The Big Ten welcomed the 2022 season under the bright lights of Lucas Oil Stadium Tuesday, where Commissioner Kevin Warren opened the floor to plenty of questions regarding expansion, NIL, diversity and much more. Half of the conference’s coaches and a selection of athletes took the field over the course of the day, including Pat Fitzgerald, cornerback Cameron Mitchell, offensive lineman Peter Skoronski and defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore. Below, we’ve rounded up the major storylines, both conference- and Northwestern-related, from the media sessions.
The Big Ten’s Approach: Boldness and Innovation
If you thought Warren repeated the phrases “bold” and “change” umpteen times, you weren’t mishearing.
The three-year commissioner effectively began his address with, “I want to spend a few moments talking about transformation, strength, power, boldness, and the Big Ten Conference.”
An extension of the Big Ten’s adjustments was the addition of a student-athlete advisory committee to help provide feedback to administrators. Warren also cited honing in on diversity and inclusion efforts, especially in recent weeks.
“In the Big Ten Conference, there’s so much you can learn, not only in the classroom, but in those experiences that you have in the world that we live in,” said Warren regarding the conference’s series of programming and conferences in Selma, Ala. “This is something that we’ll do every single day.
“We’ve made a lot of progress. We will continually do better, but diversity and inclusion is incredibly important to me personally and to the Big Ten Conference.”
In terms of change, Warren talked at length about the Big Ten’s additions of USC and UCLA — more on that in a bit — but stressed that no efforts are made without prioritizing the experience of student-athletes.
“While the dollars are important to our member institutions, it’s really about the platform to provide financial stability to our member institutions so we can provide excellent healthcare, mental health services, life skills programs and even educational experiences to our student-athletes,” Warren said.
Transformation is not just limited to conference members — which, as Warren alluded to, could see more shifts in the future. The commissioner also touched upon the College Football Playoff, which claims a polarizing format.
“I’m 100% supportive for College Football Playoff expansion,” Warren said. “What is that right number? We’ll figure it out. I’m confident we’ll get College Football Playoff expansion resolved.” Additionally, Warren mentioned a goal of having more than one media partner for the CFP.
Ultimately, Warren strives to ensure that the Big Ten will position itself for decades-long success, serving as a paragon for development and ingenuity.
“I want to make sure that we not only make the right decisions for our student-athletes and for our games and our competitions and our academic opportunities and our fans,” Warren said, “but I want to make decisions that, when we look back 30 years from now, that people will say that the Big Ten Conference was ahead of the curve in making these decisions.”
The Big Ten’s clinquant new additions of USC and UCLA were unquestionably a hot topic during Tuesday’s media sessions.
Warren spoke greatly and optimistically about bringing in the two California giants, noting their legacies and strengths.
“These are two academic and athletic institutions and a strong location in Los Angeles with great rich history and tradition, who are innovative, who are forward-thinking, who are bold, who will make us even stronger as a conference,” Warren said. “I look forward to welcoming these two fine institutions into the Big Ten Conference, to working with them, to making our conference even stronger than it already is.”
To the awe of some, Warren underscored how bringing in the pair of Golden State schools will, above all, help improve the Big Ten’s ability to create top-notch viewing.
“The thing that I’m most excited about during these negotiations have been the creativity that we’ll be able to deliver to our fans and to our student-athletes and to our families,” Warren said. “I always talk about [how] my focus every day is to make sure we deliver content to our fans from age 5 to 105 because people consume content differently.”
Warren also mentioned that UCLA and USC will become enshrined as full members in August 2024 and that a readiness committee will help acclimate them to the conference. The two schools will also receive a full share of the Big Ten’s revenue immediately, a large change from schools like Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland, which took six years to gain full membership.
The Big Ten football coaches generally echoed Warren’s sentiments regarding expansion.
“I think it’s a win for the conference,” Maryland HC Michael Locksley said. “To add those two type of teams that have storied history is a win for the Big Ten.”
“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘L.A., are you kidding me? That’s perfect,’” Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said. “The Big Ten now is represented from the West Coast to the East Coast. You look at the major media markets now, that’s incredibly positive.”
Questions arose regarding travel, but coaches seemed to dismiss them, anticipating that they would eventually be determined at some point in the next two years.
The addition of Southern California isn’t limited to the present gridiron. The coaches discussed how playing in that region will affect recruiting — a good part of it positive, too.
“Does playing out there help recruiting? Yes and no,” Fleck said. “I think it’s very different than it used to be ten years ago, where kids can live stream games, watch any game they want, they have all the types of resources on their phones.”
“Absolutely, it’s gonna help,” Fitzgerald said. “If we’re gonna play there more frequently, it’s gonna help. There’s no doubt about it. We’ll definitely use it.”
Wildcats Embrace a New, Unabashed Confidence
Northwestern’s 3-9 record last season reflects a team that looked lackadaisical, non-competitive and outmatched in nearly every contest. Even after an ugly season, no Wildcat is flinching.
Fitzgerald posited that a major element to NU’s lack of success in 2021 was thrusting more inexperienced players into starting roles. The 16-year HC believes his squad will field more veterans this year.
“For us a year ago, we were maybe one of the youngest from an experience standpoint in the Big Ten where a lot of teams had most of their COVID guys come back,” Fitzgerald said. “we’re back to that experience level with about 65 percent of our production.”
It wasn’t just experience, though. NU players believe that the team has gained an edge in practice and on the field this year — one that it lacked in 2021.
“Everything’s more urgent,” Adebawore said. “Guys are [not just] comfortable. Guys are finding ways to be better. Guys are hungry.”
“After a season like that, you can’t prepare the same way that you did,” Mitchell said. “You’ve got to develop a different mindset going into that season.”
Debating whether to ignore the results from last year or brutally scrutinize them for motivation has its merits. The ‘Cats seemingly prefer the latter, utilizing it as fuel for areas of tinkering.
“It’s just one thing that we’ve always gone back to,” Skoronski said. “[If] we’re going through a tough workout or a tough practice, we think, ‘Remember Illinois,’ ‘Remember Nebraska,’ something like that. I don’t think you could ever really fully flush something like that.”
“Going into the offseason, it was real self-reflective,” Mitchell said. “We had to take a step back and acknowledge what went wrong. Not pointing fingers — just put the hard hat on and get to work.”
Fitzgerald expressed that he wants media members or fans to label Northwestern a “winner.” Even after a 2021 that wholly failed to meet expectations, NU’s players expect to win in spades this season.
“We’ve worked really hard as a team,” Adebawore said. “We’ll be really good.”
Some believe that Northwestern should look to reach .500 or make a bowl game this season. That isn’t sufficient in the mind of its players or head coach, who aim to win the Big Ten. Excitement is palpable regarding the chance to set the tone early on an international stage for a promising campaign ahead.
“Coming off of last season, this is the kind of attention that we want,” Mitchell said. “We want to be on the big stage so we can prove what we’ve done.”
With the format of the Big Ten Media Days, Fitzgerald was given 15 minutes to speak at the large podium in front of everyone before getting one hour at a side stage for reporters and journalists to ask questions without having to be selected prior. The way that this order was formatted meant that media members bounced around between stations, often asking the same questions to Fitz and Co. that had already been asked before.
As a result of this, the Media Days left us with many unanswered questions. After Fitzgerald had already patiently answered the same questions 20 times about what it would be like to play in Dublin, or his thoughts on USC and UCLA moving to the conference, the coach’s time limit was up, and we were left wondering so much about the team itself that wasn’t answered.
For example, not a single reporter asked questions about the quarterback situation. No questions were asked about who he believed would step up in experience-deficient position groups like wide receiver or linebacker, and there were none regarding what changes Fitz and the coaching staff would be taking in order to not repeat last season.
With all of these questions about the roster and the team’s performance on the field left unasked, we’re looking forward to hopefully a more Northwestern-centric media day or practice availability prior to the season in which we will be able to hear these performance-related questions answered.
- Fitzgerald expects that RB Evan Hull could play a big part in the return game.
- Fitzgerald noted that RB Cam Porter, who suffered a season-ending lower leg injury in August 2021, is “pretty darn close to full speed.” The NU coach also said that it’s been “inspiring” to see how hard the junior has worked to rehab.
- The relationship between Skoronski and Rashawn Slater is everything fans could have asked for and more. The two are good friends, with Skoronski consistently consulting Slater for blocking advice and emulating the current Pro Bowler.
- The ‘Cats are very high on their receiver room and secondary. Mitchell noted the depth of the defensive backfield, highlighting Jaheem Joseph and newcomer Jeremiah Lewis as players providing defensive versatility.
- 2022 will be a season marked by players seizing opportunities, and that particularly applies to a reset defensive line. “Those guys are really stepping up, and I’m excited to see what they can do for us,” Adebawore said about transfer additions. The senior also noted how hard sophomores like Najee Story and Aidan Hubbard have been working.
- Northwestern players don’t have one particular contest circled on their calendars or a player they’d most like to line up against — not even the powerful Ohio State Buckeyes at Ryan Field on Nov. 5. Rather, they’re simply eager to rush the field, no matter the setting or ambiance.
- Fitzgerald preached about recruiting the “right fit” to the team. This was detailed in recruiting transfers and high-quality high school players, where athletes might have a very talented skillset, but don’t fit into the identity of Northwestern. He echoed that, even in the changing world of the NCAA transfer portal, the school would continue to “play by the rules.”
- More from Fitz on recruiting in the transfer portal: “We collectively have a blueprint of what we do and how we do things. When things don’t go well but you’ve had consistent success like we’ve had — maybe not where we want to be but we’ve had consistent success program-wise — you make little tweaks to the dial.” Fitzgerald gave credit to Michigan State Coach Mel Tucker in rebuilding with lots of transfers last year before saying, “I don’t think that’s sustainable at Northwestern. I don’t think that fits our model. We’re going to be a scholastic high school recruiting model. That fits who we are. We’re a developmental program; we don’t run from that, we embrace that. To be able to fill [through the transfer portal] to make sure we have competitive depth is kind of our motto.”
- Fitzgerald said to expect an announcement regarding timing for the renovations to Ryan Field “soon.” He mentioned the same about Northwestern’s potential interim home stadium when construction gets underway, which would be the ‘Cats’ new primary venue for one or two seasons.
- Nebraska head coach Scott Frost shared that his team “didn’t earn” the right to play in Dublin, as is the case for a typical bowl game in a unique destination. NU’s coach and players feel similarly, viewing it from a perspective of handling business rather than relishing the trip or game itself.
- It’s easy to tell there’s a fundamental level of respect between the coaches and their respective programs. For context, Fitzgerald noted the longstanding success of Ohio State and his relationship with the Harbaugh brothers as well as with Illinois head coach Brent Bielema, joking that he roots for Bielema in every game except for against NU.
- And finally, the most important news of the day:
Fitz says he's not eating In-N-Out on recruiting trips to California until Northwestern wins the Rose Bowl.— Inside NU (@insidenu) July 26, 2022