Let the hype begin.
The annual Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon and Media Days, held Tuesday and Wednesday (July 31-Aug. 1) in Chicago, Ill., is a college football fan's dream -- a gathering of the stars of, arguably, college football's premiere conference, and a preview of the names and faces that will define the 2007 Big Ten season.
The 2007 version of the Michigan football team was well represented on the first day of the event, as the celebrated senior trio of RB Michael Hart, QB Chad Henne and LT Jake Long fielded question after question ... after question, about the Wolverines' upcoming season.
But before the first question was to be asked, Hart, Long and U-M Assistant Athletic Director for Football Scott Draper had to travel to Chicago -- a task that didn't come as easy as planned when the group's early-morning flight from Detroit to Chicago was canceled Tuesday. Luckily, the trio was able to quickly pile into an SUV and head west -- and even more fortunate for Hart and Long, an on-board DVD player, featuring the Nicholas Cage film "Ghost Rider," kept the guys entertained for the four-hour jaunt. Henne flew in separately from Pennsylvania, arriving around 11 a.m. -- shortly before the rest of the Wolverine contingent.
Hart didn't have a moment to waste upon his arrival to the Hyatt Regency Chicago. Just moments after being announced as the preseason Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, he was being whisked away to a local studio to film a spot for a Big Ten public service announcement for sportsmanship.
The set was exactly how most would imagine a film shoot -- a brightly lit background, fog machines and a director doing the whole "action" and "cut" routine with great enthusiasm. At the center of it all was Hart -- in his familiar role as star of the show -- patiently executing dozens of different takes meant to reenact his pre-game ritual. The consummate leader, Hart even chimed in with some ideas for his performance, suggesting that a certain stretching sequence might make a good addition to the spot. His comfort and confidence in front of the camera suggested one idea -- is there a future in acting for Mike Hart
"No," Hart plainly said after the experience. He did add, however, that a future in broadcasting might be a definite possibility, following in the footsteps of Michael Irvin and Kirk Herbstreit -- two of his favorite football commentators. "I'm a media kind of guy," Hart said. "I always like the guys that say what they want to say."
Bright lights, big city
It was then time for the grind -- an afternoon full of interviews with national and local media that, for those participating, probably never seemed to end. Hart changed into a suit and alas linked up with his teammates, and the trio headed for the basement of the Hyatt Regency, which had been transformed into college football press central. All of the big names were in town -- ESPN, Fox Sports and the all-new Big Ten Network, which is based in Chicago -- all of which were waiting for their precious time to speak with Michigan's stars.
Just as the players were set to begin their first of several small-group Q&A sessions, head coach Lloyd Carr arrived fresh from his press conference from the dais in the hotel's Grand Ballroom. Away the group went, shuffling through five different stations of 15-minute sessions -- each featuring local media representatives, most of which asked the same general questions over and over again. They may be students now, but the three guys appeared as pros when it came to handling each reporter's inquiry -- no matter how challenging -- with great professionalism and composure.
Hart, who participated in the event last season as well, said that the exposure and spotlight is fun ... at first.
"It's cool for the first 10 minutes, but it gets repetitive," Hart said. Long added, "It's fun, (but) it gets long after a while."
In fact, as Henne and Hart were targeted with Heisman talk and personal award hype, the attention eventually turned toward the Outland Trophy candidate thanks to some help from Carr, who demanded -- with tongue firmly planted in cheek -- that the final session began with a question directed toward Long.
Even with the repetitive content, the interviews showcased how comfortable the senior trio had become with the spotlight of today's media coverage -- which, to be honest, probably doesn't seem like much pressure after three years of playing football in front of 110,000 fans. Each member appeared loose and relaxed throughout the afternoon, and the guys clearly had some fun with the whole experience. Carr said it best when asked about the group of kids that sat beside him: "They're incredible human beings; I'm proud of them, and I'm proud to coach them."
After nearly two hours, the small groups alas ended, and Coach Carr -- following a short discussion with the players, including some curfew instructions -- exited for the evening. Hart, Henne and Long still had some work to do, completing a series of one-on-one interviews with a range of outlets from the local news in Lansing, Mich., to reporters from CBS Sportsline. The humble Henne, who mentioned that media obligations are far from his favorite part of being a Michigan quarterback, said that the individual Q&A's are the least fun part of the process for him. He did enjoy answering the many questions about U-M's senior leadership, which were a big part of his final few interviews of the day; but, when asked about the toughest question they faced during the afternoon, both Henne and Long said it was to name a past player who best represented the Big Ten. Talk about being on the spot!
A long day completed
By the time the final camera light went out, it was clear Henne, Hart and Long had had enough -- and who could blame them Upon hearing that their obligations were over, the conversation quickly moved to what fun activities could fill the rest of the day. But before it was all over, the guys had a chance to reflect on a very busy -- yet rewarding -- day.
"It was fun being up there with Mike, Jake and Coach Carr on the podium," Henne said, while Hart added, "I like coming down here. It's fun getting to meet guys from other teams and having a good time for a few days." Long wrapped up the whole experience by adding, "It never gets old; it's such an honor to be playing for Michigan."
With that, the trio embarked on a relaxing and fun evening to recharge -- which, with the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon looming on Wednesday, is exactly what they need.
Coach Carr press conference quotes
Contact: Nick Brandon (734) 763-4423