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2018 Big Ten Preview Replaced by Off-Field Review

To listen to the audio version, just click play below.

Saturday marks the beginning of the Big Ten’s 123rd football season. It should be another exciting year, with Michigan and Michigan State both ranked in the top 14, playing in the Big Ten’s very tough East Division.

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.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their full name. 

My latest book, “The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts,” is on its second printing.

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.

I also join Michigan Radio’s great Cynthia Canty on her afternoon Stateside show every Monday for a few minutes, and occasionally on NPR’s Morning Edition, and the afternoon Here & Now show. Check ’em out!

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3 comments Leave a comment  

  • Josh August 31, 2018 at 10:41 am

    Well written and true. I’m just soo disappointed by this. We expect more from these community figures. It is hard to rail against this and the student athletes are the ones hurt by this. It’s too much and it just keeps coming. My tank of cynicism is starting to overflow.

  • Dave Thoits August 31, 2018 at 11:20 am

    wonderful piece, john.

    as per usual.

    and then there’s the single osu board member who followed his conscience by:

    departing the meeting when it became clear where things were heading.


    did some research on this gentleman, a recently “retired” ceo of a $6 billion enterprise. as heavy a hitter as any of the government appointments who make up the osu board.

    along with possibly the president, looks like the only one with any semblance of a backbone, too.

    so sad.

    osu wants so much to be more like michigan i’ve always felt. won’t ever happen will it.

    no one is.

    go blue.

    big fan of your work, john.


    dave thoits

    claremont, california

    M bba, 1971

    909. 267. 0071


  • Ann Voorhees August 31, 2018 at 1:28 pm

    I’m counting on Michigan to be on top of trainers, coaches, students, staff – fostering honor, good sportsmanship and safety for all.

    Also counting on that Big Ten title. Good article, John. Thanks.

    Blessings to those who suffered injuries, fair trials and felony convictions for the abusers.


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