CHICAGO – The days of three yards and a cloud of dust are long gone, but the Big Ten's reputation as a tough, physical conference where running games and punishing defenses rule might be on the way out as well.
The Big Ten players and coaches say that the conference has been infused with much more speed and better athletes in recent years and it's greatly changed the landscape of the league.
"I think that is a myth now," said Illinois new coach Ron Zook when asked if the Big Ten has slower and less athletic players than other top conferences during the second and final day of the Big Ten media days on Tuesday morning. "In the 1980s and early 1990s that may have been the case. A lot of people remember that Florida State-Michigan game in 1991 (Seminoles won 51-31) and the big speed differential back then but I really believe it has evened out. I know Iowa beat an awfully good LSU team that I know has a lot of speed in the Capital One bowl last season."
When Joe Tiller took over Purdue's program nine years ago, he immediately installed a spread offense that looked like it belonged in the Pac-10. Now, it doesn't look nearly as out of place as he notices similar offenses all over the league.
"I think the first year we came into the league there were two teams who had some kind of spread offense in their playbook and I got asked a lot of this type of offense can work in the Midwest," Tiller said. "Now there is not a single team that doesn't use some type of spread offense.
Tiller doesn't think he is responsible for the change. He points to the personnel.
"It's not because of what we did," he said. "I think defenses coaches and players love to see conventional formations because it means less preparation and they don't have to run as much. We also have a lot better athletes out there today. When we came to the Big Ten it had a reputation that they wanted to get you inside a phone booth and beat you up so they would get challenged to be beat out in space. Now, we are noticing a lot more wide receivers and secondary from this league in the NFL."
Michigan senior defensive end Pat Massey expects that trend to grow.
"The Big Ten is becoming a little bit more of a showcase for athletes and each year more and more teams are spreading the ball out more," he said.
Zook worked in the Big Ten as Ohio State's defensive backs coach from 1988-90 before spending the last three seasons in charge of Florida's program in the ultra-athletic SEC. He said the two leagues are very comparable now.
"I don't think there is a lot of difference between the Big Ten and SEC," Zook said. "Top to bottom they are both among the top leagues in the country."
RIVALS.COM RANKINGS GET THUMBS UP: Most current college players prefer to dispel recruiting rankings, but Penn State senior cornerback Alan Zemaitis publicly supports them when it comes to the Nittany Lions highly-touted freshmen duo of Derrick Williams and Justin King, who were ranked No. 1 and No. 10 in Rivals.com's 2005 recruiting rankings. "They say Derrick is the No. 1 recruit in the nation and that is exactly what he is," Zemaitis said. "I have never seen a freshman with his maturity level. I certainly wasn't that mature. He does a little bit of everything. He can be a possession receiver, a deep threat and an intermediate threat on crossing routes. You don't have to teach any technique to Justin. He just needs experience and he gives us a third guy that can play man-to-man so we won't go zone all the time. He can also play both ways." Williams and King both enrolled at Penn State in January and spent the spring participating in drills and traveling to in-state alumni functions with Joe Paterno.
IS JOE PA MORE FIT THAN HIS OWN PLAYERS?: Recruits and their families continue to ask when Joe Paterno will stop coaching and the answer remains the same. The legendary coach said he has no plans to retire anytime soon and even stood up from a table of reporters and showed that he can put both palms on the ground while standing up to demonstrate his flexibility. "I try to be as honest as I can with the recruits," Paterno said. "I feel good and I don't wake up not looking forward going to work. I can do things physically that players on our team can't do. I also want to win a national title. So staying around is an ego thing too." Paterno was not present on the first day of the event. He was tending to his wife who suffered a broken leg.
ATHLETICISM FIRST, WEIGHT SECOND: Minnesota coach Glen Mason was asked several times about what his secret is to recruiting offensive linemen throughout the event. All-America center Greg Eslinger and guard Mark Setterstrom were both low-profile recruits who have emerged as two of the top linemen in the nation. "We were the only major school to go after Greg," Mason said. "He came to our camp and weighed about 245 pounds. I thought by this time he might have a chance to be an All-Big Ten type of player. We really look for the more athletic guy, and we're not bashful about taking a guy that is a little more undersized. If anything we look for a guy that is tough."
BIG TEN STAYING PUT AT 11: With the ACC recently joining the Big 12 and the SEC as 12-team leagues with their own title game there has been speculation that the Big Ten will be next. But, Purdue coach Joe Tiller doesn't expect the league to search for a new member. "I think the philosophy in the Big Ten is that we don't need a 12th team," Tiller said. "I'm not so naive to realize that Notre Dame wouldn't be an excellent addition. But I don't think I could ever see us going in a different direction and it doesn't appear to be going in that direction."
NO MORE ROUNDBALL: Purdue's senior tight end Charles Davis played in 19 games for the basketball team last season but he may choose to stick with one sport in his final year of eligibility. "I love playing basketball but the demand for a 6-foot-6 center isn't out there like it used to be," Davis joked. "Coach (Matt) Painter offered me a spot but it's up in the air right now. I am leaning towards my football opportunities."