Few people have had as decorated a playing career at the high school, college, and NFL level as Chris Spielman. The former Ohio State linebacker has served for the last decade as an ESPN college football analyst and he was kind enough to spend a few moments with us today to talk about the upcoming bowl season that starts tomorrow. You can view the entire bowl schedule along with announcing assignments here.
But Spielman's story is about much more than football. In 2009, he lost his wife Stefanie after a courageous battle with breast cancer at the age of 42. Spielman wrote a highly acclaimed book in 2012 about that journey and in Columbus, the Stefanie Spielman Fund has raised millions for breast cancer research. In addition to a conversation about the bowl season, the Big Ten, and his alma mater, he also opens up about becoming an author and the meaningful work of the Spielman Fund. If so moved, you can donate to the Spielman Fund here, it's truly a great cause.
AA: Your passion and intensity were hallmarks of your playing career, how do you channel that as a college football analyst?
Chris Spielman: I have the same attitude as when I was a player, it's a privilege to call college football games. I have so much respect for the players, coaches, and fans that it's my solemn duty to tell the truth and what I know is right and wrong and what I believe. Sometimes coaches or fans may get upset with your opinion, but I'd put my opinion up against anybody and challenge anybody to show me where I'm wrong. I did that as a player. Show me where I'm wrong and I'll fix it.
AA: Outside the BCS, which bowl matchup are you most looking forward to?
Spielman: Since I'm doing the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, the one I have the most interest in is Michigan-Kansas State. I think it's an interesting matchup, the fact that Michigan struggled at the end of the year and then turned it on against Ohio State. And although he may not be the most interesting guy in the world, Coach Snyder does a wonderful job of coaching and it's amazing how whenever they lose players they keep coming back and coming back. It's probably the one I look most forward to, but I watch them all. I'm one of those guys that will sit there and watch bowl games no matter where they are, when they are, I'll find a way to get to a TV and check in on most of them.
AA: How important is the bowl game for Michigan and Brady Hoke after having a down year, but playing so well against Ohio State. Can they use this as a springboard into next year?
Spielman: It's very important for them, and I know a lot of people are restless for Coach Hoke. They just have to figure some things out. They really struggled against MSU and Nebraska offensively, then they got back on track against Ohio State. He can get it turned around, and they have to get it turned around.
They get 4 or 5 star kids every year, they've got to start playing like 4 or 5 star kids every year. They gotta get those kids to play and that's the coaches' job.
AA: Does the Big Ten need a successful bowl season to begin to change the narrative out there about the league, especially with high profile matchups like OSU-Clemson and Michigan State-Stanford?
Spielman: It's always important. I don't think teams look at it that way, they have problems of their own to get ready to play in these bowl games. But in the offseason, eventually you have to say look at the scoreboard. The Big Ten was down this year and one of those reasons was Michigan struggling a bit and Nebraska lost Taylor Martinez and that hurt them.
Overall, is it important? Yes. Is it vital? No. Because once next season starts nobody remembers last year. I think Wisconsin is a very good football team, Michigan State and Ohio State obviously. Those are the three best teams. Eventually when the sanctions are lifted if Coach O'Brien stays at Penn State it won't take long for them to get good in a hurry.
AA: You played in a Rose Bowl with Ohio State and this year is the 100th edition of the game. Is it set apart from the other bowls with its prestige and importance? Does it truly earn that "Granddaddy of Them All" moniker?
Spielman: I think so because of the tradition. Growing up in Big Ten country and playing at a Big Ten school and getting to play a Pac 10/12 team was always kind of cool. If you talked to any college football family, there were a lot of New Year's Days scheduled around the Rose Bowl. At least in Ohio.
It's unique. I had a chance to do a couple of those games on ESPN Radio, which was fun for me from a broadcast point of view. I had the chance to experience it as a true freshman and play in that game, which was awesome. It doesn't mean the other bowls aren't great and exciting, but for a traditionalist like myself the Rose Bowl is unique. It's amazing.
AA: I want to ask you about the Buckeyes this season. Of course they came into the year ranked #2, had the 24 game winning streak, but got upset by Michigan State in the B1G title game. Let's say they go on and win this Orange Bowl against Clemson and finish 13-1. Would that season be considered a success or a failure given the standards set by Urban Meyer? Is it BCS and Big Ten title or bust?
Spielman: I think that's the standard Urban has set and the players and coaches have. When you don't accomplish that there's obviously disappointment. But to go out and end up with 12 or 13 wins, that's a heck of a season. That's something you should be proud of. But is it what the goal was at the beginning of the season? No.
I'm of the belief that places like Ohio State, Alabama, FSU, Texas, Oklahoma, traditional powers, if they don't win the national championship and win a league title there's something missing. And there's nothing wrong with having that high of a standard.
AA: You're also calling the Fiesta Bowl with Sean McDonough. This might be the first time a lot of fans get to see UCF QB Blake Bortles, who's being a touted as a high draft pick. Can he keep up with Baylor's offense and what should the nation expect to see from him?
Spielman: They have to avoid getting in a track meet with Baylor, so their defense is really the one under pressure. I was very impressed watching Blake. He sees the field, he's accurate and smart, and he can throw the rock around. That's why you're seeing him skyrocket, I actually read where McShay had him the #1 or #2 quarterback in the draft. UCF can't get overwhelmed, they're on a big stage and playing an offense that can drop 70 on anybody.
If I'm Blake I run the offense the way that got us to the football game and trust my teammates. That's the biggest thing for a star player and a quarterback. There's a reason why you're playing in a BCS game, it's because you and your teammates have trusted and believed in a system. So you stay in your system and if you get down early to Baylor, you can't panic and have to trust what you do.
AA: You recently wrote a book about your journey with your late wife Stefanie. What was that process like and what moved you to become an author?
Spielman: The interesting thing about the book is we took the time to do it in real time. We started the book soon after Stefanie was deemed terminal. I wanted real feelings to come out. The whole point of the book is to provide hope. Hope that is not a wish, but that is a promise. That no matter what, even in death, life is good and a blessing. You can still have a blessed, cherished life even after a very difficult loss. It also provided little bits and pieces about how I was raised, how I was as a player, and how that helped me deal with cancer, a diagnosis, a fight, and a loss and how to hopefully bounce back from that.
AA: Some fans may not be aware of it nationally, but your work with the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research has had such a positive impact in the community. How meaningful is that for you to see the work there being carried forward and how much of an impact does that work have on your daily life?
Spielman: It has an impact on me and my family for the rest of our lives. I was recently re-married in July and married a young lady who embraces that passion in our lives. My daughter has taken more of an active role in the fundraising whether it be working with Donato's or Kroger or whoever and it's good to see that she's made that decision to honor her mother's legacy by continuing the fight.
For us, and I know it was Stefanie's passion, we believe that God allowed this to happen for a reason, for a greater good. What we've been able to do with it is raise so far $14 million dollars and counting, we've set up a patient's assistance fund off of that which helps cancer patients that have financial needs. That's something that's growing a bit and is desperately needed.
Most importantly, it provides hope. Our researchers and scientists are held accountable. If they're working on something new, they need to show progress. There's an annual or bi-annual review of the monies being used and the people using it. If they're not making progress, the next guy's in. That's something Stefanie was passionate about. I know lives have been prolonged and people have benefited from that fund greatly. For us, it makes us secure in knowing the loss of Stefanie wasn't for nothing, it was for a greater good.