(Audio version of the story can be heard here.)
No conference was under more scrutiny than the Big Ten this football season.
Before the year even started, the conference was plagued with scandal. Ohio State suspended five of its best players and fired one of the most successful coaches in Big Ten history – Jim Tressel - as the result of a series of events that involved players receiving tattoos and other benefits in exchange for memorabilia.
Months later, the winningest coach in ALL of college football – Joe Paterno - was fired due to his inaction in a child sexual abuse case that brought criminal charges against the man who was once considered his heir apparent at Penn State, former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
To call the Big Ten’s 2011 football season tumultuous would be an understatement.
What happened on the gridiron was an afterthought to the events taking place away from the field.
“I think we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t say that all of that stuff has had an impact on the national perception of the league,” said Big Ten Network host Dave Revsine.
The transgressions of two of the most prominent programs in the conference, Ohio State and Penn State, brought the Big Ten under a national microscope. College football in general is trying to shed a handful of stigmas and, for the past year, the Big Ten has been front and center in the major controversies.
“I think the scandals do some damage because the Big Ten is thought of as a league that doesn’t have things like that especially to its marquee programs,” said ESPN writer Adam Rittenberg. “For Penn State and Ohio State to go through very different situations, but still negative situations, hurts the league.”
The conference was, and in many ways still is, hurting. Saturday was a pivotal step in the healing process.
Michigan State and Wisconsin competed in the first ever Big Ten Championship Game. For the first time in about a year, the primary focus, if only for the night, was on what happened in between the white lines.
“It’s like an early Christmas present for the Big Ten to get a game like this, [having] faces like Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson, great representatives for their schools, and the teams that played a great game earlier in the year, to really divert the attention from Penn State which has dominated the conversation now for a month,” said Rittenberg.
If simply having the game was Christmas, what transpired on the field was like the Fourth of July. There were fireworks from start to finish.
The Spartans and Badgers played a thriller for the second time this season with Wisconsin coming away with a 42-39 win to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.
“It felt great to be Legends Division winners, to come in and be part of this inaugural Big Ten championship game, it was great,” said Michigan State wide receiver B.J Cunningham. “It was a great game.”
The two schools participating in the Championship Game have avoided problems and scandal, but the setbacks of their peer programs had ripple effects.
“There is no doubt there has been some large, negative stories related to intercollegiate athletics and those touch us all in a bad way and you have to step back and look at some of the lives that are changed,” said Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis.
The title game in Indianapolis was a start, but the Big Ten still is in the early stages of trying to put the pieces back together after a year of incidents that tore some of its history and reputation apart.
Football games can’t erase the damage, but they can help reinforce the positive.
“I think as for our league, I think we're a very balanced league from top to bottom. Anybody can get anybody on any given Saturday,” said Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema. “That speaks volumes about the type of people that we have in our locker room.”
Few people in the Big Ten have felt the effects of scandal more than Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still. The conference Defensive Player of the Year spent the final weeks of his senior season consumed in a world of controversy.
His coach was fired, his peers were widely criticized for rioting in the wake of the firing, and he and his teammates lost two of their final three games and fell out of contention for the conference championship.
The script was anything but ideal for Still. But he credits football with helping him and the rest of the Penn State family move forward.
“We went through a lot at Penn State this year and I think it brought us closer together as a team,” he said. “We’ve been good since the whole situation happened. It made us come closer together and it made us mentally stronger.”
It’s a shame controversy dominated the Big Ten headlines, because the conference as a whole has plenty to celebrate. Ten of the 12 teams qualified for a bowl and two will likely play in the Bowl Championship Series. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball is just one touchdown away from tying Barry Sanders' NCAA single season record and the Big Ten welcomed nearly three-and-half million fans to stadiums during the conference season, which is a record.
The 2011 Big Ten season will forever be remembered for the off-field problems, but its final day was a vivid reminder of what makes it special.
“This is a great feel-good weekend,” said Revsine. “It’s high profile. It’s the first time we’ve had this [championship game]. ..All of this combines to make this a good weekend and a weekend the Big Ten probably needs.”