An area Big Ten Network has excelled at since its launch as a conference specific network has been in the original programming department. BTN's The Journey has made its mark as one of the best sports documentary series in a very crowded, outstanding field. Another series BTN has launched recently is Big Ten Elite - a look at the best Big Ten teams of all time. (Cue the jokes about none of those teams coming from the last five years.)
BTN sent along a review copy of Tuesday night's episode on the 2002 Ohio State football national championship team debuting at 7 PM ET. As someone who grew up in an area where Ohio State football was more vital to life than oxygen, I was curious how BTN would chronicle the team. While not a "two percenter" (aka - the diehard nutcases) or huge fan of the program, that '02 team of Tressel, Clarett, and Krenzel was still one of the most memorable seasons of any team I've ever seen. Tight end Ben Hartsock said it this way, "I talk to my parents and they always talk about how their lives are going to be at least 10 years shorter having lived through that entire season because every game was so exciting to be a part of."
How did Big Ten Elite do capturing the season and does it set a template for other conference networks who may be inspired to do similar documentaries?
I went into the documentary expecting a more chronological account of the 2002 season and the sheer amount of dramatic games the Buckeyes played that year. A rare road trip within the state of Ohio that produced a 23-19 comeback victory at Cincinnati. Another tight road victory at Northwestern where Ohio State overcame 3 fumbles from Clarett. A big second half defensive performance at Wisconsin that produced a 19-14 win. Another low-scoring, one score victory the next week at home versus Penn State. There were all intense, dramatic games, but most of the results were glossed over in the early stages of the documentary in favor of setting up the stories of Jim Tressel, Maurice Clarett, Craig Krenzel, and Chris Gamble.
If you're an Ohio State fan that wants to relive each win of that 2002 season, you'll miss out on a lot of those moments. Rather, Big Ten Elite takes a different route and focuses on interviews with the players, coaches, and broadcasters to gain a different insight into the season. This approach casts a wider net for more general Big Ten or college sports fans. From that aspect, the show reminded me of America's Game because of the sheer amount of interview footage. Each of the players speak candidly about the season and their roles on the team. Narration is kept to a minimum and it's almost entirely a first person account of the season. It's in that department where Big Ten Elite excels.
At least a dozen different individuals are heard from in the doc, including AJ Hawk, Chris Gamble, Craig Krenzel, Dustin Fox, and other players. Radio announcers Paul Keels (who also serves intermittently as narrator) and Jim Lachey as well as revered Columbus Dispatch writer Tim May also provide context. However, the biggest surprise was seeing former OSU coach Jim Tressel play a key role in the show.
Tressel has kept his distance from Ohio State since his departure following the Great Tattoo Scandal of the Millennium. A show cause penalty and black cloud that tracked Tressel out of Columbus has taken most of the luster off his time in Columbus. For that reason, it was a surprise he agreed to take part and provide new interview footage for Big Ten Elite. But, it's his presence that completes the narrative. Seeing Tressel in this enviornment, portraying the straight-laced, vest-wearing ball coach, may begin to restore some of those fond memories for Buckeye fans. He's even able to poke fun at his own "Tresselball" moniker.
The doc really picks up pace when it gets to the famous 4th & 1 play at Purdue, when Brent Musburger etched "Holy Buckeye" into the college football lexicon:
Tressel, Krenzel, and Hartsock go inside the play in Big Ten Elite's best moment, revealing the touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins was supposed to be a 3 yard crossing route to the tight end. Instead, Krenzel risked the entire season going long to Michael Jenkins, a rare moment that went against the repuation of the 2002 Buckeyes. The perspective from all the players on the importance of that single play as a turning point towards a national championship and a sign of destiny was revealing.
From there, Big Ten Elite spends plenty of time on the Michigan victory and the National Championship win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. The value in these shows is the new information and perspective gained, and Big Ten Elite delivers a measured amount in those departments. You'll learn a few new things about the season and the National Championship Game in particular from the player interviews. Of course, given this is Big Ten Network and not ACC Network, you won't hear both sides of the notorious pass interference call that kept OSU's title hopes alive in overtime.
It's fair to say Big Ten Elite just scratched the surface of the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes, although there's only so much that can be done translating an entire season into a neatly packaged hour. Rather than going game by game and moment by moment, Big Ten Elite lets the integral figures tell their own story. It's an approach that should be considered by other conference networks looking to tell the stories of their greatest teams.