By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) College football fans in the Midwest celebrate Big Ten Media Days as if the event were some regional holiday. It does, to some extent, mark the beginning of the college football season, but it also does little to provide any insight into it.
Coaches are asked the same questions 5,000 times — an unavoidable consequence because media members divide time between coaches’ breakout tables and can’t possibly hear every question — and answer with the same platitudes. The event is basically graded pass/fail for every coach.
Don’t embarrass your program, and you pass.
Given the carnage that former Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas and coach Tim Beckman left the school’s football program, it was refreshing to watch newly minted coach Lovie Smith actually act professionally Tuesday and not diverge into such nonsense like defining the meaning of “Oskee.” (Beckman will forever remain in Media Days lore for his diatribe on the topic).
So, Smith’s professional, polished approached earned him a passing grade when he addressed the media.
While such a mark is as meaningless as a passing grade in gym class, Smith should get credit for beginning to change the perception of the Illini football program. Smith and his NFL resume look like they belong next to Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio much more so than Beckman’s chewing tobacco and visor.
Harbaugh, Meyer and Dantonio have all accomplished a great deal on the college level, having reached heights that Smith and his Illini aspire to. For his part, Smith is returning after a hiatus that lasted a couple decades. So anything he did Tuesday was much more style than substance.
Every coach inevitably delves into the following topics: the team’s seniors, recruiting (which, fittingly, per NCAA rules, they can only talk about generally) and their excitement about the start of training camp.
Then coaches choose to discuss one of the following two topics: the “honor” or “privilege” of representing their university. In Smith’s case, he chose to discuss both.
I’m not blaming Smith or any of the coaches for talking so generally. What are they supposed to say about a season that hasn’t happened? They’re in the business of results, not predictions. And veering into forecasting the season wouldn’t net positive results for any coach.
The Big Ten does do a great job of putting on all its events. It’s a great opportunity for media members to get face-to-face time with all the coaches when travel logistics might otherwise prevent that. Having dealt with them all, I can attest that the Big Ten is the most media-friendly of all the major conferences.
While we can’t leave Tuesday’s media session with an encyclopedic understanding of what the 2016 Illini football season might look like, we do know this much: There’s a more capable face leading the program.
Beyond that we’ll have to wait until, at least, training camp and more likely the first few weeks of the season to see how successful Illinois may be.
If it seems like I just talked a lot about nothing, then you’ve caught on. Because that’s exactly what we learned Tuesday.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.