CHICAGO – No matter how this season unfolds, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald insisted there is no more unified team than his Wildcats.
For that, he credits the push for them to unionize.
Fitzgerald said he is “proud of the maturity” his players displayed the past few months.
As the Big Ten opened its annual two-day media event Monday, some big story lines hovered over the college game.
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A four-team playoff system to determine a national champion is being implemented and the conference would love to be represented. Ohio State, for one, hopes to be in the picture after going 24-2 overall and 16-0 in regular-season conference play in its first two seasons under coach Urban Meyer. So does Michigan State after beating the Buckeyes in the conference championship game and winning the Rose Bowl.
There is the push by the five power conferences — the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern — for autonomy to make some of their own rules. The NCAA board of directors will vote Aug. 7, and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany expects approval.
There are two new members in the Big Ten, Rutgers and Maryland.
And, of course, there is the union movement. At the center of it is Northwestern, with former quarterback Kain Colter leading the push to form the first one for college athletes.
“As I look back and reflect upon the experiences that our young men went through and our entire football program went through, that’s what jumps out to me is their maturity,” Fitzgerald said. “As we visited throughout the whole offseason, I believe there’s no more unified football program in the country. We’ve been through more since probably January than most, and it’s been nothing but a positive and nothing more than unifying in our locker room and throughout our entire football program.
“So I think we’re a leg up from that standpoint.”
A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Northwestern’s full scholarship players can bargain with the school as employees, sending shock waves through the sports landscape.
It is not clear if most of the Wildcats support unionization. They voted in April on whether to form the first union for college athletes, but the result is not known because the NLRB impounded ballots pending an appeal by the university and a possible court fight.
What could have been a divisive issue for the football team had the opposite effect, Fitzgerald said.
“As you look at (players’ comments), it was nothing negative about anything about our program,” he said.
• Brady Hoke, entering his fourth season as Michigan’s coach, is 15-11 in the last two seasons and reportedly on the hot seat.
“Believe me, we’re not satisfied with anything,” he said. “But to worry about what other people think? I’ve never worried about what other people think in anything I’ve done.”
Hoke said the only pressure he feels is making sure he does well for the players as student-athletes.
“It’s always been about the 115 sons, that’s what it’s always been. That’s why I got into coaching,” he said.
• A jury in Washtenaw County (Mich.) acquitted a man in the robbery-slaying of Eastern Michigan receiver Demarius Reed.
Ed Thomas, 21, was one of two men charged in the October slaying of Reed, 20.
The other man charged, Kristopher Pratt, 20, previously accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.