Big Ten Country is going on its summer sabbatical now, and will return to regular blogging at the start of August. As usual, throughout the summer, it will be worth checking back as I'll be adding some historical information & articles on the side columns and doing summer remodeling. To end the year, here's ten shining moments from Big Ten action over the past academic year. Just imagine Luther Vandross being cued up and the music playing, as the moments run past...
10)Tubby Finds A Home: Tubby Smith guided Minnesota basketball back into winning ways. This one could have ranked a little higher had the Gophers made the NCAA Tournament or pulled a signature upset. But even without those, a coach who was underappreciated at Kentucky and comes to get a downtrodden Minnesota program respectable again is surely a story worth remembering.
9)In Memory of Terry: Indiana football lost head coach Terry Hoeppner in his fight with brain cancer, but the program retained his fighting spirit. The Hoosiers made their first bowl game since 1993 in honor of the man they called "Hoepp".
8)Shedding An Old Rap: Michigan State football built up a reputation as one that couldn't close the deal. But with a winning season on the line in the finale against Penn State, the Spartans were staring at 17-point deficit. Not only did they not quit, the offense suddenly looked unstoppable as they shredded a good defensive team and rallied for a win. It got them a Champs Sports Bowl bid.
7)Giant Killers In The Valley: Penn State returned the favor in basketball season. The Nittany Lion program still struggled, but they delivered stunning home wins against both Michigan State & Indiana that were huge factors in pushing those teams out of the conference race. More impressive, the Lions did it without their best player, as Geary Claxton was lost to a knee injury.
6)Freshman In West Lafayette: Matt Painter was supposed to be on a rebuilding year with four freshman playing. But led by Robbie Hummel, these Boilermakers were the surprise of the Big Ten, as they contended for the conference title to the very last week of the season.
5)Pasadena Bound: Ron Zook made believers out of doubters and gave new hope to Illinois football fans. His team warmed up with wins over Wisconsin & Penn State, then stunned Ohio State on the road. It all added up to a Rose Bowl bid and continued success on the recruiting trail, as Zook continues to rejuvenate Illini football.
4)A Historical Bookend: The Michigan football program was making history to start the year back in September, when they lost to Appalachian State. They ended the year by making history of a more positive kind, as offensive tackle Jake Long became the first Wolverine chosen first in the NFL draft since 1941.
3)A Fast Rebuild In Madison: That was quick. Wisconsin's basketball team lost Player of the Year Alando Tucker, and not only didn't miss a beat, but were a little stronger for the wear. Bo Ryan's program captured the third conference championship of his tenure, and the second outright crown.
2)A Fast Rebuild In Columbus: That was quick. Ohio State's football team lost Heisman winner Troy Smith and still rolled to another Big Ten title and another trip to the BCS National Championship Game.
1)Keeping Faith: Indiana basketball fans had the great sports temptation placed in front of them. Their proud basketball program was finally back on its winning ways, in the mix for a Big Ten title and seen as a legitimate Final Four threat. Then it came out that Kelvin Sampson was again abusing his telephone privileges when it came to recruiting. It would have been easy enough to fall back on justification or other excuses. There are, after all, far worse violations being committed daily. IU fans could hardly have been blamed if they weren't ready to die on this hill.
But the fans showed they were different and that the long-standing reputation for integrity built up by Bob Knight over decades and sustained by Mike Davis (who came in for harsh words here and elsewhere, but was always squeaky-clean) mattered more then wins and losses. It took the university leadership a little longer to reach the same conclusion, but pushed along by public pressure they moved Sampson out. The IU season suffered for it, as the team was not the same after that point. But the grass-roots populace of Indiana had made a clear statement of what they wanted their program to be about.
Surely, seeing the common folk of Indiana overturn a recalcitrant administration was a good retirement gift for Knight, who stepped down at Texas Tech. And call me corny, but I think that kind of statement was what Big Ten sports is about. This is the best conference in the country. Not because our teams are always the best. The SEC has us in football, and the ACC owns us in hoops. But when it comes to playing athletics at a high level and still retaining a sense of priorities, no one matches the Big Ten. That's why I love the conference I grew up around, and it's a value system Indiana basketball fans rose up to protect.
Everyone have a great summer, and see you back here in August!