Michigan State waited years to get into the Western Conference, and it can only be counted as a good thing that in 1953 the membership finally got around to admitting the Spartans as the 10th member. The sad truth is that if State were not in there right now holding up the conference honor a lot of people would be saying Big Ten football was slipping. People are saying that anyway—but not out loud in East Lansing, where somebody like Bubba Smith would sit on them if they did. Bubba is 6 feet 7, weighs 278 pounds and plays various parts of the defensive line, sometimes simultaneously, for Michigan State, and he has been known to boggle opponents just by standing quietly at the door of their locker room with his arms crossed and his gaze fixed.
Bubba Smith and his headstrong friends on the Michigan State defensive team sat on a few who tried to run the football for the University of Michigan last week at East Lansing. So successfully daunted were the Wolverines that Quarterback Dick Vidmer filled the air with passes—47 in all, two short of the Big Ten record—in an approach to offense that used to be called the P.S. (for panic-stricken) plan and got, in this case, the predicted result: Michigan State won easily, 20-7 as Vidmer completed only 17 passes in a game played viciously and also sloppily (eight fumbles, 13 penalties). The game showed again that, besides awesome Michigan State and possibly Purdue, there is not a lot to brag about in the Big Ten these days.
The Big Ten has troubles, my friends, troubles right there in Iowa City, Madison, Champaign and Bloomington, and all the Midwest is atwitter over them. The troubles go like this: while Michigan State is crunching rival Michigan in a league game on Saturday, league-member Wisconsin is out being crunched by Nebraska of the Big Eight 31-3. Spread that over the past three weeks and what used to be an exception—a Big Ten team losing—becomes a regular embarrassment. Two weeks ago Big Ten teams lost five out of six games against teams from the great outside.
Wisconsin's loss Saturday was the 14th for the Big Ten in 25 nonconference games this fall. Not since 1939, when it broke even in 24 games (plus a tie), had the Big Ten failed to finish above .500 against outside competition until it went .500 last year. As late as 1960 the record was 19 victories, two losses and two ties.
The slip began a few years ago, but it did not begin to show until recently. In the last four years the Big Ten has gone from 15-7 to 14-10 to 13-13 (excluding ties) and now to 11-14. By contrast, the Southeastern Conference, which has for some time played the best football with the best-coached teams (a prominent Big Ten assistant says that when he wants to learn something about football he looks to the SEC), has won 16 and lost 4 for the season against non-SEC teams (1-0 vs. Big Ten teams). The Big Eight is 10-8 (4-1 vs. Big Ten teams), the Pacific Coast 12-10 (3-4) and the Southwest 9-10 (2-1).
What is most discomforting, however, is the manner in which Big Ten teams have been beaten—by scores of 35-0, 24-0, 43-7, 38-3, 31-3 and 35-7. No need, either, to brag about the caliber of the opposition—there have been losses to Miami of Ohio, Kansas, Oregon State and North Carolina—and none of the 11 victories have been over rated teams. In games with the very best—Nebraska, Notre Dame, USC and Florida—the Big Ten has lost five out of five.
A number of reasons have been advanced for this morbid state of Big Ten affairs, some of them ridiculous and some of them sublime: 1) Big Ten teams do not take nonconference games seriously; 2) it is too hot in Gainesville, Fla. for a Chicago boy to play football there in September; 3) there is an ability gap, because high school football in the Midwest is not what it used to be; 4) Texas backs run faster; 5) Texas linemen run faster; 6) the Big Ten ought to get more players from Texas; 7) restrictions on numbers, scholarships, traveling squads, redshirts and academic standing combine to make the Big Ten more Ivy League than big league; 8) Big Ten schools ought to schedule Ivy League schools and drop Big Eight schools; 9) West Coast teams have a superabundance of junior college transfers; 10) they should a) build more junior colleges in the Midwest or, b) bar junior-college transfers; 11) desegregation is breaking up that old underground railroad of southern Negro talent and 12) there is, across the country, a Great Leveling Off, and no conference or team will ever dominate again.
Many Big Ten coaches have expressed their nonchalance over nonconference games (Woody Hayes of Ohio State used to call them "exhibitions"). But a loss by any euphemism is still a loss. Most Big Ten teams play three nonconference games a year. What sense does it make to sluff off 30% of your schedule? "I take them all seriously," says Michigan State's Duffy Daugherty, an advanced thinker among Big Ten coaches. Daugherty's teams since 1954 have won 29 and lost only seven in games outside the Big Ten. If he had not won his three nonconference games in 1958 he would not have won at all.
The principal points of contention for the coaches, of course, are condensed in No. 7 above. "All we want is an even break," says one who does not want to be named, "and we're not getting it now." Murray Warmath of Minnesota says he "cannot apply any logic" to rules as now outlined in the Big Ten handbook. It is a numbers game that the coaches speak of, and Daugherty and all the rest are against these numbers in the Big Ten. To wit:
SCHOLARSHIPS. Each Big Ten team is allowed 30 a year, as compared to 45 in the Big Eight and 40 in the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences (actually 140 for the four classes, but they include basketball scholarships). The Southwest has an unwritten limit of 100 for four years. In actual practice the conferences are closer to being equal than ever before. Most teams keep about 100 football scholarships active at one time (between a Big Eight high, say, of 132 at Missouri and an Atlantic Coast low of 88 at North Carolina State). Michigan State at present has 107 on scholarship. Daugherty complains that he is not deep in talent after the first 22, but this is a familiar complaint since the return of two-platoon play, and most coaches would trade their first 44 for Daugherty's first 22 any day.