Big Ten Volleyball Media Days Takes Another Step Forward

Opinion By Lincoln Arneal

It’s difficult to lose a press conference at media day. 

Optimism and potential are plentiful, no one has lost a point and everyone is in the best shape of their lives. 

However, for the second time in two weeks, Northwestern bungled an appearance at the league-wide press gathering to kick off the fall season. Last week, the administration sent new football coach David Braun, recently hired from North Dakota State, to the media availability in Indianapolis, but the school’s three player reps declined in light of the ongoing investigation into allegations of hazing within the school’s football program.

Call it a missed opportunity to talk about the positives – seriously, there are some, right? – within the program. Braun, to his credit, at least tried to make the best of a bad situation and talked with the media for more than 45 minutes. 

This week, in light of a lawsuit where a former volleyball player alleged a hazing incident during the 2020-21 season, Northwestern was represented by an assistant coach at the Big Ten’s two-day volleyball media caucus in Chicago. At 5:30 p.m. on Monday, about 16 hours before the event was to start, Davis issued a statement that he would not be attending the event. In his place was new assistant coach Pedro Mendes, who was hired as a full-time coach earlier this year after serving as a volunteer assistant last season. 

Because Mendes wasn’t at Northwestern when the alleged hazing incident occurred, he had nothing to talk about. He had been well-coached to avoid the pitfalls of speculation and speak about the positive culture. The head coach not being there was a bad look.

But Wildcat player representatives did well, as their football counterparts might have a week earlier. Senior setter Alexa Rousseau and junior libero Ellee Stinson talked about the culture they’ve tried to build and the strong relationships within the team that hold everyone accountable.

“I think sometimes communication, to be held to a higher standard, may be perceived as something that has to be a hard conversation or aggressive, but I think when you are in a safe culture and relationship, it’s easy to have those conversations because it isn’t personal, you’re just having a conversation to help each other perform at their best and be their best version,” Rousseau said. 

Said Stinson: “Having those conversations, like Alexa is talking about, doesn’t have to be me yelling at her or her yelling at me. It’s just being completely honest with one another to tell her what my expectations are. Not because I want to be mean to you, it’s because I love you, and I want the best out of you. Holding everybody to those high standards only makes each other better and yourself in turn.”

The student-athletes conducted themselves with grace and represented the program with dignity. 

While it may have been the legally smart move not to have Davis at the event, school officials and the administration remained frustratingly silent until university president Michael Schill penned a column in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune. 

He accepted the criticism, but it came too late, as they allowed another set of uninvolved coaches and players to go out and answer the tough questions. 

Stinson and Rousseau did the heavy lifting that people paid six figures didn’t do. They should be proud of the task they didn’t know they had to take on. 

Here are some other leftover thoughts from the Big Ten volleyball event: 

>> This year could be a breakthrough year for college volleyball. Nebraska is setting the tone on Aug. 30, expecting to fill Memorial Stadium with more than 90,000 fans to watch a volleyball match. 

The next big event will come as two volleyball games will be shown on Fox on Oct. 29. Depending on an area’s NFL market, fans will get Michigan vs. Ohio State or Minnesota vs. Wisconsin. Considering the Gophers and Badgers should be a Top-10 matchup following the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, it could be one of the largest TV audiences for the sport. 

The last significant event is moving the national championship game to a Sunday and showing it on ABC. Yes, it will be up against the NFL, but as women’s basketball showed in April, putting a title game on broadcast TV opens it up to a much bigger audience. 

Those three events will put volleyball on a different trajectory and introduce the sport to more fans, which should serve as a possible launching point for the two new professional volleyball leagues slated to start next year. 

>> While Nebraska volleyball attracts a heavy load of interest, the titan of the Big Ten is now Wisconsin. The Badgers have won four straight league titles and have one of the most stacked rosters in the country. The Huskers have lost their last 10 matches to Wisconsin. If Nebraska hopes to win the league or establish itself as a national power, it will have to win one against Bucky. 

“It’s a great accomplishment to win the Big Ten. It’s really, really hard to do,” NU coach John Cook said. “Hats off to Wisconsin. … They’ve done a tremendous job, and everybody is chasing them right now.”

>> The Big Ten did a good job releasing its preseason team and television schedule around the event to provide some good topics for the media and to help build up to the event. The next step is to have a league administrator present to discuss the sport and happenings in the league. Perhaps new league commissioner Tony Petitti was busy worrying about the westward expansion. 

>> The on-court results might be tough this year, but Michigan was one of the more impressive teams at media days. New coach Erin Virtue brings gravitas after serving as the offensive coordinator for the gold-medal-winning U.S. national team. She has great energy and vision for the program. 

Of the players, Michigan’s Allison Jacobs was one of the more entertaining interviews. The junior outside hitter told great stories about her first practices with Virtue working on out-of-system setting, the importance to her of having a female head coach and how she’s looking forward to playing on Fox this year. As a communication and media major, she could have a future on TV. 

>> Big picture, the event grew from its first year. The media sessions were in a more suitable room where the media didn’t sit at a conference table. There was also room for TV cameras to set up but no multi box for them to get audio from the microphones. The schedule is tight, but coaches and players were flexible and allowed for one-on-one or small group interviews outside the main session. 

More overall media members were present, but some schools didn’t have any press representatives. The one thing missing was the national media. was represented and Six Rotations was there. Still, the only multi-sport national outlet present was D1.ticker/Extra Points and Matt Brown. Nothing from ESPN, The Athletic, Yahoo or other major outlets.

 The Big Ten continues to set the standard for volleyball coverage. Hopefully, another league or two (especially ones with their own TV network) take notice and follow suit next year. 

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