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Big Ten Preview 2018

John U. Bacon

I usually spend the Friday before Labor Day predicting what’s going to happen in Big Ten football. But this year, so much has already happened off the field that it threatens to eclipse whatever might happen on it.

Let’s start with Michigan State. By now you’ve heard plenty about former sports doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually assaulting female athletes during their treatments. Since Nassar was sentenced, his boss, Dr. William Strampel, has also been charged with criminal sexual misconduct, and former gymnastics coach Kathie Klages just turned herself in this week for lying to police twice during an investigation. To call this a mess is to understate the case considerably.

None of this directly affects football coach Mark Dantonio, but the atmosphere surrounding him already has. After athletic director Mark Hollis stepped down, interim President John Engler named Bill Beekman the interim AD, with the promise that Beekman would not be a candidate to become full-time athletic director. Then Engler named Beekman the full-time athletic director. And that’s not even close to the strangest thing Engler has done in his brief tenure.

The Nassar scandal brought more scrutiny to all Michigan State teams, including some football players accused of sexual misconduct. I have long predicted Dantonio will weather this storm, but thanks to others his margin of error has shrunk considerably.

Then there’s Ohio State, which was forced to address reports that a former athletic department doctor had sexually abused hundreds of wrestlers. The ripples have already reached the U.S. Congress, where former Ohio State assistant wrestling coach Jim Jordan now seeks to become Speaker of the House. He has repeatedly claimed he never knew anything about his athletes being abused by the team doctor.

I don’t know Jim Jordan, or any Ohio State wrestlers, and I don’t get into politics in this spot, but allow me to say this: Bull. I’ve played, coached, and reported on enough teams to know there are very few secrets on any high school or college squad. Stay tuned.

While the Buckeyes were dealing with that tragedy, football coach Urban Meyer decided to make a bad situation worse when he declared he knew nothing about assistant coach Zach Smith’s alleged domestic violence incidents. Meyer’s story quickly fell apart, resulting in an internal investigation, a three-game suspension for Meyer, and an apology that was so bad, two days later Meyer had to issue an apology for his apology. The second time he included the actual victim.

Easy bet: this saga will be running long after Meyer returns.

And this brings us to Maryland, where a 19-year old player named Jordan McNair died during a team workout. McNair didn’t seem to suffer from a congenital heart defect, just an overbearing strength coach, Rick Court, who didn’t seem to know when enough was enough, or didn’t care.

Court was fired, and I suspect his boss, head coach DJ Durkin, won’t be far behind. Maryland suspended Durkin three weeks ago, and with their season opener tomorrow, he’s still suspended. It’s not clear what the hold-up is, but I’m guessing it’s lawyers haggling over the terms of Durkin’s dismissal.

For all the variables here, there has been one constant: coaches telling you one day their teams are so close they’re like family, and the next day that they don’t know anything about any of them.

The Big Ten prides itself on being the cleanest major conference, with reason. None of the scandals above provide a competitive advantage. They’re all far more serious than that. But collectively they make the league look out of control. And that effects everyone connected to it.

Oh yeah. Football. I think the winner of the Michigan-Michigan State game will take the Big Ten title. There you go.

John U. Bacon is the author of ten books, six of them national bestsellers. His latest, Best of Bacon: Select Cuts, is out now. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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