Dienhart's Diary: Next best thing to being on the bus

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is trying something new this year on our annual football tour. At each of the 14 practices across Big Ten country, Dienhart will pen a quick diary post. From Indiana, the first stop, to Illinois, the 14th and final stop, our expert will provide plenty of fun behind-the-scenes updates.

Get our latest football tour coverage:

AUG. 18: NEBRASKA
Bus tracker: Minneapolis to Lincoln – 430 miles (2,923)

Lincoln, Neb., is one of my top stops. I love the passion of the community. In fact, I don’t think any Big Ten school can top the fevered mania that Nebraskans have for their Cornhuskers. You can sense it walking about Lincoln on a hot summer day in mid-August when school isn’t even in session.

The facilities here are off-the-charts great. Our hotel is nestled in the Haymarket area, one of the neatest spots in all of Big Ten country. The glistening and gargantuan Pinnacle Bank Arena is the anchor of this development which features restaurant after restaurant. And it’s all within walking distance of the Nebraskan’s house of worship: Memorial Stadium.

I have gone to Misty’s downtown for prime rib in the past, but this time I ate at LeadBelly’s in Haymarket district. Top-notch hamburgers. I had the Huevos Ranchero burger topped with a fried egg.

The staff at Nebraska also makes this a fun stop. Great coaches. OC Tim Beck, DC John Papuchis, d-line coach Rick Kaczenski, wideouts coach Rich Fisher … good guys–and smart coaches.

AUG. 16: MINNESOTA
Bus tracker: Madison to Minneapolis – 267 miles (2,493)

Always enjoy visiting Minnesota. Great staff. In fact, few staffs work as well together. Jerry Kill was in good health and good spirits. He is one of the smartest coaches I ever have met. Ditto his coordinators: DC Tracy Claeys and OC Matt Limegrover.

I will say this, however: Minnesota needs a facility upgrade. The Gophers’ indoor facility is showing its age. And it has fewer than two full outdoor practice fields. Kill said to me that he expects dirt to begin to be moved in April 2015. We shall see. I hope so. Director of Recruiting Operations Billy Glasscock does a great job. But if he and the coaches had better digs to sell, you wonder what they could do.

The city of Minneapolis has no shortage of great places to eat. Kill recommend J.D. Hoyt’s Supper Club. He said to get the Cajun pork chops. I was able to get some walleye tacos at a place called the Loon Café. Not bad. Only in Minnesota.

Watch my interview with David Cobb:

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AUG. 15: WISCONSIN
Bus tracker: Kenosha to Madison – 113 miles (2,226)

Madison is one of my all-time favorite places to visit. First thing I did upon arrival was jog around campus. Can’t beat the lakes: Mendota and Monona. And you have to go down State Street, the coolest street in the Big Ten.

The Capitol building is a striking backdrop to the vibe of this bustling hamlet that’s filled with restaurants. Had a good meal at a place called Madison’s near the Capitol.

AUG. 14: NORTHWESTERN
Bus tracker: Rensselaer to Kenosha – 157 miles (2,113 total)

Like Purdue, Northwestern was off-campus. But the Wildcats go off campus each year for camp. NU has been coming to Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha since the Gary Barnett era. It is a serene environment complete with the type of isolation that builds team chemistry.

You can feel the breezes off Lake Michigan, which is isn’t too far away. In fact, it was a bit chilly the Thursday we were there. Felt like mid-October. Perfect.

No coach in the Big Ten is more engaging or approachable than NU’s Pat Fitzgerald, who always has time to talk and share his insights. Like Michigan’s Brady Hoke, Fitzgerald is a hands-on coach. At one point, he was rolling on the ground showing players how to recover a fumble. Imagine Nick Saban doing that. Exactly. This is a good-looking NU team, the most physically talented of the Fitz era.

The fun and frivolity percolates at Camp Kenosha with a watermelon eating contest at the end. And there is nothing like the brats they cook at camp.

Watch my interview with Treyvon Green:

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AUG. 13: PURDUE
Bus tracker: East Lansing to Rensselaer – 238 miles (1,956 total)

The Boilermakers held camp at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., about 45 minutes north of West Lafayette on I-65. George Halas took his Chicago Bears there for training camp from 1944-74. I actually went to a camp there once as a kid in 1973 when Abe Gibron coached.

Yes, I’m getting older. Got a chance to see family while in West Lafayette. Nothing like a home-cooked meal; and then a breakfast at the iconic Purdue greasy spoon: The Triple X. If you go for lunch or dinner, get the Duane Purvis All-American. Your life will be changed forever.

Watch my interview with Akeem Hunt:

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AUG. 12: MICHIGAN STATE
Bus tracker: Ann Arbor to East Lansing – 57 miles (1,718 total)

Our trips to Michigan State always are among the best. Great people; great staff. I appreciated Spartan SID John Lewandowski giving the BTN crew a tour of the new North End Zone Project. Palatial digs that surely will impress recruits.

I’m told the school soon will overhaul the day-to-day locker room and other football complex accommodations, as well. This is a program with a lot of mojo—more than any in the conference. Strike while the iron is hot. Mark Dantonio is king. We all are living in his world. And that’s OK with me.

Dantonio has a top-notch staff, which has been a big secret to his success. DC Pat Narduzzi, Co-OC Dave Warner, Co-OC Jim Bollman, wideouts coach Terrence Samuel, QB coach Brad Salem, D-line coach Ron Burton, O-line coach Mark Staten … all smart, hard workers. Heck, d-back coach Harlon Barnett was out there coaching from the back of a golf cart after blowing out his right Achilles playing hoops. When he initially got hurt, he refused to seek treatment and watched film instead.

As far as eats, I usually go to Beggar’s Banquet on Abbot Road in East Lansing. But a colleague took a group of us to the Peanut Barrel on East Grand River. Classic burger-and-fries joint. Work off your calories with a jog across this sprawling campus. Make sure you go by the “Sparty” statue.

Watch my interview with Jeremy Langford:

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AUG. 11: MICHIGAN
Bus tracker: State College to Ann Arbor - 388 miles (1,661 total)

Trips to Ann Arbor always are fun. I’m not sure any Big Ten downtown “strip” area can match the vibe and options along State and Main Streets. Madison, Wis., and State College, Pa., come the closest.

Had a chance to eat at Red Hawk on State Street. Good menu. Get the lamb burger. On the way out of town, the BTN crew stopped at Zingerman’s, the iconic Ann Arbor deli. Your life isn’t complete without eating a Zingerman’s corned beef sandwich. Eat the pickle, too. And get a slice of the $8 carrot cake. It’s worth it.

It’s always good to visit with Brady Hoke, too. He is as down-to-earth as any Big Ten coach. I have been on this Big Ten Network bus tour for three years now. And I have yet to see a head coach as involved in the coaching process. He is elbow-deep in coaching, working with the d-line as if he was an assistant coach. Hoke just loves to be involved at the ground level.

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AUG. 9: PENN STATE
Bus tracker:
Piscataway to State College – 227 miles (1,273 total)

From Rutgers we buzzed to State College, Pa., one of my top stops. Few campuses can match the beauty of Penn State. If Hollywood were to mimic a campus, this would be it.  And I love College and Beaver Aves. I checked out Otto’s for dinner one night off campus and they had really good pizza. PSU offensive line coach Herb Hand swears by Happy Valley Brewing Co. He recommends the short-rib nachos.

Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan is a coach to watch. I enjoyed visiting with him. He began his career as a G.A. at Georgia Tech in 1998 and pointed out to me the great collection of coaches on the staff of George O’Leary. Check it out: O-line Doug Marrone (Bills head coach); WR Stan Hixon (WR Texans); OC Ralph Friedgen (OC Rutgers); DC Randy Edsall (Maryland head coach); RB Bill O’Brien (Texans head coach; LB Ted Roof (DC Georgia Tech); DL Lance Thompson (OLB Alabama).

Watch our John Donovan interview:

The facilities at Penn State are among the best in the Big Ten. And the vibe created by James Franklin is palpable. He never misses a chance to make an impression. He popped on the bus as we arrived and gave a loud “hello.” He also was vocal at practice. Franklin seems to have boundless energy. I don’t know where he gets it, but I’m impressed. Too bad he can’t bottle and sell it. He’d be even richer.

Hand runs on the same high-octane fuel as Franklin. DC Bob Stoop is a bit more reserved. He’s a Yale grad. He’s very smart. His brother is Purdue OC John Shoop. If each remains in place, they’ll face off in 2016.

Watch our Bob Shoop interview:

While watching the Nittany Lions scrimmage, Gerry DiNardo made an interesting observation about the new “center” official that has been added in the Big Ten for 2014. The center official’s main function is to mark the ball and then get into position behind the offense and watch for holding on the left side of the o-line. DiNardo thinks having an official whose top function is to spot the ball could work to slow the game down. When the umpire spotted the ball for quick-tempo teams, he often did so quickly so he had time to hustle into position within the defense. The center official won’t have to work with such haste since that’s his top job; and getting into position behind the offense isn’t as hazardous as getting into position within the defense as the umpire does.Just something to keep an eye on this fall.

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AUG. 8: RUTGERS
Bus tracker:
College Park to Piscataway: 190 miles (1,046 total)

Our swing through Rutgers was swift but informative. This looks like a Big Ten team, especially across the defensive line. If the offensive line can stay healthy, the Scarlet Knights could have a strong squad. There were plenty of recruits on hand in addition to youngsters. There also was a lot of security. More than I ever recall seeing at a practice.

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AUG. 7: MARYLAND
Bus tracker: Columbus to College Park – 402 miles (856 total)

College Park quickly is becoming one of my favorite Big Ten stops. It’s a classic college hamlet tucked amid a massive metro area, an ivory tower oasis amid the Beltway bustle. I first came here in 2001 for a Terps’ football game vs. Duke during their magical march to the Orange Bowl.

I have been back several times since and love the campus. Walking across Campus Dr. over to Baltimore Ave., offers a great snapshot of this school and its rolling terrain. Great buildings. Some nice places to eat down on Baltimore Ave. On this trip, I got a pizza Ledo’s on Knox per the recommendation of staffers. Been there since the 1950s. Must be good, right? A few weeks ago, I went to R.J. Bentley’s around the corner on Baltimore.

The Maryland practice facility is neatly tucked amongst campus buildings adjacent to Byrd Stadium. Across one street (Stadium Dr.) is Jull Hall. The Biology-Psychology Building rubs up to the other side of the practice area. Profs in white lab coats could peer out windows and watch drills while adjusting their Bunsen burner—if so inclined.

I have typed it before, so I’ll type it again: Maryland could be the third-best team in the Big Ten East. It might not sound like much, but Michigan State and Ohio State are very good. So much veteran talent is back, as nine starters on both sides of the ball return. Teams that wade into Byrd Stadium need to be wary. Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State and Rutgers all come to College Park. Could the Terps split those four games? Hmmm.

Watch my interview with Andre Monroe:

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AUG. 6: OHIO STATE
Bus tracker: Bloomington to Columbus – 225 miles (454 total)

Always fun to roll into Columbus, Ohio, a true Big Ten big city. The bus ride over from Bloomington was uneventful. Plenty of Red Bull and Twizzlers helped make the trip seem shorter. At least that’s what bus driver Kevin said. Having satellite TV on the bus with a stocked fridge makes long drives more bearable then when I was kid stuffed in the back of a Gran Torino station wagon driving from Indiana to Florida for vaca.

Didn’t get a chance to hit High Street on this trip. I also missed out on going to The Varsity Club on Lane Avenue by the Shoe. Maybe next time. Every Big Ten fan needs to stop there once.

There was a lot of hitting at the Ohio State practice. And a lot of high-energy from the coaches. New co-DC Chris Ash is impressive. All hustle from all parties all the time. The media throng also is impressive. This market is the epitome of “everything is scrutinized.”

I counted five NFL scouts on hand. I had a chance to visit with one I know. And he gushed about Joey Bosa, telling me he’s the best d-lineman on the team. No big shock, but I thought Michael Bennett may be that guy. Bosa is a monster. The scout I talked to also thinks Braxton Miller has a shot in the NFL. He’s such a terrific athlete. Yes, Miller’s overall “quarterbacking skill set” remains a work in progress. But there always are teams who think they can make a quarterback, the scout said.

So many great looking athletes were on the field at the practice. The size and speed of the Buckeyes players is virtually unmatched on any other Big Ten campus. You wonder how this program ever loses a game. Well, it rarely does.

John Cooper was at practice. He looks good. Also got a chance to catch up with former Buckeye offensive line legend Jim Lachey, a good man. Had fun talking about the 1984 Ohio State at Purdue game with him. Lachey has a good memory! I was impressed.

Caught up with offensive line coach Ed Warinner, one of the best in the business. The guy is a great teacher and communicator. He’ll get that o-line in shape, as he breaks in four new starters.

The BTN bus lands in College Park, Md., on Thursday. Can’t wait to see Randy Edsall, Brian Stewart and Mike Locksley. I think this Terps team is gonna dump someone big this fall and be a dark-horse in the East.

Watch my interview with Michael Bennett:

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AUG. 5: INDIANA
Bus tracker:
BTN studios to Bloomington – 229 miles

Few Big Ten campuses are nicer than Indiana’s. Rolling trails cross a leafy campus famous for its limestone buildings. It’s picturesque and screams “college.” And the fact the campus bumps against downtown Bloomington turns up the vibe, as an endless collection of restaurants and shops dot the city. If you can’t have fun here, well, I feel sorry for you.

I hit Nick’s English Hut last night along Kirkwood. Got an order of fried mushrooms that were the size of monkey’s fist. Added a seven-inch pizza, too, washing it down with an Arnold Palmer. School isn’t in session, so I had the run of the place.

The Indiana practice was one of the few that featured hitting last year. No hitting this year, as the team was in helmet and shorts.

Oh, well. Still, Kevin Wilson always brings a lot of energy to the field. He’s brash, he’s bold … that’s good. Enjoy his staff, too, especially co-defensive coordinator William Inge, a St. Louis guy and former Iowa Hawkeye. Smart coach. Co-OC/O-line coach Greg Frey and tight ends/fullbacks coach James Patton is one of my favs.

The facilities are nice. SID Jeff Keag has shown me around. The weight room is expansive. And I love “Hep’s Rock” at the end of the field.

I talked to Tevin Coleman after practice for an interview. A very down-to-earth guy who I think is one of the top three backs in the Big Ten. Look for him to catch more passes this fall. He told me he had offers from every Big Ten team but Ohio State and Wisconsin. Coleman is a junior who could turn pro with a big season.

On the way out of town, we stopped at the restaurant of Gerry DiNardo: DeAngelo’s of Bloomington. Good pizza. No spicy meatballs on this trip. Too bad.

Next stop is Ohio State. Can’t wait to see that d-line and Braxton Miller. I expect a lot of energy in Columbus.

Watch my interview with Tevin Coleman:

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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