College Football. Big Ten coaches chase breakthrough seasons
By Michael Marot
AP Sports Writer
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Tom Allen and Jeff Brohm remember watching the Big Ten at its rugged best.
P.J. Fleck just heard the stories about the emotional sideline antics of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler being as entertaining as the games. Back then, three yards and a cloud of dust was all the rage and massive offensive linemen overpowered defenders while big running backs crashed through holes.
Today, the names, faces and even the tactics have changed but the tough-guy coaches remain one of the conference’s most endearing characteristics.
At Michigan and Ohio State, Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer can often be seen on the sideline with pained, perplexed facial expressions. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has embraced his role as a disciplinarian. And after going 3-9 in 2016, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wasted no time blaming the poor season on a lack of discipline inside the locker room.
So in a conference that has never been big on congeniality, the three new coaches — Allen at Indiana, Brohm at Purdue, and Fleck at Minnesota — are starting on their quest to polish the Big Ten’s longtime image.
“You can’t change or overreact,” Allen said, describing his more temperate style and Love Each Oher motto. “The other thing is I think it matters who they are but different individuals in the organization deserve to be treated with the utmost respect, kindness and to feel like a part of the program and that doesn’t always happen.”
Especially at these schools.
Over the last half century, fans around Indiana and Minnesota have heard and seen it all.
Since finishing in a three-way tie atop the league standings in 1967, their chase for football glory has resulted mostly in futility. While coaches and stars, promises and credos have come and gone, bowl bids have been rare and conference championships virtually non-existent. Purdue shared the 2000 Big Ten title with Michigan and Northwestern. Indiana and Minnesota are still looking to end their droughts.
Why should this time be different?
Because the new coaches’ refreshing approach could become appealing to high school players who are ready to work for these men
The 47-year-old Allen, like Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, is a defensive whiz who waited decades to land his first big head coaching job. Allen, like Dungy, is a change of pace from his predecessor. And Allen, like Dungy, puts a premium on faith and family before wins and losses, which explains why both believe they get more impact out of a hug or stare than an expletive-laced tirade.
Maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise given that Allen and Dungy attended the same church in Tampa, Florida.
But if Fleck or Brohm have proven anything over the past few years, it’s that many styles work in today’s college football world.
While Fleck demonstrated his coaching aptitude by taking a Mid-American Conference team, Western Michigan, and put it on the national map, the 36-year-old rising star might be an even better salesman.
His media campaign to promote the school and Kalamazoo, Michigan, as well as the football team created a community effort that culminated in a multi-day promotional opportunity on ESPN that included the first trip for the “College GameDay” crew to a MAC campus for the first time in 13 years.
Now, after buying the copyright to his popular “Row The Boat” mantra, Fleck is ready start over in Minneapolis where he’s already starting to see good results.
NBC’s “Today” show recently gave the Golden Gophers air time after Fleck awarded a third-string walk-on kicker one of Minnesota’s precious scholarships, the kind of publicity the Golden Gophers have lacked for years. But make no mistake — Fleck is here to win.
“I am not here to change tradition. What I am here to do is change a culture. To change the movement, for us to create and experience things that the University of Minnesota football has only dreamed off and hasn’t accomplished since the late ’60s,” he said. “My entire life has been about running into the fire, not away from the fire. I eat difficult conversations for breakfast, and that is why I took this job.”
Brohm walks into the toughest situation.
While Minnesota has played in three consecutive bowl games and the Hoosiers have been to back-to-back bowl games, Purdue hasn’t made the postseason since the 2012 season. Here, at the Cradle of Quarterbacks, the depth chart is thin, the schedule is daunting and crowds have been dwindling.
Yet Brohm looks like a perfect fit. A former quarterback with an NFL pedigree, like Harbaugh, could be an enticing situation for recruits who dream of being the next Drew Brees. And Brohm’s creative, high-scoring offense could be just the remedy to bring fans back to Ross-Ade Stadium.
It worked for Joe Tiller two decades ago.
Now Brohm is hoping the philosophy he learned in one season with the XFL’s Orlando Rage will help Purdue dig itself out of a hole.
“I hate to tell people this but it was the most fun I ever had playing football,” Brohm said. “You had nicknames, you had skits and charades, you played to the cameras in the middle of the field and I think there are some plusses to that. If you’re going to have fun playing the game, fans are going to have fun watching the game. I think the XFL taught me you could have fun and still be productive and that’s what people want to see.”
Even in a league that prides itself on fearless play, gritty guys and tough coaches.
“To me, it’s way bigger than football,” Allen said. “If your performance defines you on the field, if that’s who you are and that’s where you get your identity and your worth, then I think it’s really hard to stay steady. But when your combination is in your faith and there’s something bigger than you and you realize your purpose in life is not to win football games but to impact lives then the ups and downs of our profession don’t cause you to lose focus on life. I can’t say I’ve got it all figured out. But I do believe that as long as I never forget why I became a coach, whether it was a 2A school down in Florida or some small college nobody’s ever heard of, and you don’t ever forget why you became who you are or how you got here, then I think you’ll be all right.”