the weekend and joins Wisconsin and Michigan State among Big Ten programs also likely to rank among the top 30 nationally in this year's recruiting ratings. The Cornhuskers have commitments from former Vanderbilt running back commit Mikale Wilbon as well as several highly-regarded offensive linemen, a group led by four-star prospects Tanner Farmer and Nick Gates. Per usual, major-bowl success isn't reflected until the following year's recruiting class but Michigan State's Rose Bowl victory over Stanford isn't hurting the Spartans. Coach Mark Dantonio's class is filled with three- and four-star prospects, typical of the classes MSU has had in the past three-to-four years. Montae Nicholson, a Pennsylvania safety, and defensive tackle Enoch Smith Jr. top the list of prospects although the Spartans join Ohio State among teams still vying for the services of five-star offensive tackle Jamarco Jones of Chicago De La Salle and are battling Michigan and Florida State for defensive end Malik McDowell of Southfield, Mich., the top-rated player in the state of Michigan this year. The first full recruiting class Gary Andersen has had at Wisconsin is expected to include three heralded four-star prospects, with quarterback DJ Gillins and offensive lineman Jaden Gault among incoming players who are already on campus. The Badgers' class also includes athlete Dareian Watkins, an Ohio prep who once committed to Northwestern who was recruited by the Badgers as an athlete. Minnesota's top recruits are running back Jeff Jones, a Minneapolis native who selected the Gophers nearly a year ago and has been recruited heavily by Florida State, Michigan, Michigan State and Missouri since. Receivers Melvin Holland Jr. and Isaiah Gentry also rank among coach Jerry Kill's top recruits. Illinois' class is led by Matt Domer, a running back from Mount Carmel in Chicago, and Nick Allegretti, one of the most highly-regarded centers in the country. At Purdue, defensive line has been a priority and Gelen Robinson, the son of former Boilermakers basketball player Glenn Robinson, is the most highly-regarded prospect. He is ranked among the top-15 defensive end prospects in the nation. Indiana added three players to its 2014 recruiting class over the weekend, but two of the Hoosiers' top-rated prospects may already be on campus. Offensive lineman Tim Gardner enrolled early, as did Indianapolis Pike receiver Dominque Booth, who initially committed to Tennessee before opted to stay in his home state. Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers will rank in the bottom half of the league's recruiting rankings. The Terrapins' class includes several highly-regarded players, a group led by defensive end Jesse Aniebonam of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md., and offensive lineman Derwin Gray from Fork Union Military Academy recruited by former Illinois assistant Mike Locksley. At Rutgers, the search for new offensive and defensive coordinators has led to recruiting issues including the loss of four-star receiver Saeed Blacknall to Penn State. Joshua Hicks, a running back from Palmetto, Fla., and cornerback Andre Boggs are the top prospects currently expected to sign with the Scarlet Knights.