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At The Inside Zone, there are no strangers, because college football has a way of connecting like no other
I sat in the new Big Ten commissioner’s suite last week. It was, as you could expect, pretty nice.
Tony Petitti and I had never met before, so I interviewed him during Big Ten media days at Lucas Oil Stadium to get to know him a little bit better, to try to start a relationship with someone who, in most of the college football world’s eyes, had gone from anonymous media executive to one of the most powerful people in the sport seemingly overnight.
(Show of hands: How many of you had heard of Petitti before he was hired by the Big Ten in April? It’s OK, I was right there with you then, Googling his name.)
I asked the commish for his earliest memory of visiting a Big Ten campus, from back in his days in the television business. The native New Yorker took the question to a place that this native New Yorker didn’t quite see it going.
“When I think about it, it really was back in the ABC Sports days, so I absolutely loved college football,” Petitti said. “I can remember going to Hofstra games, because I grew up in Queens. So you go to Hofstra, they had the turf field and you go watch Hofstra play, right? And I just loved it.”
Commissioners are like elected officials, so Petitti surely knew what he was doing by invoking the name of a program that has been forgotten by everyone in 49 other states since it shut its football operation down in 2009.
Yet instantly, a connection was made, the way connections in college football are so uniquely made every day, often in the oddest of places.
How many times have you been in an airport that was overflowing with travelers decked out in their school’s gear, on their way to a big game? How often have you seen a familiar logo in an odd place, the way I noticed a Duke athletics bag that was on the chair next to me five years ago in the Vatican, of all places, sparking a conversation with a Blue Devils administrator as we got ready to see the Pope himself. (Hope you’re well, Mike Sobb.)
How many of you would not be surprised to hear — and, frankly, probably completely understand — that when I was a student at Penn State, our school newspaper received a one-on-one interview with a U.S. president but not with the head football coach?
Connectivity is so powerful, and it’s what makes college football so unique.
That is why I am inviting you all to subscribe to The Inside Zone, my fully independent website and newsletter that is completely dedicated to bringing you as close to the sport as humanly possible, whether that is in a new commissioner’s suite after he gets hired or in a postgame press conference after a celebratory win.
It’s what I did in my previous jobs, at ESPN and at The Athletic, which I left voluntarily after six wonderful seasons and which I will still say is the best employer in the business. But this opportunity to be my own boss was too good to pass up for a number of reasons, and it all comes back to one word: connectivity.
I will write — and this website will succeed — based on what’s best for me and you, the reader. Healthy disagreement is fine, and accountability is important, as they are the basis for any strong community.
For $50 per year, or $6 per month, you will receive comprehensive year-round coverage of America’s wildest sport. That includes:
“Fortuna Files,” a weekly in-season package bringing you inside the conversations happening at the sport’s highest levels: coaching whispers, realignment chatter, scouting intel on upcoming games and much more
Breaking news stories and analysis
Coaching candidates for every open job
Regular game coverage and columns
Deeply reported features on the biggest names (and issues) surrounding the sport
Mailbags answering readers’ questions
Your subscription goes directly toward supporting coverage, and membership leads to direct contact with this entire community, creating an intimate, frank and friendly discussion about college football.
This sport is rapidly changing. What’s true today may not be true tomorrow. This year’s four-team Playoff will give way to next year’s 12-teamer. Hell, it was just two years ago that the Pac-12 had the opportunity to wipe the Big 12 off the face of the Earth after the defections of Oklahoma and Texas.
Now? The tables have turned, with Colorado bolting last week for the Big 12, and the Pac-12 (or is it Pac-9?) being placed on life support.
It was also less than three years ago that I was writing the obituary on the Lovie Smith era at Illinois, which came at the same time that in-state rival Northwestern was playing in its second Big Ten title game in three years. As the 2023 season approaches, however, the Illini are on the rise thanks to Bret Bielema.
The Wildcats? Well, you can read about their stunning downfall today, in my first piece for this publication.
You can expect timely deep dives such as that story in this space, along with plenty of other content that takes you inside the scandals, searches and insanity that this sport always delivers.
Last year, during one of my many reporting trips to campuses, I visited Oklahoma to meet with Brent Venables and his staff ahead of his first year as a head coach. My daughter, then 3, had already figured out the deal by now: Daddy would be gone for a few days for “football,” he would FaceTime every chance he got, and maybe he would even bring home a souvenir for her. (That Jumpman gear is hard to ignore.)
A few weeks after my Norman visit, my daughter received her passport. My wife and I told her she now had the power to go anywhere in the world, and we asked her what she planned to do with it.
Her response, after a few seconds of pondering all of the possibilities?
“Oklahoma for a football game with Daddy!”
Here’s guessing most of you can relate to that, too.