Many times – though admittedly not all the time – rivalries in sports are more for the fans than for the players and coaches directly involved. Often, any perceived bad blood between two teams is more media- or fan-driven than anything those directly associated with the organization or program is overly concerned with. Part of what makes sports so great is that fans hate rival teams.
Usually, though, a “rivalry” is somewhat contrived. Media spent a lot of time asking Penn State players about their “rivalry” with Ohio State last week. You could tell that, other than the Buckeyes generally being considered the class of the Big Ten over the past decade, there was no extra “oomph” of animosity for the team (whether that changed after a 63-14 loss in which OSU coach Urban Meyer challenged a second-half spot – that might be a different story).
However… you get the impression that the sore feelings the Penn State community has for Illinois and Illini head coach Tim Beckman remain raw more than 15 months after the Illini’s coaching staff showed little shame in showing up at University Park to recruit Nittany Lions players in the wake of the oppressive NCAA sanctions levied.
The actions were perfectly legal – but they touched a nerve with many associated with Penn State. Call it gentleman’s agreement, a nod to the seriousness of the situation or just pure politeness, most teams’ coaches preferred not to engage in staking out at Penn State.
In the end, only redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki couldn’t resist Beckman’s overtures. He never played for Illinois, though, and has since transferred to Northern Arizona of the Football Championship Subdivision. No harm, no foul, right?
Not so fast. O’Brien didn’t have the warmest of exchanges with Beckman following the Lions’ 35-7 win in Champagne last season. And although it seemed apparent that O’Brien instituted a gag order on talking about the Illinois recruit-gate, it wasn’t difficult to read between the lines that Penn State thoroughly enjoyed that particular win.
A year later, do the hard feelings still linger? It’s my impression that absolutely, they do. Again, players generally were delicate in talked around the issue – likely at the behesting of (re: under orders from) O’Brien. But, don’t kid yourselves, they remember. You can tell by their answers that they remember.
OT Garry Gilliam: “It happened, and we know it happened. I guess if certain players want to use that as fuel, so be it. Other than that, I can’t relay comment on it.”
LB Mike Hull: “We’ll definitely remember the situation and stuff, but now that we’re further removed now, we’re really not trying to focus on that. We’re focused on ourselves and getting better and taking care of things we can do better. We’ll just take care of ourselves so we will be good and not so much worry about what happened in the past.”
Interestingly, I reached out to a couple former Penn State players who exhausted their eligibility after last season. I figured that since they were no longer on the team, they might be more open to discuss their feelings for Illinois after what happened, but neither wanted to go on the record about the situation.
That leaves O’Brien and Beckman, each of whom, for different reasons, was loathe to discuss the on-campus recruiting of more than a year ago in the ramp up to their meeting this Saturday. The closest either got to doing so was via their responses to a reporter who asked each during the Big Ten’s weekly coaches’ teleconference about the postgame handshake tradition. I have no idea if this was this particular reporter’s way of sleuthing some sort of response out of either or it was just some coincidence (maybe he’s actually doing a story on the coaches’ handshake practice).
Regardless, here their answers, respectively, first to a general question about the tradition and then a follow-up about if it can be difficult to go through with the handshake after a tough loss or some other trying circumstance:
“I think we have great relationships in the Big Ten with our coaches. It is a tradition game that we play and game that we coach, and there is a – to me, being around this game, as I mentioned, my whole life – it’s important to show sportsmanship, to show those things that really matter, for the football players. I would say it’s very important and something I wall always take as one of those things in coaching that’s very important.”
“Sure it can, but I think that it’s our responsibility to teach our student athletes sportsmanship, and that’s part of being a sportsman. Nobody likes to lose by any means, but it’s not something that I think that should be taken for granted. I guess it’s part of the game and it’s a part of the game that should be kept as tradition.”
“I think it’s important to go across the field and say, ‘Good game,’ to the opposing coach.”
“I don’t find it very tough at all, no. With all due respect to your question, we’re talking about a lot of nothing right here.”
Again, I’ll leave it to you to interpret what you will from their answers.
One final note, one that I concede perhaps is me over-analyzing or simply reading too much into things. So please, by all means, take it with the proverbial grain of salt.
Of course, in the week leading up to every game, every coach is invariably asked for a general assessment of the opponent. The coach then proceeds to list all the great things about the opposing team, pretty much making them sound like the best team in the history of the world. You know the drill.
Take, for example, the press conferences leading up to each of the past three Penn State games: O’Brien, in carrying out his soliloquies on Michigan and Ohio State, dropped in a “they’re well-coached” for both.
There was no such phrase uttered by O’Brien this week.
Maybe it was just a casual, unintentional omission?