Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
Before TV and radio stations get their turn at Big Ten media day, each head coach is expected to hold two press conferences for the non-electronic media: One at a podium in the large main hall, so everyone among the 1,500 or so credentialed media members can get quotes from all 12 coaches, and another while standing at a special interview table just outside, for writers who want to spend extra time with a specific coach.
It was at that second, um, "gathering" that the current standing of Minnesota football in the consciousness of the Big Ten really hit home.
Jerry Kill stood at the coaches' table for several minutes Thursday, genially taking questions from every reporter, blogger and writer there with an interest in the Gophers' upcoming season -- me. As we chatted about his players, his expectations, and his Gopher-maroon jacket, I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting other reporters to join this unexpected one-on-one. After all, the crowds that had surrounded Urban Meyer and Bo Pelini at this same table were usually six deep -- huge scrums that made it impossible to hear from the back.
About five minutes went by before a stringer for the New York Times approached, but just to ask Kill a quick question about the day's main topic: recruiting players away from Penn State. After that? On my own again.
We chatted a little longer, until finally, a couple more reporters approached the table. Then a few more, and more, and more. But nobody asked a question; in fact, hardly anyone even looked at Kill, much less listened to him. Pretty soon, we actually had to move a few steps away from the table as the crowd grew. A Big Ten intern finally told us what was going on -- Michigan's Brady Hoke was due at the table in a moment.
"Winning changes everything," Kill said of his less-than-crushing media load. "You've got to win to make people notice you."
Apparently so. The Gophers were clearly the overlooked step-child of media day; even Indiana's contingent got more attention, and Kevin Wilson's team didn't beat an FBS level team last year. But as Kill said, he couldn't take the lack of curiosity about the Gophers personally. They haven't challenged for a conference title in decades, haven't been to a Rose Bowl in half a century, and haven't won more than three Big Ten games since 2005.
And in a league with telegenic personalities like Urban Meyer, Brady Hoke and Bret Bielema, not to mention a team like Nebraska with what seems like more media members than the rest of the conference combined, it can be hard to get noticed.
In the main hall, a moderator usually has to cut off questions for coaches once their 15 allotted minutes are up. Kill's session ended after only six minutes. Later, as he and the trio of Gopher players picked to represent the school -- linebacker Keanon Cooper, quarterback MarQueis Gray and offensive tackle Ed Olson -- shuttled from one group of TV cameras to the next, they always finished several minutes before the group of Northwestern Wildcats ahead of them, and had to wait.
"That's OK," Gray said. "We're happy to fly below the radar. We know we're going to surprise people this year."
A couple more observations from media day:
-- Kill told me just before going on stage that Olson now weighs 313 pounds, up from the 295-pound level he played at last fall. Moments later, Kill said in his press conference that Olson "weighs 315, 318 pounds now." So my first question for the junior offensive lineman was: Are you up to 320 yet?
"Any minute," he joked. "Maybe I'll have a big lunch."
The truth, Olson said, is he has weighed 313 at his last six weigh-ins, and he's excited about how well he moves with the extra poundage. "And I feel a lot stronger," he said. "Our whole offensive line is a lot bigger and a lot stronger this year."
-- In addition to daily workouts, Gray said his proudest achievement this summer is finishing his degree. A summer-school class completed the requirements for his degree in youth studies, and Gray said he will spend his senior year working on a master's degree. Same with Cooper, who has already finished his degree in athletic management and kinesiology. Olson, though just a junior, said he could complete his degree in business management education this fall if he chose, but he'd rather take a lighter load of classes during the football season, so he'll finish in the spring.
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