The players had heard of celebrations such as this only as part of Michigan lore, so when the Wolverines spilled into their dressing room after last Saturday's 20-14 victory over Ohio State, it was as if their maize-and-blue dreams had sprung to life. Captains Eric (Zeus) Mayes and Jon Jansen stood on folding metal chairs in the middle of the room and led their teammates in a hoarse rendition of The Victors, the Michigan fight song. Coach Lloyd Carr delivered a brief homily on the mountaineering theme he had used all year to prod the Wolverines toward their summit, the Big Ten title. The championship trophy was presented, and it all seemed too sweet to be real.
Outside, in the bowl of Michigan Stadium, a party raged as many in the crowd of more than 106,000 refused to leave. "When I came here, I read so much about what it was like to beat Ohio State, to win the Big Ten, to go to the Rose Bowl," said Jansen, a hulking tackle. "Now, to have it all happen, I can't even describe it." Briefly Jansen made another, more graphic statement. He stuck a plug of chewing tobacco behind his lower lip, which he had promised fellow offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson he would do if the Wolverines went undefeated. Then he spit it out. "Otherwise," he said, "I'll yack." Soon he and his teammates would join that madness on the field, singing joyously with the crowd and waving roses in the twilight.
Perhaps you've heard the numbers: It had been five years since Michigan won the Big Ten, 26 since the Wolverines finished the regular season 11-0 and exactly forever since they took a consensus No. 1 ranking into January, with the national championship theirs to keep or lose in a bowl. Those streaks passed into history on Saturday as Michigan's victory, coupled with Florida's upset of Florida State (page 44), which had been first in the coaches' poll, allowed the Wolverines, previously top-ranked by the AP, to become the top team in both polls heading into a Rose Bowl date with Washington State (page 40). "What we did this year, and what we did today, was restore Michigan to its place in college football," said fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Griese.
He was being too modest. In the 29 years since a Big Ten team, Ohio State, last won the national championship, the balance of power in college football has shifted west, east and, most dramatically, south. There had been a time when the late-season Ohio State—Michigan game perennially affected the national-title picture, but in the 1980s and '90s, November usually has meant Games of the Season (or the Century) on artificial turf in the heartland (Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado) or on lush grass in the Deep South. It was as if the most storied conference in the country had become a fossil.
What a journey back in time it was, then, when on Saturday the game at the center of the college football universe was played in the raw afternoon chill of Ann Arbor. Snow had fallen overnight and sat piled along the sidelines. With not only the Rose Bowl but also a possible national championship hanging in the balance, Michigan and Ohio State played a tense game in which there were just 441 yards in total offense. Plays critical to the outcome included two interceptions, a fumble and a punt return. Carr described his thoughts during the final 15 minutes of the game this way: "I was just hoping we could punt the ball into decent field position and play great defense." Somewhere Steve Spurrier yacked.
Not only was Michigan's name restored this season, but also an entire conference's. The game between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines crowned an autumn in which the Big Ten again became the premier conference. "Much tougher, much better than I even imagined it would be," says Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who brought his program into the Big Ten five years ago. "There was a time when people suggested that we would come into the league and dominate, but other teams have just gotten stronger and stronger."
The surest measure of a conference is at the top, and the Big Ten had three of the AP's top six teams (No. 1 Michigan, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 6 Penn State) going into the fourth weekend of November. The round-robin showdowns involving these teams were three of the season's centerpiece games, filling the gaps left by sudden parity in the SEC, the collapse of the Big East and the rampant mediocrity (and worse) in the Big 12 beneath second-ranked Nebraska.
"Look what has befallen some of the traditional power programs," says Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. "Texas, Alabama, USC." He could have mentioned Notre Dame and Miami, but he didn't. "Our power teams have had some off years, but they have not experienced that type of fall from grace." What's more, the Big Ten has become more balanced behind its Big Three, and Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan State are all solid programs in the middle of the league, which has a chance to send seven teams to bowl games this season. Even longtime doormat Purdue went 8-3 this fall, with a veteran team under first-year coach Joe Tiller. At the bottom, Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois combined for just two league wins, but each has a first-year coach and the sunny optimism that goes with recent change. "There are still power teams in this league, but the gap is smaller," says Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter. "The other teams can smell blood when it's in the water."
Last week Bo Schembechler, who coached Michigan from 1969 to '89, sat in the football office building that bears his name and marveled at the change. "We only had to worry about Ohio State and maybe, in some years, one other team," he said. "It's different now. You can get beat any week."
The conference has prospered by navigating the most turbulent political times in recent college football history with a combination of patience, grace and stubbornness. While the Big Eight and the SEC hurriedly became 12-team megaconferences and the Big East turned itself into a faceless hybrid of football and basketball that stretches from Boston to Miami, the Big Ten calmly snatched Penn State, the most attractive free agent of all, given that Notre Dame wasn't interested in joining a league. "Penn State is what has changed this conference more than anything else, and for the better," says Ohio State coach John Cooper. From this solid base the Big Ten is studying at least three expansion models, with as many as nine new teams (or as few as one) involved. "The door is open," says Delany.