Why I love my job: Over the last two weeks, three B1G coaches reminded us all why college football is so special
The overflowing mugs of coffee and the large cans of energy drinks weren’t cutting it this season. Even as a B1G football writer, and someone who grew up digesting the conference happenings every single week, I was starting to believe this college football season was a dud.
Games have been lopsided. Upsets have been rarer than the steaks in Pittsburgh. Marquee matchups have been unentertaining. At times, I’ve wondered if I could pop in Casablanca or Citizen Kane and just do my job via box score.
Ohio State and Penn State have been fun to watch, clearly two of the top teams in the sport. Minnesota has been the darling in college football, starting 8-0 this year. The struggles of Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan despite high expectations have provided storylines aplenty.
Still, something about this season just hasn’t provided that same zip we get from the opening kickoff of the season until the scoreboard strikes zero in the national championship game. Maybe it’s just me getting older, but I was pretty unenthused by the first half of the season.
And then the last two weeks happened, providing me with the rejuvenation that I needed — something that no amount of caffeine could replicate. It wasn’t even the product on the field, grabbed my attention, and slapped me across the field. Three B1G coaches did that, actually.
The raw emotion from Lovie Smith, P.J. Fleck and Tom Allen reminded me that college football is more than a game, and that there’s more to the sport than simply the final score. It was exactly the kick in the pants that I needed now that we’re into the second half of the B1G season.
What better way to remember those attitude-changing moments (for me) than write about them?
Lovie Smith is overjoyed when Illinois secures a ‘signature win’
Not much emotion comes from Lovie Smith on the sideline. If Big Ten Network dedicated a camera entirely focusing on Smith for the entirety of a game, you’d probably have no idea whether the Illini won by a touchdown or loss by 60. With so much coaching experience in his background, he’s developed an unbelievably placid demeanor in every respect.
So when Tony Adams intercepted Jack Coan late in the fourth quarter, giving the Illini a chance to pull off the upset, Smith leaped off the ground, throwing a fierce fist-pump into the air after the momentum-changing turnover.
— Illinois Athletics (@IlliniAthletics) October 19, 2019
Then James McCourt drilled a 39-yard field goal to deliver the knockout blow to No. 6 Wisconsin, lifting Illinois to a 24-23 victory. Smith sprinted onto the field with his team, throwing his hands into the air, celebrating the biggest win of his career in Champaign.
For most coaches, the reaction Smith had is pretty instinctive. But for the Illinois head coach, what seems like a miniature celebration is the equivalent of running bare-chested around a soccer pitch, helicopter-swinging a jersey over your head.
The relief and excitement could be heard in Smith’s voice in the postgame interview with Rick Pizzo, too. Yes, Smith had to battle the yells of hundreds of jubilant Illini fans celebrating a huge win, but you could tell the head coach was equally as thrilled.
"We needed to get a signature win, I was just hoping today was the day, and the day came!" 🙌@IlliniFootball HC Lovie Smith reacts to their first win over a ranked Big Ten opponent since 2007. 👏 pic.twitter.com/SxEh0okS9k
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) October 19, 2019
Before that victory, Illinois was just 11-31 under Smith, never made a bowl game and lacked a program-changing victory. Smith’s job was thought to be in jeopardy and the Illini were on the verge of having to start from scratch. Again.
Smith’s emotions serve as evidence that he understood the magnitude of that victory. For the first time in four years, he was able to celebrate season-altering win.
P.J. Fleck shares emotional moment with Casey O’Brien after first college snap
We were first introduced to Casey O’Brien at B1G Media Days in July, when the courageous Minnesota place holder shared his story about a four-time battle with cancer, each victory over the disease more incredible than the other. He was the keynote speaker and was rewarded with a standing ovation when his speech concluded.
O’Brien’s story is remarkable. His positive outlook on life is admirable.
It was extremely easy to root for O’Brien when, two weeks ago against Rutgers, his number was called and he was on the field for his first collegiate snap. It was hard not to be emotional when the team celebrated his first career appearance. And it came at Minnesota, playing a game in the B1G.
When O’Brien came off the field, he grabbed P.J. Fleck and the two had a long, emotional embrace, providing us with one of the best moments in college football this year.
If you don’t think PJ Fleck is a genuine dude, that’s a you problem. pic.twitter.com/V7aqY7OrPq
— Dustin Schutte (@SchutteCFB) October 19, 2019
Sometimes, Fleck gets labeled as too gimmicky or over-the-top. His use of acronyms and slogans is enough to annoy several college football fans. If he’s not you’re cup of tea, I get that.
But one thing you can’t take away from Fleck is the genuine care and appreciation he has for his players. And if you needed a reminder that these players and coaches are still battling real-life situations on a daily basis, just like the rest of us, this moment between Fleck and O’Brien is an incredible reminder of that.
Tom Allen’s tearful postgame interview after Indiana becomes bowl eligible
Football has never been the supreme sport in Bloomington, always viewed as a fall activity for students until basketball season kicks off. Even when the Hoosiers have been competitive, it’s been hard to pack Memorial Stadium. Not many coaches consider Indiana a dream destination.
Tom Allen does.
Allen has unfairly been portrayed as a “glorified high school coach” in his first two seasons at Indiana. Nobody ever questioned his energy and enthusiasm, but the question was whether he understood the Xs and Os well enough to win at a B1G level.
Those questions continued to surface in his first two seasons, when Indiana finished 5-7 and won just two B1G games each year. Allen continued to bring in highly-ranked recruiting classes, but the results weren’t showing up on the field.
Everything changed on Saturday. Indiana walked into Memorial Stadium in Lincoln with a 5-2 record, and walked away with a 38-31 win over Nebraska and its sixth win of the season, guaranteeing a spot in the postseason, it’s first since 2016. It’s also the earliest the program has reached the six-win mark since 1993 — Bill Clinton’s first full year in the White House.
Indiana proved all the doubters wrong before the calendar turned to November. Allen was overcome with emotion on the field.
Tom Allen. Must watch. pic.twitter.com/AEsvU0piiG
— Dustin Schutte (@SchutteCFB) October 26, 2019
Some programs, simply earning bowl eligibility isn’t much of an accomplishment. At Indiana, it’s been nearly impossible to reach six wins on a consistent basis.
Allen’s tearful interview was another demonstration of how much he loves the Indiana football program, his staff and his players. It’s not easy to find that kind of passion in Bloomington. Not on the football field at least.