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This will be a rebuilding year," said Coach Woody Hayes of Ohio State. For trusting believers in Big Ten football, this not very original remark had the kind of effect Nikita Khrushchev might achieve should he tell a Russian audience: "Communist armies are weaker than those of the West, and we will lose battles from Shanghai to Sevastopol. But wait until next year. We may do better." Khrushchev would not say anything of the sort, of course, and until this year neither would a Big Ten coach have admitted publicly that he was prepared to lose more games than he would win.
But times have changed in the Midwest, and nowhere have new patterns of thought been more evident than in the Big Ten. Hayes has been at Ohio nine years, and in that time he has won three conference championships, 17 consecutive conference games and, twice, the Rose Bowl. Oddly, he never appeared sure of his place in Midwest society while he won. He does now. Not only Ohio State but the other Big Ten teams are talking losses for the first time in memory.
Their troubles date back to the faculty revolts of 1956 against the influence of athletic departments. The faculties demanded, and got, greater control over admissions and requirements and, in particular, grant-in-aid scholarships.
Daniel J. McCarthy, proprietor of a downtown saloon in Madison, Wis. is absolutely certain he knows where the blame lies for such disgraceful defeats as Wisconsin's at the hands of Washington (44-8) and Illinois' against Penn State (20-9). "All those regulations and new recruiting policies cut down on the caliber of football players coming to our universities," says McCarthy. "Look at the way our teams are getting beat. I think it's a trend. Now the Big Ten has this education emphasis—standards are tougher—football suffers. Another year like this and we will not be dominant."
While the quality of Big Ten football has diminished, the enthusiasm of the loyal alumni and followers has never wavered. There has been no noticeable decline at the gate. This might stem from the fact that the league has become more competitive, with no team able to dominate the play as Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa did in recent years. Last season, for example, Wisconsin won the conference title with only five wins and two losses, while the fifth-place Northwestern team had four wins and three defeats.
Coach Milt Bruhn of Wisconsin, obviously chagrined at the Washington defeat, said, "Outside competition has been a little rough on me lately. But I know few conferences as tight as this. We have to point for every game, every Saturday. Why Minnesota and Illinois—the last two conference teams we met last year—impressed me as solid contenders. Illinois beat us 6-9, and Minnesota lost by 11-7. And Illinois tied for third in the conference, and Minnesota was last," Bruhn said.
Although restrictive recruiting has limited the supply of talented players, it has provided the coaches with the stimulus to create more imaginative systems. Iowa, with its worst won-and-lost record in four years, was nevertheless something of an artistic success. It unveiled an exciting offense that averaged 377.7 yards gained a game. This was the second most successful offense in the country. Furthermore, Iowa passed, and in a conference noted for its concentration on running plays, the inventive pass patterns proved a delight. Coach Bob Flora, assistant to Forest Evashevski at Iowa, said recently, "Let's face it, we are competing for an audience. Evy recognizes this and strives to open the game up; to run an interesting offense. He realizes that if he doesn't the fans are apt to desert to the pros."
Last season, in the midst of a torturous losing schedule, Minnesota Coach Murray Warmath observed, "There is no virtue like winning and no sin worse than losing." A Big Ten faculty committee that met last May obviously agreed, at least to a point. It reversed an earlier decision taken during the darkest of the "hate-football" days and permitted Big Ten teams to appear in the Rose Bowl after all. The committee further agreed to take under consideration a change in the stringent recruiting rules it had fought so hard to establish. If the committee's liberalizing recommendations are followed, big-time Big Ten football will be on the way back.
But in the meantime a horde of promising athletes has scurried off to the neighboring Big Eight and MidAmerican conferences, which as a consequence have grown stronger than they were in the past. Teams in both conferences have developed consistent followings and what their chief boosters hope are hard-to-break recruiting habits throughout the Midwest. The difference in play between the two conferences and the Big Ten, once so pronounced in favor of the latter, is now diminishing, and so the Big Eight and the Mid-American may soon be in a position to challenge the Big Ten for the title of king of midwestern football.
At Bowling Green in the MidAmerican, Coach Doyt Perry who, after leading the Falcons to the MAC title, could be mayor if he wanted the job, figures his league is 50% better than it was six years ago. "We're going to get major college status," says Perry. "But first we have to get half our games against major competition. That's the tough part. The big schools don't want to play us. Right now we'd play any team in the country, but they won't have us. It's just a matter of time and they'll have to take us on."