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Big Ten Media Days Notebook: Union Experience Rallies Northwestern Together

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Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian. (John Gress/Getty Images)

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian. (John Gress/Getty Images)

Chris Emma mug Chris Emma
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com,...
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By Chris Emma-

CHICAGO (CBS) — The monumental union vote that the Northwestern football team conducted this spring could’ve easily busted the tight-knit chemistry that coach Pat Fitzgerald cherishes.

Fitzgerald searches for “fit” within his program, attempting to fight the kind of recruits who can handle Northwestern’s demanding climate for mixing academics with athletics. For this to mesh, it takes character and chemistry.

Everything was challenged when former quarterback Kain Colter brought the unionization movement to Evanston. Yet, the Wildcats rallied together.

“It’s why we recruit the guys we do,” Fitzgerald said Monday at Big Ten media days. “They’re incredible leaders, captains and things of that nature.”

Led by quarterback Trevor Siemian, Colter’s replacement on the field and opposition in the union movement, the Wildcats worked to keep cohesion in the locker room, rather than letting differing opinions break them apart.

“It was a rallying point for us,” Siemian said. “It brought guys closer together, and the guys responded well.”

This all came together through a mutual respect. Each opinion discussed during the team’s many meetings were met with openness.

“When (teammates) are standing up and talking about their beliefs and their values, you get to know them,” linebacker Collin Ellis said. “That’s something you can sit there and respect —it doesn’t matter whether it’s for or against the union. They’re standing up for their beliefs and their values. How can you not get closer as a team?”

Added safety Ibraheim Campbell: “I would describe it as a very real team-building experience.”

Flood comfortable with Rutgers’ East Coast roots

Establishing a school’s brand in a grounded, historic conference like the Big Ten is already a great enough challenge for Rutgers. Doing so within the country’s largest market, New York City, is an even more daunting task.

This is what Rutgers coach Kyle Flood faces in the Scarlet Knights’ first season in the Midwest’s conference, the Big Ten. He knows there’s one way to make that transition easy.

“You got to win football games,” Flood said. “As you win football games, you gain notoriety, you’re on TV more. Winning solves all those problems.”

Rutgers is coming off a 6-7 finish in its only season as a member of the American Athletic Conference, but the Big Ten will be a far greater challenge.

One of Flood’s toughest tasks will be building a foundation for the Scarlet Knights’ recruiting ways as a member of the Big Ten — but he won’t change a thing.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to confuse us for a Midwestern school, located where we are,” Flood said. “Our recruiting footprint won’t change.”

One luxury that Flood is allowed with Rutgers is a firm commitment from the Big Ten in building wits brand on the East Coast. The Scarlet Knights won’t be made a stranger in their new conference. With that, Flood can keep his focus to building throughout the Big Apple.

“We are the team that moves the needle on TV in New York City, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “We’re New York’s Big Ten football team.”

Gordon gaining noterity

Melvin Gordon’s sensational season in 2013 wasn’t enough. He rushed for 1,609 yards, 12 touchdowns and averaged an absurd 7.8 yards per game. He wants more.

This is what led Gordon to pass up an NFL opportunity — one that surely would’ve led to a high-round selection in the draft — and return to Wisconsin for a senior season of promise.

“Melvin has the bar set very high for himself,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “That’s the expectation level of Melvin — to be an elite running back. It’s important for us to do all we can to help Melvin get in that position.”

In a Big Ten filled with talented offensive weapons, Gordon may well be the best around. He’s an explosive runner with breakaway speed — a threat for a big play on any given carry.

Beneath the surface of the tailback, he’s humble as they come. Nothing is ever truly good enough for Gordon.

“I am really hard on myself,” he said. “I am my toughest critic. Expectations from others, I don’t really care about too much, because they’ll be there. The pressure and things, I don’t worry about too much.”

It’s something Andersen has seen each day in working with Gordon. The Badgers’ second-year coach considers himself lucky to work with the dynamic runner, but even more so the modest teammate.

“There’s not a selfish bone in Melvin’s body,” Andersen said. “He wants to be on a great football team in Wisconsin, and be part of it. That’s the driving force behind him coming back, being the feature back.”

Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.

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