Purdue opens Big Ten title preparations without starting QB

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Purdue quarterback Aidan O'Connell returned home with his family following last weekend’s victory at Indiana. He still hasn’t returned to campus.

As the Boilermakers began preparing for their first Big Ten championship game, their starting quarterback and uncontested leader remained in Illinois with his family as they mourned the recent death of O’Connell’s oldest brother, Sean.

“He played his heart out for his teammates and gave us a great effort,” coach Jeff Brohm said, describing O’Connell’s performance days earlier. “Of course, he’s got things he has to deal with this week, but we’ll be there to support him and whenever we get him back to work, we look forward to that.”

O’Connell announced his brother had died in a statement posted on Twitter. The cause of death has not been revealed.

When exactly O’Connell returns to the practice field remains unclear, though Brohm said he believes the sixth-year senior will play when the Boilermakers face No. 2 Michigan (12-0, 9-0, No. 3 CFP).

Nobody in Purdue’s locker room doubts O’Connell will play or play well, regardless of how much he practices.

He went 18 of 29 with 290 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-16 West Division-clinching victory after learning of his brother’s death. Television cameras caught the emotional O’Connell crying into a towel on the sideline after Purdue (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten) sealed what he called a “dream come true” on the Boilermakers’ radio broadcast.

While the Boilermakers certainly would have understood if O’Connell missed the game, that’s not the guy they watched go from No. 8 on the depth chart to the first former walkon to start at the “Cradle of Quarterbacks.”

“He’s a special person. I feel like anyone who knows him knows you don’t get guys like that all the time,” tight end Payne Durham said. “He doesn’t identify as a football player. He’s a man of faith who wants to do things for other people.”

O’Connell didn’t just earn the trust of teammates or coaches with his personality.

They often talk about a relentless work ethic that was evident before, during and after practice when he would make extra throws just so he could compete against the higher touted recruits and the countless hours of film study. And in an era where transfers became the norm, O’Connell stuck around and fought his way up the ladder.

Eventually, his leadership skills caught up to his physical talent and he started surpassing the competitors – some of whom wound up as starting quarterbacks at other FBS schools.

Now, as the established starter, O’Connell is ascending the school’s career passing charts and is on the cusp of becoming just the third Purdue quarterback to win a Big Ten title since 1953. Mike Phipps did it in 1967 and Drew Brees in 2000.

But this week is bigger than football.

As Purdue makes its bid to upend Michigan’s national title hopes and derail the Wolverines’ quest for a second straight Big Ten championship, O’Connell is hurting. The Boilermakers are giving him space and offering help, and even two coaches who played the position, Brohm and coach Jim Harbaugh, have no advice this time.

Instead, O’Connell Will Likely rely on his favorite receiver and childhood teammate, Charlie Jones, to help him through this week. The two grew up just miles apart near the Northwestern campus.

And the Boilermakers know that whenever O’Connell does return to practice, he will be as focused and locked in as ever – even if his heart is broken.

“It’s a very tough time for him and his whole family,” Jones said. “I’ve told him that at the end of the day, it’s just a game and family is more important than anything. So for him to come out and play in a game and play the way he did (last week) after all of that was just amazing. We want him to know we’re here for him.”

Georgia extends contract for AD Josh Brooks, plans two new football practice fields

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ATHENS, Ga. – On the heels of a second straight national football championship, Georgia has rewarded athletic director Josh Brooks a contract extension that ties him to the Bulldogs through at least 2029.

The athletic association board, wrapping up its annual spring meeting Friday at a resort on Lake Oconee, also announced plans for a new track and field facility that will free up space for two more football practice fields.

Brooks’ new contract will increase his salary to $1.025 million a year, with annual raises of $100,000.

The 42-year-old Brooks, who took over the athletic department in 2021 after Greg McGarity retired, called the Georgia job “a dream for me” and said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in Athens.

“I am extremely grateful,” Brooks said. “I got into this business 20-plus years ago as a student equipment manager. My first job at Louisiana-Monroe was making $20,000 a year in football operations.”

The Georgia board approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $175.2 million, a nearly 8% increase from the most recent budget of $162.2 million and the sign of a prosperous program that is flush with money after its success on the gridiron.

The school received approval to move forward with its preliminary plans for a new track and field facility, which will be built across the street from the complex hosting the soccer and and softball teams.

The current track stadium is located adjacent to the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, which hosts the practice fields and training facilities for the football program.

Georgia lost a chunk of its outdoor fields when it built a new indoor practice facility. After the new track and field stadium is completed, the current space will be converted to two full-length, grass football practice fields at the request of coach Kirby Smart.

“He wants to find efficient ways to practice, and there is a lot of truth to the issues we’ve had with our current practice fields,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of strain on our turf facilities staff to keep that field in great shape when half the day it is getting shade, so that has been a challenge as well. For our football program, it is better to practice on grass fields than (artificial) turf, so to be able to have two side-by-side grass fields is huge. It makes for a much more efficient practice.”

The new track and field complex, which will continue to be named Spec Towns Track, will also include an indoor facility, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.

Iowa AD Gary Barta announces retirement after 17 years at Big Ten school

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will retire on August 1 after 17 years at the university, the school announced Friday.

Barta, 59, is one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in a Power Five conference. He was hired by Iowa in 2006 after being the AD at Wyoming.

An interim director will be announced next week, Iowa said.

In September, Iowa hired former Ball State athletic director Beth Goetz to be deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer, putting her in position to possibly succeed Barta.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years,” Barta said in a statement. “This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion, and prayer.”

“That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Iowa won four NCAA national team titles and 27 Big Ten team titles during Barta’s tenure. The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the national championship game and the wrestling team is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Barta served as the chairman of the College Football Playoff committee in 2020 and 2021.

He faced heavy criticism over more than $11 million in settlements for lawsuits in recent years alleging racial and sexual discrimination within the athletic department.

Lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and associate athletics director Jane Meyer led to a $6.5 million payout.

Iowa had to pay $400,000 as part of a Title IX lawsuit brought by athletes after it cut four sports in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the agreement, Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming and diving program and add another women’s sport.

Iowa added women’s wrestling, the first among Power Five schools to compete this year.

A lawsuit brought by former football players alleging racial discrimination within the program was settled for $4.2 million last March, which prompted state auditor Rob Sand to call for Barta’s ouster.

“Gary Barta’s departure is a long time coming given the four different lawsuits for discrimination that cost Iowa more than $11 million,” Sand posted on Twitter.

The university did not allow taxpayer money to be used for the settlement with the former players.

Barta led Iowa through $380 million of facility upgrades, including renovation of Kinnick Stadium, the construction of a new football facility, a basketball practice facility and a training center for the wrestling teams.

Under Barta, Iowa has had just one head football coach (Kirk Ferentz), women’s basketball coach (Lisa Bluder) and wrestling coach (Tom Brands). All were in place when he arrived.

Barta has also come under scrutiny for allowing Ferentz to employee his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. To comply with the university’s nepotism policy, Brian Ferentz reports to Barta.