These weren't the usual faces. Ohio State's Urban Meyer sat at a table in one corner of the hotel ballroom and Michigan's Brady Hoke in another. Penn State's Bill O'Brien held court in the middle during a Big Ten media days session in July in Chicago.
Just a few years ago, three different men would have sat in those positions, men with long tenures and heads topped with graying hairs.
"You know, there have been a lot of changes," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That would take a long time to go through that list, certainly."
The Big Ten had grown older and less effective in the past decade. Most teams have overhauled their coaching staffs and playing styles in recent years to catch up with the powers of the Southeastern Conference, a hope that hasn't come to fruition. The new look is producing the same results as years past, with only one representative in the top 15 of The Associated Press poll and a record of 6-9 against BCS conference teams.
"When you look at the quality of the Big Ten and its performance in games, it has left a lot to be desired," said former Minnesota coach and Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason.
Ferentz is the dean of Big Ten coaches at this point. He has been coaching Iowa since 1999. No other coach has been around for longer than seven seasons. Six head coaches had their first seasons in 2011 or '12, and Nebraska joined the conference in '11.
Unfortunately for the conference, these changes have not yet translated into success. On this season's first true night of college football, the season began to spin away from the Big Ten. Michigan played Alabama Sept. 1 in Dallas. Both teams entered the game ranked in the top 10, but Alabama scored the first 31 points, winning, 41-14.
In the ensuing weeks, Michigan and Michigan State would lose to Notre Dame with little resistance. Nebraska gave up 653 yards in a loss to UCLA. Last week, Iowa lost to Central Michigan of the Mid-American Conference and Illinois lost to Louisiana Tech by 28 points.
The aforementioned 6-9 record against BCS conference schools actually obscures the Big Ten's struggles. Three of the six victories are from unranked Northwestern. Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State are responsible for the other three.
The decline goes deeper than this year. The Big Ten is 1-8 in the past nine Rose Bowl games. Popular theories for the decline range from coaching turnover to a lack of good quarterbacks to a population shift to the South that has left the Midwest recruiting grounds infertile and Big Ten teams replete of top-shelf talent.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said the strengths of conferences were cyclical. Mason cannot pinpoint a reason and claims he did not see this year's drop-off coming. For the greatest evidence of the conference's weakening, he looks to the top.
When Mason coached at Minnesota in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Michigan and Ohio State were among the best teams in the country -- national champions in '97 and '02, respectively. He considers their declines, along with Penn State's, to reflect the conference as a whole.
"Penn State has their problems," Mason said. "Ohio State had some problems last year and as of this year doesn't seem to be typical. Michigan has had their lulls of recent years."
Part of the problem may be image. The Big Ten has changed. O'Brien has introduced a new offense, as has Meyer at Ohio State. Offensive diversity is the norm, there being as many passing teams as power-running teams nowadays.
Yet Ferentz doesn't picture the Big Ten that way. He still thinks back to a fixed brand of the Big Ten that starts with Ohio State's Woody Hayes and Michigan's Bo Schembechler and all the 3-yard draw plays they ran.
"Maybe in 30 years people won't know who those guys are," Ferentz said at the media Days. "I really do think that's still kind of representative of our conference. We run the ball. Our guys are slow. All that stuff."psusports
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter@mdent05.