Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Big Ten coaches relish the uniqueness of season openers on the gridiron

                                                   Photo Credit: Geno Green

The uniqueness of not playing an exhibition slate and starting out of the gate in the regular season makes college football stand out from any other sport in North America.

For coaches old and new in the Big Ten conference, the importance of players knowing the significance of regular season openers never gets taken for granted. Tuesday's teleconference provided different insights on how several coaches approach season openers.

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio knows the significance of prioritizing the opening game in his tenth season as head coach, regardless of who the opponent is on the field.

"It is very important that everyone understands the beginning of the season starts with the first game naturally, but it is the first start for many of our seniors who have seen little playing time beforehand," Dantonio said. 

"Even some of the freshman who won't play get the opportunity to run out of the tunnel for the first time and it gives them a life experience. You also have to have a great attention to detail and be able to execute. Mistakes will be made in the first game, but you have to be able to rally and overcome."

In his 11th season at Northwestern and the second-longest tenured coach in the conference next to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Pat Fitzgerald knows the work must be produced in spring and fall camps in order for success to occur in the month of September.

"This is my 11th opener and the key is to making sure you get the work done in training camp that gets the team ready to play for not just the opener, but for the season," Fitzgerald said.

"You have to balance that with keeping the team as healthy as possible, so you don't go into the first quarter of the season with a banged up football team, emotionally and physically. We have been fortunate in openers going 9-1, but you learn and tweak what you do no matter the result."

Each off-season in college football sees players come and go, but coaches are not immune either as Rutgers' Chris Ash and Illinois' Lovie Smith begin new frontiers with their respective teams in 2016.

Through various position coaching jobs over the last three decades in college football, Ash starts sees some similarities and differences in preparing for the first game as the primary coach.

"The time commitment and demand are the same, but the things you have to focus on are different because this is the first season of our staff being together as one," Ash said. 

"There is more involvement when it comes to the aspects of trip planning, such as flying out a day early on Thursday for Washington. Also, being involved with things defensively on top of other responsibilities makes it different than if you were in charge of only running the defensive unit."

After spending 11 of the last 12 seasons as a National Football League head coach for the Chicago Bears (2004-12) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2014-15), Lovie Smith embraces the change of managing a team as game-week practices are limited to 20 hours per week, with a maximum of four hours per day, according to NCAA rules.

"Time has been the biggest challenge because let's face it, the guys are student-athletes and is different from [NFL] training camp," Smith said. "We have that small four-hour block each day to really get a game plan in for our opponent and has been another adjustment in the transition."

From all walks of the country, the one thread these coaches share is that each starts with a clean slate at 0-0 as a new season rises on Thursday.

Buckle up, fellow college football fans and enjoy the storylines and roller coaster rides this season.

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Follow Geno Green on Twitter @TheGenoGreen.