Smile Politely

Bacon Hands: a B1G guide to greasing the palms

I’ll bet there’s hunger somewhere in the world. Possibly even famine.

But Thursday, at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, a thousand perfect Gala apples went in the dumpster. Inside, 12 millionaires sat for an hour, calmly answering the same questions, over and over again.

Big Ten Media Day 2013 went off with two hitches. Tom Crean was two hours late, and the wi-fi crawled along like AOL on Windows 98. (The kids here don’t even know what that means.)

The apples sat in the bottoms of boxed lunches: turkey club or roast beef sandwiches, or a pseudo-Cobb Salad (no avocado) all came with 4 oz. Solo cupped rigatoni, roll, deluxe ginormous chocolate chip cookie and an apple. No one ate the apple. A small bowl of apples would’ve saved a lot of work and a lot of apples.

I fret about these things.

The millionaires enjoy answering the same old questions as much as anybody. But the B1G requires them to sit there for an hour or so, once every autumn. They’re also required to spend 10 minutes with us after each game, which explains some of Bruce Weber’s stranger moments.

As the day began, regular season Player of the Year* Tim Frazier was having a mild disagreement with his (and Penn State’s) 3rd year coach Patrick Chambers. Chambers kept insisting that Frazier go wash his hands before their media obligations commenced. Later, I found Frazier alone in a hallway (which happens a lot at B1G Media Day, if only at B1G Media Day). “What was that all about?” I asked him.

“Oh, he just said you have to wash your hands after eating bacon, before shaking hands with people.”

“That seems reasonable,” I said.

“Yeah, he’s right,” Frazier concluded.

This is the level of coaching we’ve come to expect in the B1G. It’s not just basketball. It’s life lessons.

Pre- and regular season Coach of the Year* Fran McCaffrey was just down the hall, chatting with a diminutive 12-year-old who turned out to be Richard Pitino. “Oh my god,” I said to Matt Slieter, Minnesota’s sports information director for men’s basketball, “he’s so young.”

“I know,” agreed Matt, “he’s eight years younger than I am.”  Matt’s not the tallest person in many rooms, but Pitino part deux is the tiniest person in any college basketball setting. One feels tempted to call him Richard the Third.

I didn’t catch a picture of McCaffrey and Pitino, stupidly, because I wanted to share my impressions with Iowa’s SID Matthew Weitzel — who is, as it happens, the tallest person in most rooms. (In fact, now that PSU’s Brian Siegrist got the hell out of State College, Weitzel can claim sole possession of the “Stretch” mantle.)

My impression is that Fran McCaffrey is the best, hands down, of all the B1G coaches when it comes to working the media. It may not even be work. It may be natural to him. He’s warm, personable, philosophical, funny and sharp. He listens well, and delivers responsive answers in real time.

It shouldn’t be surprising that he’s the media’s pre-season pick for coach of the year. Some of it probably has to do with basketball as well.

If you’re wondering, John Groce is probably somewhere in the middle of the pack. He might mellow into a higher standing later on. Matt Painter has always been good with small groups of media. Bo Ryan is outstanding.  Thad Matta is (in my experience) one of the best, and it’s hard to believe that anyone could be more natural than John Beilein. But McCaffrey’s the winner. (I didn’t stay for, and have never seen, Pitino or Chris Collins.)

When McCaffery finished with Pitino, he joined us for a laugh. “Stretch” was telling me that McCaffrey’s brother is a sportswriter, which gives Fran an insight to The Other Side. He added that his coach’s response to **insert tacit yet understood wink/nod for poor officiating** after the Hawkeyes’ 2013 Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan State was the most tactful, forceful wordsmithing in the history of understatement.

“It was worth about $10,000 to avoid the fines,” McCaffrey shrugged.

Fran also said he was so punch-drunk that he was liable to blurt anything. Not completely sure whether he was referring to the same story, or yesterday’s opening round with the media, I simply patted him on the arm and assented “like a good Irishman.”

B1G Media Day is the best day of the year for facetime. John Groce was available for well over an hour. Sadly, so was Matt Bollant. It’s sad because he sat by himself for much of the time. Occasionally, members of the B1G women’s media pool approached for interviews.

Later, at lunch, Fletcher Page told me he’d start covering women’s basketball, pretty much for the sole reason that Bollant is a good guy. Because Fletcher writes for the Scout network, and because Matt Bollant is regarded as one hell of a recruiter, it kinda makes sense.

Anyway, here’s an hour and twenty minutes of John Groce, right up close and personal, for completists. I haven’t actually listened to Part 2, so I can’t guarantee that he doesn’t simply repeat the same ole answers to the same ole questions.

But when I came back to the area, he was giving a heartfelt defense of downtown Champaign, and I’ve never heard that from him before. (That’s edited into its own video, below.)

Tracy Abrams was especially forthcoming. He even talked about being forthcoming. Tracy’s always been a cut-up, but not so much with the cameras on. It was that way with DJ Richardson as well. But Tracy’s speaking voice is so naturally quiet, his reticence with the media strikes the typical interviewer more profoundly.

Because of stupid phones and their stupid buttons, this video is a bit jump cutty. Deal with it.

The last portion of the Abrams interview featured ex-Illini Sam Maniscalco, now working with Stephen Bardo, asking questions just like the rest of us boring question askers. This video also features Marcus Jackson asking Tracy about the media. It’s good stuff.

Bardo was in the house. I kept pestering him for an interview to plug his book signing (this afternoon, 4-5:30 p.m. at the IUB) but I think he snuck out the back door when he learned Ken Norman was on the way over. (Not really… although maybe.)

Finally, here’s old Joe Bertrand. I think I recall his interview. It was about 14 hours ago, and I’ve been up for 20. So I’m finna just paste it, and say no more.

*Piss off, I’ve made up my mind.

Related Articles