Best campus: This always is a difficult call, as I love so many of the Big Ten settings. But, I have to go with State College, Pa. The place is the quintessential college setting, nestled smack dab in the middle of the Keystone State amid lush terrain and scenic countryside. Nothing is better than a stroll along College Avenue past eclectic shops and restaurants. Honorable mentions to Madison, Wis., and Ann Arbor, Mich.
Best facilities: I’ll begin by saying I was surprised by how nice Indiana’s facilities are. But, from a sheer “wow” standpoint, I loved what Nebraska has. From the weight room, to the trophy displays to the indoor facility … the Cornhuskers know how to build impressive digs.
Best interview: It is great to listen to Michigan’s Brady Hoke amble on about anything. The passion oozes from the big fella. He could make reading the back of a cereal box fun, inspiring and interesting.
Funnest coach: Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald. Maybe it’s because at 37, he’s the youngest coach in the Big Ten. Regardless, “Fitz” often is a blur in practice, moving from drill to drill, station to station, with a purpose. And he’s always chewing on a whistle, offering frequent attention-grabbing shrills to command attention and restore order. I wanna play for this guy. And you would, too, if you watched him.
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Most intense coach: I think I have to go with Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs. They guy could put any drill sergeant to shame with his leather lungs. I also have to throw shout outs (What else, right?) to Wisconsin offensive line coach Mike Markuson; Iowa’s Brian Ferentz; Minnesota’s Matt Limegrover; Penn State’s John Butler; Michigan’s Jeff Hecklinski; Michigan State’s Pat Narduzzi.
Coach who can say the most without uttering a word: Ever seen that stare (or is it a glare?) from Nebraska’s Bo Pelini? If you have, you know what I’m talking about. It speaks 10,000 words—and will melt most mortal men.
Coolest coach: Only one head coach wore sunglasses while he conducted his interview on the BTN set—Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Please, tell me you aren’t surprised. Meyer is tanned, rested and ready for his close up. Look out, world! That year in TV seems to have paid off for Uber Urban.
Most impressive player: So many to choose from. I am going with Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short. The day we were in West Lafayette, Short was a man possessed, moving much faster than any 320-pounder has any business moving. Also: Props to Michigan State defensive end William Gholston. Look up “physical freak” in the dictionary. You’ll see a photo of Gholston—or at least you should.
Best restaurant: I loved DeAngelo’s in Bloomington, Ind., and not just because it is owned by BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo. The spicy meatball orvieto and shrimp and calamari are out-of-this-world appys. But don’t fill up before the main entrée. I recommend the B-Town Biggie calzone, which is big enough to satiate the appetite of even the Wisconsin offensive line. Almost.
Best restaurant, No. 2: Misty’s in Lincoln. Get the prime rib. Eat it. Sit back. Digest it. Smile.
Best restaurant, No. 3: State Street Brats in Madison. Get the Red Brat, side of cheese curds and Bavarian pretzel. You’ll thank me later.
Best-looking team: No one will look better getting off a bus this fall than Ohio State. From Carlos Hyde, to Johnathan Hankins, to Chris Carter, to Jack Mewhort, to Jake Stoneburner … and on it goes for a physically impressive Buckeye squad that may have more talent from 1-85 than any Big Ten squad. Michigan State is a close second to Ohio State. Many Spartans look like they jumped from the pages of a super hero comic book.
Most spirited practice: I say Iowa. This was our first stop on the tour. And I still haven’t forgotten how intense the Hawkeyes were, knocking heads and getting rough and tumble despite practicing in just helmets and shoulder pads. We even saw a “scrum” that began between the offensive and defensive lines. Center James Ferentz is always in the middle of things. I want him on my team.
[BTN.com: Watch our football tour video]
Biggest mystery: It has to be Penn State. I don’t think anyone knows what to expect from the Nittany Lions. The defense could be good—as long as injuries are avoided. The offense? Scoring could be difficult if the passing game doesn’t develop.
Most fun practice: There was a lot of energy and mojo at the Northwestern workout we watched at Camp Kenosha in Racine, Wis. Credit Wildcat boss man Pat Fitzgerald, who emotes enthusiasm and good vibrations. This was a quick-tempo practice that was well-organized, competitive and hard-hitting.
Best player I interviewed: Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree. The kid is composed and impressive. And, he’s quick on his feet—as a receiver and responder to questions. Roundtree may have a future one day in sports broadcasting.
Largest human being I encountered: Wisconsin offensive tackle Rob Havenstein takes the cake—and surely eats it, too. At 6-8, 343 pounds, Havenstein looks like he just climbed down a beanstalk. Ask Bret Bielema about his recruiting visit to Havenstein’s home and the amount of food that was served. Bielema will have you rolling on the floor.
Best music played at practice: Gotta go with Michigan, which blasted AC/DC during the workout we watched. If this didn’t fire up the players, I don’t know what would. Nebraska had the loudest music—but there was too much country being played for my liking. You can’t play football with country music as a backdrop. You just can’t.
Most boring leg of trip: That 8-9-hour drive from Lincoln, Neb., to Minneapolis along I-80 and then I-35 was—ahem—tedious. I have an entirely new appreciation and perspective of the “corn belt.” Thank god for the iPod.
[BTN.com: Big Ten stars sign the BTN tour bus]
Best drill: You can’t help to not be fired up watching Ohio State do its version of “bull in the ring.” Two players enter a ring of players who are yelling, screaming and hollering. There is no hiding in the center of the circle–and just one man leaves a victor. This is “Football Manhood 101.”
Best drill, No. 2: I loved watching the Illinois players encircle the kickers as they attempted field goals. The players yelled, screamed, breathed on and were generally as obnoxious as possible to the kickers as they focused—or at least tied to–on their task. It was quite unnerving.
Team that surprised me: Keep an eye on Minnesota. I’m serious. Jerry Kill has some nice talent—running backs, wideouts, quarterback, secondary–and he typically enjoys success in his second season on the job. Look it up. The Golden Gophers could go bowling.
Player I don’t want to tackle: Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell. At 6-2, 244 pounds, Bell should be illegal. But, he’s not. Frightening. Spartan foes better pack some extra ice to soothe postgame bumps and bruises.
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart, and you can subscribe to it all via his RSS feed. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below.
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