I've tried to explain the Big Ten Kickoff luncheon to my friends who don't share the college football obsession. This exact conversation happens once a year:
ME: I'm going to the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon!
FRIEND: Didn't you just do that?
ME: Yes, about a year ago. And a year before that. And so on. It's an annual event.
FRIEND: Right, this is that thing you skip work for, that press conference…
ME: All of the Big Ten coaches speak, and there are two players from each team, and there's a video, and media guides, and they feed you chicken, and door prizes, and you can get autographs, Joe Paterno, pocket schedules, then there's dessert, and free posters -
FRIEND: Oh, right. And you have to pay like fifty bucks for this.
ME: Actually, $75. Totally worth it.
Yes, totally worth it. Totally. However, people who don't understand the painful withdrawal that takes place between the January bowl games and the following season aren't likely to understand why this luncheon is so great. These are the people who choose to go shopping at the mall on autumn Saturdays. Or they go to the movies. Or even worse, they get married and invite you.
After years and years of skipping work to attend this celebration of Big Ten-edness, it is still one of my favorite events. However, I'm getting a little older, and a little more tired. I used to hang on every word said by every coach and every player, trying to figure out what it meant in the grand scheme of the upcoming season. I picked up every pocket schedule at every table. I went home and wrote a column about the whole…some things haven't changed so much, but one thing was evident to me this year, about me: If someone was talking and they didn't mention Ohio State, I zoned out. Fortunately for you, Bucknuts readers, this is going to save you some time. This year I have put together the quickest summary, yet the most meticulous description, of the event you may or may not have attended – the 2003 Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon, from start to finish:
Pre-luncheon: Every team had a table. The line for the Ohio State table was twice as long as the line at every other table combined. This was frustrating, but if it comes with winning the national championship, then it's definitely tolerable.
Dave Barnett, ESPN: Introduction. Not as funny as past speakers like Corso, Fowler, Tirico, etc. But his voice sounds like college football, which meant he could have read a Chinese encyclopedia and everyone would have listened.
Highlight video: The best part about highlight videos about a season in which Ohio State won that national championship is that you get a lot of Ohio State highlights. Tremendous. Joe Tiller didn't watch 4th and 1, Krenzel to Jenkins.
Rose Bowl Chairman guy: Talked about the Rose Bowl. Wasn't interesting.
Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin: Congratulated Ohio State. Engaging, as always. Introduced Pat Richter, retiring UW athletic director, who letter nine times in three sports when he was at Wisconsin. There was a video about him. Single-handedly turned Wisconsin from a team Earle Bruce couldn't beat into a team Steve Bellisari couldn't beat. I didn't care, but good for him for retiring.
Joe Tiller, Purdue: Congratulated Ohio State. Hilarious, as always. He's your funny, bald uncle. Then he started to talk about Purdue football. I ate my chicken.
Joe Paterno, Penn State: Officially the funniest luncheon speech I've ever witnessed. Paterno gets better with age. He had the savvy to bring a player named Capone to Chicago (Gino, not Al). Congratulated Ohio State. Made fun of the refs. Said that it's funny to him when people say that the Big Ten is down, because the Big Ten will never be down – it's too good. Everybody loves Joe Pa.
Tressel: Typical Tressel speech – praised everybody who has anything to do with Ohio State football and implicated them in the program's success. Said that they found inspiration in Alvarez, after Wisconsin beat Colorado in the Alamo Bowl, when he looked into the camera and implored the rest of the conference to run the table in the Bowl games. They almost did. Damn Penn State and Iowa.
John L. Smith, Michigan State: Didn't congratulate Ohio State. Needs to increase his Ritalin dosage. I can see this guy scaring parents during in-home recruiting visits. After listening to him I'm not worried about Michigan State doing anything but bowling in December.
Gerry Dinardo, Indiana: Didn't congratulate Ohio State. Made a great joke about all of the coaches joining a pool annually at the luncheon where whoever is speaking at the podium when "Paterno decides to take his nap" wins the kitty. Then he talked about Indiana football. I looked around the table for uneaten chicken.
Jim Delaney, Commissioner: There actually is an ESPN Bowl Challenge cup. It was presented to him from Barnett. Eat it, SEC, you grits-eating probation monkeys.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: Congratulated Ohio State. Didn't mention their conference championship, probably for fear of being chuckled out of the ballroom – remember, they lost to their chief rival and then lost their bowl game. Hmm…hauntingly familiar.
Ron Turner, Illinois: Congratulated Iowa. Talked about Illinois. Dessert time.
Northwestern football player: Leave it to Northwestern to turn out a football player with grace, eloquence and refined public speaking skills. Canned speech. Standing ovation.
Mitch Browning, Minnesota: Glen Mason didn't make it due to surgery on his Achilles, so this guy took his place. He was terrible and talked way too long. Grabbed busboy, made him pour coffee for the table. Too bad – Mason is usually pretty funny.
Lloyd Carr, Michigan: In all seriousness, Carr's speech was on par with Tressel's famous "it's not about the ball" speech from 2001. He sounded a little choked up as he began talking about a boy who grew up across the street from him, who is now serving in Iraq. He read excerpts from a letter he received from him earlier in the week, which – gasp – sucked the football excitement right out of the room and in turn filled it with perspective. Went on to talk about how in light of what is going on in the world, how fortunate we all are to be in America, and how fortunate he and the others lined up in front of the room were to be involved with football. Then he thanked Paterno for voluntarily supervising the officials, and the crowd blew up. I was officially a Lloyd Carr fan; I had totally changed my opinion with him. Then he ended his speech with "go blue" and he morphed back into the devil once again.
That was it. My door prize winless streak is now at a startling five years (since winning my Big Ten golf bag in the late nineties, luck and victory have eluded me). The one prize for our table was just a t-shirt, but it's the little things like that which make life worthwhile. Free t-shirts, highlight videos, and listening to Big Ten coaches talk about Big Ten football in front of 1600 freaks just like you.
Lunch on August 4, 2004 at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago with the Big Ten conference is already on the books.
Using a highlighter marker on the important passages of the new OSU media guide at firstname.lastname@example.org