SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
December 11, 1972
The conference, down on its luck in the last few years, is coming back fast. Big, oh-so-quick, and well-coached, too, the leaders are challenging a deity that once seemed supreme—football
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December 11, 1972

Up, Up And Away In The Big Ten

The conference, down on its luck in the last few years, is coming back fast. Big, oh-so-quick, and well-coached, too, the leaders are challenging a deity that once seemed supreme—football

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If anybody still is wondering where Big Ten football disappeared, consider this treasure map here. It says go to the tree on the corner, look under the rock, follow the Converse footprints, turn right at Chicago, say "Boogabooga" three times and enter the gym.

There one can see enough talented muscle to revive the most beleaguered gridiron power. And there last weekend could be found two teams literally bursting with football symbolism and traditions. They happened to be basketball teams. Why, right in Ann Arbor was the Little Brown Jug himself, Joe Johnson, and Michigan's old No. 98—uh, Michigan's young No. 20—Campanella Russell (see cover), two sophomores who were doing it bad to Notre Dame. At practically the same time up in Minneapolis, there was the Old Oaken Bucket in the person of grizzled, balding and limp-gaited Clyde Turner combining with the Old Bronko, Ron Behagen, back from suspension and the dead, to get Minnesota out of the box in a hurry.

In a way there was as much significance in the games as there was snow on the campuses. In his long-awaited debut Michigan's splendid Russell scored 18 points before fouling out with 6:04 to play in the Wolverines' 96-87 victory. Johnson was equally fine—penetrating, fast-breaking for seven baskets and filling a desperate need. In the Twin Cities, meanwhile, the handsome Behagen, having packed up his troubles in an old kit bag, was smiling. He turned in his second excellent game and looked more than ready to become what he should have been all along, the best forward in the land. Behagen scored 21 points with a variety of ambidextrous shots around the hoop while Turner, who looks old beyond his years, contributed 27 as the new-look, run-run Gophers defeated Western Illinois 111-66.

Yes, Big Ten basketball is back, and even the league's football boosters have to face up to what has been obvious for a few years now. In this Midwestern outpost of bountiful pigskin lore, basketball has not only passed football, it is leaving it far behind.

To say Big Ten basketball is back is not really like saying Nixon is back, but it is close. Big Ten basketball has never been away for long. Since the NCAA tournament began in 1939 representatives of the conference have made it to the final four 18 times, only two fewer than the Pacific Eight. Moreover, the Big Ten leads all conferences in NCAA tournament winning percentage (.670) over the years—UCLA's brilliant 35-9 record only lifts the Pac Eight to a .667 mark—and has sent the most players (30) to the pro leagues.

Probably the conference's basketball teams have always been overshadowed because of the football horn blowers, and whenever the Big Ten did well in the NCAA the accomplishment was tainted with what seemed like out-of-place heavies who ran all night without regard for life, limb, intelligence or defense. There were exceptions, of course. The Ohio State team of the early 1960s, with Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried, was one of the best ever, but even they won only one of their three chances in the national finals, Cincinnati taking the other two.

Perhaps a marked lack of progress is what bothered people about the Big Ten. While most league schools were promoting head coaches from within and being content with mediocrity, Fred Taylor of Ohio State rolled along during the last decade low-keying it, teaching some defense, recruiting occasional standouts surrounded by nobodies and outcoaching everybody.

"The league has been a big, happy football family," says one man close to the scene. "They don't care about basketball, they hire assistants for the head jobs and then Taylor cleans up."

Last season saw some changes. Better coaching, for one. More and better black players, for another. Minnesota and Indiana brought in name coaches with defensive philosophies; Bill Musselman took the Gophers to the Big Ten championship and Bobby Knight, one of Taylor's former players, guided the Hoosiers to the NIT.

Though Taylor downplays it, his reputation also has become vulnerable within basketball's black community which, rightly or wrongly, claims he sets recruiting quotas. Taylor does not consider that the black athlete has brought about the resurgence of the Big Ten, but other coaches do. Iowa's Dick Schultz says flatly, "Basketball is a black man's game," and the fact remains that out of the 19 top returning scorers in the league, only five are white.

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