Chicago Writers Share Thoughts about Nebraska and the Big Ten
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Both wound up at Northwestern University's nationally prominent Medill School of Journalism, which produces all kinds of notable alumni, including best-selling authors, screenwriters, publishers, executive editors, film producers, anchors, managing editors, Pulitzer Prize winners, investigative reporters, senior executives, national and international correspondents and bureau chiefs for the nation's largest newspaper.
I mention all that for one reason - to let you know that these two sportswriters came to Lincoln this week to take analysis of Nebraska football to a new level in the Huskers' first year in the Big Ten Conference.
Rittenberg, who writes the Big Ten Blog for ESPN.com, and Greenstein, a columnist and Big Ten beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, wanted to catch a glimpse of what made Nebraska the only addition to the nation's oldest intercollegiate athletic conference in two decades. They left Lincoln with some intriguing thoughts about what they saw and heard while camping out at the Osborne Athletic Complex, which has the statue of the Hall-of-Fame coach and athletic director that Greenstein interviewed and wrote about. That statue was so compelling, Greenstein took a picture of it, so fans would understand why Osborne can't take it down, even if he admits he could do without it.
In between interviews, deadlines and lunch, the N-Sider asked Rittenberg and Greenstein to share their opinions on a variety of topics. Given the Chicago-based columnists' stature covering the Big Ten, we asked both the following questions, and they gave us these answers:
How do Nebraska's facilities compare with the rest of the Big Ten?
Rittenberg: Nebraska's facilities are outstanding. They're as good as any team in the Big Ten. I would put Ohio State right up there at the top, too. They have their own independent building, which is incredible. Michigan is also very good. Same with Penn State, so it's also in that mix. Those are the four main programs, and in terms of facilities, Nebraska is certainly equal to, if not better than all of them.
Greenstein: Nebraska has the best facilities I've seen. Ohio State (which has the nation's biggest annual athletic department budget by $17 million) has incredible facilities, but Nebraska's facilities are all connected and all integrated - from a juice bar outside the weight room to a walkway and the indoor practice facility. I mean, the weight room that I thought was for the football players is for the staff. When you're recruiting a kid from Los Angeles to spend four years at Nebraska, and he sees all that tradition and greatness around him, he knows that through these facilities, he has everything he needs to be a success. Coming here, you can see why kids are really attracted to this place.
Leaders and Legends as new division names: Love 'em or leave 'em?
Rittenberg: I'm not a big fan. It's failed to connect. I know what the Big Ten was trying to do with it. I think they over-thought the process. Keep divisions simple. Have them be something people can identify with. Leaders and Legends didn't do that. I would have considered something directional, even though it wouldn't go perfectly with how they divided the teams. If you went East and West and had Wisconsin in the East, people would raise some eyebrows. But the Atlanta Braves played in the NL West. There are divisional oddities throughout pro sports. There are teams in regions they don't seem to belong in, so I think you could have gotten away with that. In general terms, I think even Great Plains and Great Lakes would have been okay.
Greenstein: It's the best of a lot of bad options. I was pushing for Stars and Stripes. That sounded a lot better, but somebody said: "What are we, Conference USA?" If you can't use legendary names or geographic designations, there's not anything anyone can come up with that's really that good.
What's the most difficult game on Nebraska's 2011 schedule?
Rittenberg: Wow, there are so many, but I'd have to say Wisconsin because even though they have a lot to replace, they're always so tough at home. They lose so few games there. They beat Ohio State up there last year, and this game is still early in the season. I mean, Nebraska has a great chance to win at Wisconsin, but it won't be easy.
Greenstein: The Ohio State game is a wild card because of the coach and player suspensions. Logic tells you the Buckeyes will be rusty in that sixth game in Lincoln. I don't think Penn State will be great, and I think Wisconsin is down a little bit. Michigan is another wild card. It's a brutal schedule - absolutely the toughest schedule in Big Ten history. I would love to have seen the true reaction Tom Osborne and Bo Pelini had when they first saw this schedule. It had to have been something like "Whoa! What have we gotten ourselves into?" Playing such an incredible schedule, I am not going to assume any losses. But, at the same time, I don't think anybody is going to assume wins either in at least six of those games. Take your pick. It all depends on how Nebraska handles an absolutely brutal schedule. Let's say the Penn State game ends up being a night game in November. Nebraska would get home about 6 o'clock Sunday morning and then have to come back and prepare for the next Saturday's game at Michigan. That's as tough a schedule as you could possibly have ... anywhere.
What's the biggest trap door on the Huskers' 2011 schedule?
Rittenberg: Northwestern. Iowa knows better than anyone that you can't take Northwestern lightly. They've beaten Iowa five times in the last six seasons. They've also won three consecutive games at Kinnick Stadium (in Iowa City), and in some ways, that's a similar environment to Memorial Stadium. Northwestern is not going to be afraid of playing on the road, and if they're healthy, they're a team that can really challenge you, especially on offense.
Greenstein: Northwestern, even though it's a home game for Nebraska before they play back-to-back road games at Penn State and Michigan. Big Ten teams certainly respect Northwestern. Ask Wisconsin and Iowa. Those two rivalries produce great games every year. It might be hard for Nebraska coaches to convince their players that Northwestern has played above .500 in the Big Ten since 1994. Northwestern is stunningly good on the road. At one point last year, they had seven consecutive road victories, if you remove the previous year's bowl game against Auburn, another game they almost won.
Which teams will win their divisions and which one will emerge as the first-ever Big Ten championship playoff winner in Indianapolis?
Rittenberg: It's hard to prove odds, especially with what's happening at Ohio State right now. The situation there has really changed the Big Ten race. It's much more wide open now. Ohio State has dominated this league. They're the top dog. Now, they're really going to face a huge challenge, especially early in the season. My picks early were Nebraska and Ohio State, and I would probably stick with those. As far as picking a winner, when you cover the Big Ten, until someone beats them, Ohio State is the team to beat.
Greenstein: I'm going to respond like a math nerd. Because they have such a brutal schedule, I give Nebraska just a 30 percent chance to win their division with Michigan State and Iowa each having a 20 percent chance and Northwestern and Michigan a 10 to 15-percent chance each and Minnesota next to none. Ohio State has that same 30-percent chance to win the other division, so my overall leaders to win the Big Ten are Nebraska and Ohio State - each with a 15-percent chance. If you want a champion right now, flip a coin between the Huskers and the Buckeyes.
When someone mentions Nebraska football, what do you immediately think of?
Rittenberg: The option, Tom Osborne, the Heisman Trophy winners, the national championships, the games against Miami ... there are so many special things about Nebraska, but those are the first things I think of.
Greenstein: Tom Osborne.
When someone mentions the state of Nebraska, what - good, bad or indifferent - comes to mind?
Rittenberg: Everything seems to connect to this football program ... hard work, the walk-on program ... values ... this is very much a home-grown program in many ways.
Greenstein: The color red, followed by Tom Osborne and Tommie Frazier.
When someone mentions Nebraska fans, what's the image?
Rittenberg: Extremely passionate people, but also people who salute the visiting teams. It's a national reputation. I can't think of any other programs that are known for that kind of sportsmanship. Someone else might do it, but it's a big thing here.
Greenstein: People who get to the stadium early. Based on everything I've heard, Nebraska has very classy fans that will applaud players on other teams. I certainly hope that's how it is with 99 percent because this whole lunatic fringe of college fans and this nastiness that almost every school has needs to change.
What's the first thing that comes to mind about Tom Osborne?
Rittenberg: One of the true legendary figures in college football, like Joe Paterno.
Greenstein: He's direct, intelligent. You just feel he has the knowledge and the experience to meld anything together, and I'm sure if he were coaching me, I would be a better sportswriter. You can see why so many have so much faith in him.
What's your first impression of Bo Pelini?
Rittenberg: Tough coach. Great defensive mind ... a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve.
Greenstein: One word - intense.
Rittenberg: A little more understated. Cerebral, like Bo ... passionate ... a tactician.
Greenstein: Great. Really enjoy a guy who will take the time to explain why Nebraska's going to do things a little differently than every other Big Ten team.
Rittenberg: Really like him. He's a guy definitely ready for the role he's been given - to mold Nebraska into a more offensive offense. They're going to attack people and play with more freedom instead of thinking so much about the rules and messing up.
Greenstein: Great. Pittsburgh accent ...hockey fan ... loves the element of mystery. Enjoys everybody guessing what the offense will look like and, wisely so, using that as advantage for all of these Big Ten teams that won't know how to prepare for Nebraska in June, July and August.
Rittenberg: A guy who is still maturing, but seems happier now that he's in this system, and healthier.
Greenstein: If you've ever gone on a safari, it's hard to spot a leopard ... sort of like a Taylor Martinez interview. He hadn't done one in four months, and I applaud him for doing that while we were here. He was more articulate than I thought he would be. When you ask him about a perceived lack of leadership, though, a defense mechanism kicks in.
Who's your best bet to be Big Ten Preseason Offensive Player of the Year?
Rittenberg: Dan Persa is probably the best, but he plays for Northwestern, so I don't know if people will vote for him. He's in the mix. (Michigan's) Denard Robinson won it last year. He's in a new offense, but he's very, very good.
Greenstein: Dan Persa. Because he was injured, he played in only six (of eight) Big Ten games, and the coaches still voted him All-Big Ten quarterback. He was far and away the most valuable player in the Big Ten, especially when you see what happened to Northwestern after he went down.
How about the Big Ten Preseason Defensive Player of the Year?
Rittenberg: Jared Crick (who will miss spring practice with a knee injury) has to be in the discussion. Lavonte David has to be in the discussion. There are not a lot of star defensive players coming back in the Big Ten that would jump out at you, so it wouldn't shock me at all if this goes to a Nebraska player.
Greenstein: Jared Crick. It's his last year before the NFL.
Last question: How long will the Big Ten be a 12-team league?
Rittenberg: For the immediate future. I think there's a lot of talk about adding more, but the presidents are very happy with 12 teams. If (Big Ten Commissioner) Jim Delaney wants to add more, it's ultimately in the hands of the presidents, but I think they're very comfortable with this setup, and they waited 20 years before this last expansion.
Greenstein: That's the question I always ask people. My best sense would be that it will stay at 12 schools for a long while, maybe as long as 20 more years. I think the Big Ten presidents and chancellors are really a conservative lot. They have something that works wonderfully. They have three of the top five winning programs now. They have the largest stadiums, the biggest crowds, the best fan bases. Once you remove the whole "who's won the national title for the last five years", it's a wonderful conference, so why dilute it?
Voices from Husker Nation
I really enjoyed your article when you sat down with Adam Rittenberg and Teddy Greenstein. They offered an "inside" perspective about our coming into the Big Ten. I was happy that they acknowledged the work that the University and coaches have put into this program. It is also nice that they mentioned our fan base here in Nebraska. It truly is unlike any other in college sports. Even with a very tough schedule, they were not hesitant to place us near the top. That was a boost for the football program. Here is to a great upcoming season with all the hopes and aspirations that we fans have for our football team. Chad David, Albion, Nebraska
I just want to compliment you on your interview with Rittenberg and Greenstein. I like their impartial opinions. It's a breath of fresh air after hearing all the talk from down south. This upcoming season is like an all-fall Christmas to me. I am particularly excited about the Northwestern game, as I just bought two tickets to that game today. These writers' assessment of the importance of that game certainly enhanced the appeal. I'd love to go to the Ohio State game, but the tickets are extremely steep. I hope Nebraskans don't end up surprised with a large OSU contingent in the stadium. That wouldn't look too good. I will pass on spending big bucks on the OSU game and instead tailgate, then go to the Iowa game. Oh, how I was raised to hate the state of Iowa! That game will be much more personal than Colorado, although I will miss that game (having gone to the last three in Lincoln). Keep up the excellent work. Alex Hamm, Chadron, Nebraska
Glad to see your column reinforce the news that is just now getting well deserved attention in America's best city - Chicago. It goes without saying how much more appropriate Chicago is over Dallas as the conference home for our beloved Cornhuskers. I like to say that here in Chicago, like Nebraska, we have cold weather but warm hearts. Husker fans will absolutely love coming to Chicago every chance they get. There are Big Red watch sites all over this city, and we're looking forward someday to having another Chicago-area recruit make an impact in Lincoln like Joe Ganz did. Tom Johnson, Chicago, Illinois
Welcome to the Big Ten, Nebraska. Every Buckeye fan I know can't wait to see what happens when we play each other Oct. 8th. Lucky the game is in Lincoln because that gives you a chance to win, but don't count on anything good happening in Columbus. We're every bit as excited to play Nebraska as Nebraska is to play us. Mike Phillips, Columbus, Ohio
Another great piece with the two Big Ten writers! I see a growing maturity in the program, coaches and players. I'm looking forward to the coming season and hope to make the Ohio State game. Jerry Wood, Valrico, Florida