Wisconsin QB Tanner Mordecai already emerging as team leader

Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
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MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin quarterback Tanner Mordecai originally planned to spend this month preparing for the NFL draft rather than gearing up for one last college season at a third school.

“I was about 90% sure I was going to put my name in the draft and do the whole pro route,” Mordecai said Wednesday during a day off from spring practice. “I got some feedback from some scouts and teams about where I’d be drafted, and I wasn’t super-fired up about the feedback.”

Mordecai decided he could boost his pro stock by showing that he could play just as effectively at a Power Five school as he did the last two seasons at American Athletic Conference program SMU, where he became the Mustangs’ career leader in touchdown passes.

Playing for a head coach who had beat him twice and an offensive coordinator who had recruited him out of high school made Wisconsin particularly appealing.

“It was kind of an opportunity, a fit that I thought I shouldn’t pass up,” Mordecai said.

New Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell added three quarterback transfers this offseason in Mordecai, Nick Evers (Oklahoma) and Braedyn Locke (Mississippi State). The Badgers also return Myles Burkett and Marshall Howe and added freshman Cole LaCrue as they seek a replacement for Graham Mertz, who transferred to Florida after starting every game for Wisconsin each of the last three seasons.

Mordecai, the only active Wisconsin quarterback who has started a game, is the leading candidate to start the Sept. 2 opener against Buffalo.

“If there’s a guy that on a consistent basis every single day has been a great leader in my eyes so far, one would be Tanner Mordecai,” Fickell said last week.

After spending three seasons in a reserve role at Oklahoma, Mordecai threw for more than 3,500 yards each of the last two seasons at SMU while totaling 72 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions. He did all that despite breaking two ribs early last season and one more rib late in the season and missing one game with a concussion.

The only games in which Mordecai threw for fewer than 200 yards for SMU both came in losses to Cincinnati teams coached by Fickell, though an injury caused him to leave last season’s matchup in the third quarter.

“I firmly believe Coach Fickell is going to win a national championship here,” Mordecai said.

Mordecai also was familiar with Wisconsin offensive coordinator Phil Longo and his history of producing standout quarterbacks.

“I was in high school when he was at Ole Miss (and) I was close to committing to him there,” Mordecai said. “It’s kind of crazy how it comes full circle.”

Longo was Mississippi’s offensive coordinator from 2017-18 before filling the same role at North Carolina the last four seasons. Longo’s last two quarterbacks at North Carolina were 2022 fifth-round draft pick Sam Howell and Drake Maye, who heads into his sophomore season as one of college football’s top NFL quarterback prospects.

Longo is eager to see what Mordecai can do in the Big Ten and has been impressed with the leadership the former SMU quarterback has shown thus far.

“From day one that Tanner has been here, he’s acted like the starter,” Longo said. “He’s shown up. There’s no ego. He’s very humble. And there’s no disrespect toward the other guys, but he’s been a starter for two years. He carries himself that way. And he just has shown some natural leadership ability when he’s out among our players as teammates.”

Teammates say Mordecai has done that without stepping on anyone’s toes. Mordecai said he was careful to listen and get a better understanding of his new teammates before he asserted himself in conversations with them.

“You can’t walk into a culture that you’re not part of and bark orders,” Mordecai said. “You’ve got to build relationships, build trust, respect and go from there. I think if you ask the guys now, they would say I’m a lot more vocal now than I was in January.”

His teammates appreciated that approach.

“I think he’s a great leader,” wide receiver Chimere Dike said. “The first day he stepped in, he didn’t try to force himself into any role, but that was kind of just natural because that’s who he is, the way he approaches, how he works hard, how he prepares. What stuck out is how he approached every single day and how prepared he was and now natural of a leader he was.”

Mordecai values the way his new teammates have welcomed him and doesn’t take it for granted.

“They understand my work ethic and how much this game and this culture and winning matter to me,” Mordecai said. “I think that they see that and understand that. It’s something I’m going to hold true to my heart.”

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.