Changing of the guard

Adam Rittenberg Column


It’s a simple principle, one Randy Walker has held near and dear since the first time he stepped onto the gridiron.

Walker’s players want respect, too. They feel that the daily dose of endless practices, weightlifting marathons and pure physical punishment should at the very least warrant a few kind words in print or on the air.

Last season’s 8-4 turnaround, bowl berth and third Big Ten Championship in six years should have provided them with just that. But instead words like “system,” “miracle” and “fluke” lurked over the team like a storm cloud throughout the season.

Nine months later, skepticism remains on NU’s radar screen. But this fall, the Wildcats are not alone.

After an abysmal postseason and a conference title shared by three 6-2 teams, the Big Ten has been shredded in nearly every major sports publication heading into the 2001 slate. It’s become the ‘in’ thing to do to pick apart the downfall of the once-mighty league.

Much of the criticism is justified. Top high school talent is booking for Big 12 and SEC programs, marquee names are booking for the pros and the Big Ten’s nonconference record has taken a nosedive toward the .500 mark. And surely conference officials were kicking their television sets last Saturday, as former poll-sitters Penn State and Ohio State stumbled around for 60 minutes in contests that vaguely resembled football games.

Clearly, college football’s king has a more common look these days.

While the Big Ten sinks like the Titanic, don’t expect its first-class members to go down with it. Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State can still do no wrong. If they win (read: Michigan), well, that’s what they’re supposed to do. If they lose (read: Penn State), chalk it up to an off-year, the product of bad karma, or something.

Yup, you guessed it, the big losers in the new-look Big Ten are NU and Co. Sounds like a plumbing company, doesn’t it?

For teams like the NU, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State, gaining respect around the nation has been made next-to-impossible because of the Big Ten’s new stigma. The star players remain nameless, the big wins go unnoticed and rankings are obsolete.

Nevertheless, one member of this infamous bunch will likely claim the conference title this year. For NU, it could signify a dynasty – four trophies in seven years. For Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa, it could be a statement to the nation’s best.

But more likely than not, a Big Ten championship will not mean a whole lot this year. And that’s unfortunate.

While the league is not what it was in the past, there are still plenty of solid teams. Sure, they might be draped in purple, green and orange instead of maize, scarlet and blue, but these are still some of the best football programs around.

“It kind of catches people by surprise,” NU linebacker Napoleon Harris says. “They think that if Northwestern’s at the top of the Big Ten, it must be a down year for the Big Ten. But it really means that the Big Ten is just becoming more balanced.”

Much of the Big Ten bashing comes from an old guard that refuses to accept change. For these folks, seeing an NU, Iowa or Illinois atop the conference standings is just unnatural. For them, it’s a glowing sign that the league is getting worse.

Maybe watching the NU-Michigan State game on Saturday will change their minds. Perhaps Damien Anderson or T.J. Duckett needs to make a bigger move in the Heisman race.

Or how about this solution – the naysayers can just accept it.

Times have changed, teams have changed and players have changed.

There’s a new script in the Big Ten – but some people need to open their eyes before they miss the show.