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The Big Ten is the conference everyone is talking about

John U. Bacon

  The Big Ten held its media days last week. Fourteen coaches told a few hundred reporters that their team chemistry has never been better, their senior leadership is outstanding, and they can’t wait to get back on the field – but one man stole the show.

Michigan’s new head coach Jim Harbaugh charmed the reporters with stories about everything from his daily commute to the office to his lifelong respect for Woody Hayes – yes, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, Michigan’s sworn enemy.

When Harbaugh left the podium for the next coach, some guy named Kyle Flood of Rutgers – whom you’ve never heard of and probably won’t again -- half the assembled media got up and left the room to follow Harbaugh into the hallway, to ask him still more questions. He happily obliged.

  Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio had to field plenty of questions, too – but his were about Michigan, and Harbaugh himself. He’s still getting them this week. What’s a fella have to do to get out of the shadow of a man who just arrived, and hasn’t even coached a Big Ten game yet?

Dantanio is the coach, after all, whose teams have won ten games in four of the last five seasons, three division titles, one Big Ten title, and two BCS bowl victories. Only one team in college football has been ranked in the top five the last two years. You could win a lot of bar bets if you knew the answer wasn’t Alabama, Florida State or Ohio State, but Michigan State.

Yet Rolling Stone just came out with a story stating that Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Harbaugh are the two top coaches in the Big Ten – and one of them, you might have heard, hasn’t coached a Big Ten game.

On ESPN, the one of the interviewers kept calling Mark Dantonio, “Mike Dantonio.”

I learned by coaching high school hockey that nothing motivates like disrespect. If that’s true, no one should be more motivated this year than Mark Dantonio and his Spartans.

Harbaugh is even getting more attention than Urban Meyer, who won two national titles at Florida, before taking over Ohio State in 2012. His first year, he took a 6-7 team that was on probation and ran the table with a perfect 12-0 record. The next year, the Buckeyes were also 12-0 until Michigan State upset them in the Big Ten title game.

Last year, after losing starting quarterback Braxton Miller to an injury in the off-season, the Buckeyes stumbled in their second game to Virginia Tech, then rattled off ten straight victories to claim another division title.

Problem is, that eleventh victory cost them another quarterback, J.T. Miller. So what’d they do? Urban Meyer rode his third string quarterback, Cardale Jones, to a stunning 59-0 whitewash of Wisconsin to sneak into the sport’s first four-team playoff. Then the heavy underdogs pulled off victories over Alabama and Oregon, in one of the greatest coaching jobs I have ever seen.

What is Urban Meyer’s reward for all this? More questions about Jim Harbaugh - who, as I might have mentioned, has yet to win a Big Ten game.

When Dantonio and Meyer get asked questions about the new guy, you can almost hear them gnash their teeth. It might drive them crazy, but they’re smart enough to use it for fuel. They know Harbaugh’s return brings more positive attention to the Big Ten, and that’s ultimately good for everyone.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Big Ten is the conference everyone is talking about. Viewers might even stick around long enough to see who wins the actual football games.

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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