Mike Cagley, Co-Host Sports Spectacular and Big Sports Radio
October 7, 2023
Some random thoughts on a weekend that has a light Big Ten schedule.
We keep hearing rumblings that teams like Ohio State and Michigan will want to get more than their fair share of Big Ten money in the future. Many at these two universities feel they are the reason the Big Ten television contract is so much larger than any other collegiate conference and they'd like their cut of the revenue to fit their value in the marketplace. Why should Purdue, Illinois, and Indiana get as much revenue as the “Big Two” of the Big Ten?
Ideas designed to make sure more money gets into the hands of the teams at the top of the collegiate "value pyramid" have been floated for years. One is to have a Super League consisting of the best of each conference across the country could be formed to provide the highest level of competition ever in collegiate sports. Is there a chance of creating a Super League with only the best of the best teams competing at the top of college football?
How about multiple levels of collegiate leagues competing in a relegation style arrangement where the teams at the bottom of the higher league drop to a “lower level” league and a corresponding number of teams move up at the same time?
Aside from questions of how to schedule and budget for teams losing or gaining huge money by switching leagues on a semi-regular basis, I am not certain the fans of schools like Ohio State or Michigan could deal with the losing that might happen in a twelve or sixteen team super league with only the best of the best.
Let’s look at what some of the fans of the teams at the "lower tier" of the Big Ten have had to deal with since 1967 (the year I was born) and since 1991 (the year that John Mackovic left Illinois, ending a ten-year run that served as a “golden era” for the Illini). These years were arbitrarily selected because I’m writing the article. It is what it is.
Indiana fans have really had it tough:
Illinois fans have had to deal with a lot of losing:
Purdue fans have had it a bit better:
Now let’s look at some of the “middle tier” teams and how much their fans have enjoyed winning.
Iowa has had much more success:
Wisconsin has been more successful recently:
Now, let's look at "elite tier" at the top of the Big Ten, specifically Ohio State and Michigan.
Michigan has been at a high level for a long time:
Ohio State is at a level of its own:
If Michigan and Ohio State were in a conference with Alabama, Georgia, USC, Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, LSU, Penn State, Clemson, and Florida State - having winning records for 50 or 53 years out of 56 isn’t an automatic. How will fans of any of these teams react to bad streaks, or bad streaks followed by relegation? I'm not certain if most of the ADs and coaches associated with these schools would rather pass on some additional revenue as opposed to having to deal with the angry fans who wouldn't be able to win as much or as often as they have in the past.
There’s a reason why professional wrestling paid athletes like Barry Horowitz, Iron Mike Sharpe, the Brooklyn Brawler and Scrap Iron Gadaski as "jobbers" to lose to Hulk Hogan, the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Their losses as jobbers build up and establish the superstar wrestlers as being better in the eyes of the public and fans. There's a lesson there to be learned for the "elites" of college football. Life may be a lot better today than it could be tomorrow - if the wrong choices are made. Enjoy what you have now. These schools might not appreciate or even realize what a great situation they are in, until it's gone.
In college sports, the lesser teams in a conference serve two purposes.
When it comes to fanbases that want to win every game, aren't used to losing (I'm talking to Ohio State and Michigan fans here), and don't have the greatest handle on reality, it's not certain if these fans of the “elite” schools have what it takes join a Super League. A Super League is made only of "super" programs. These fans haven't had to deal with the tough times that fans of a Purdue, Illinois or Indiana have had to deal with over the past 50 years. In a Super League, no one is going to win double digits every year. If someone has to lose in every game, your team might be the team that is losing more often than it wins. There won't be 50 years of winning seasons for teams that only compete with the elite. Fans have to be aware of the new reality that Super Leagues represent. For many, they need to beware the Super League and appreciate your current conference affiliations - as "unfair" as you might believe an equal revenue split to be.
The Iowa Hawkeyes have a total mess on offense, again. Brian Ferentz, their offensive coordinator, who is also the son of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, has struggled to put together a unit that measures up to the performance of Iowa’s defense.
Let’s review the Hawkeyes offensive rankings in the Big Ten conference:
Calls for firing the offensive coordinator will most likely fall on deaf ears. Looking at those rankings, how could I dare to type that sentence?
Currently, Iowa is 4-1 with a 1-1 record in conference play. If you look at their schedule, there are currently no ranked teams left to play and only three (Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Rutgers) have winning records at this point in the season.
Even more ominous for Brian’s detractors is that Wisconsin is the only team that ESPN’s Matchup Predictor favors over Wisconsin. If ESPN’s Matchup Predictor is proven correct, the Hawkeyes will end up 10-2. Is any head coach going to fire their own son after a season in which their team finishes 10-2? We will see. Even at the poor pace of the offense's play, the Hawkeyes may feel no need to make a move to fire their offensive coordinator.
The Illini wrapped up year two of the Bielema coaching era. The team had just finished 8-5. This isn't an accomplishment for many of the teams listed in Hail Mary #1 above, but for the Illini, it was a heck of a season.
Earlier in the year, Ryan Walters was the recipient of a large pay increase designed to reward him for his success and make it harder for a smaller school to offer him a head coaching job. The new compensation would force many smaller schools to look at other candidates because they could not match his dollars from a compensation standpoint. After the season concluded, the Illini football program got hit by a metaphorical one-two punch that might have been too powerful for the program to simply shrug off and move forward. The program lost Ryan Walters, as he earned his first head coaching job at Big Ten next door neighbor, Purdue. It also lost three key Illini defenders who were selected in first three rounds of the NFL draft along with their star running back later in the draft. Add the loss of players and coaches together and it was a staggering one-two punch.
It's hard to know at this moment in time how much these two events had on the blossoming Bielema football program, but it is easy to determine that the Illini program was not (and is not) yet an Alabama or Ohio State level program. Those programs expect to lose and routinely replace contingents of players (to the draft and even the portal) and coaches getting promoted to other spots in collegiate football. Results that lead to heavy player and even coach movement are expected and actually hoped for (it means you're winning) in big time college football, but the timing couldn't be worse for a program that has struggled to win consistently since the 1981-1991 era.
Ryan Walters led the Illini defense to heights it hasn't performed to in my lifetime. Finishing #1 in the country in points allowed is a statistic that I never thought an Illini defense would or could ever accomplish. Under Ryan Walters, the defense catapulted the Illini into the national spotlight. Not to downplay the overall success of the defensive unit, but the play of the defense was supercharged by the play of five players - Newton and Randolph (who signed NIL deals to return) along with Witherspoon, Martin and Sydney Brown (all of whom were drafted in the first three rounds). When you add the fact that Walters took key Illini assistant coaches to Purdue with him, it left a gaping hole that a larger program like Ohio State could weather. Illinois may not be in position to do so very well.
It is now up to Bielema to stop the bleeding. The combination punch of players and coaches exiting the program at once was hard to overcome before the team had built adequate depth on the roster. While the obstacle of replacing coaches and players was placed in front of the Illini program for positive reasons (one wants coaches to get promoted due to on-the-field success and for players to go to the NFL), the timing couldn't have been worse. One wants players to go #5 in the NFL draft, but it would be better if recruiting had time to sign and prepare a replacement to be right there and ready to go.
In retrospect, we may look back on the loss of four key players to the draft, one talented defensive coordinator, along with two talented assistants: Kevin Kane (now Purdue Defensive Coordinator) and Cory Patterson (now Purdue Associate Head Coach) as a massive one-two combination of punches that either staggered the Illini football program under Bret Bielema or possibly knocked out that same program. It's too early to tell and hyperbole tends to run the internet directly after two bad losses in a row, but the program is 2-4 and facing a strong Maryland team in seven days.
Coach Bielema, his staff and the players have their work cut out for them. This can be looked at as Custer's Last Stand or an opportunity for young and/or unheralded players to get out on the field and prove themselves on the way to turning a season around.