SI Vault
August 16, 2011
With its leaders, legends, classic venues and expansive reach, this mighty league remains the game's bellwether
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August 16, 2011

The Big Ten How We Got Here

With its leaders, legends, classic venues and expansive reach, this mighty league remains the game's bellwether

POWER. THAT TRAIT HAS CHARACTERIZED BIG TEN football from its inception, marking the conference's default style of play, the influence of its huge, world-class academic institutions and its ability to command outsized media coverage operating from its Midwestern base.

In its early years as the Western Conference, the league had a shifting cast. One of its big guns was the University of Chicago, national champion in 1905. The Maroons' coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, became a legend as his teams battled the Michigan Wolverines of Fielding H. (Hurry Up) Yost. In the 1920s the conference, now known as the Big Ten, hit its stride. Illinois, under coach Robert Zuppke, was national champion in 1923 and '27. More important, in the Golden Age of Sport, the Illini boasted a figure second in glamour only to Babe Ruth: Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost. The heyday of stars such as Grange, Michigan quarterback Benny Friedman and Minnesota tackle-fullback Bronko Nagurski coincided with the construction of colossal on-campus stadiums that would help define the game-day experience. Then the '30s and early '40s belonged to the Golden Gophers, five-time national champions under Bernie Bierman.

After World War II a deal with the Pacific Coast Conference gave the Big Ten champ an automatic berth in the Rose Bowl, invariably the most-viewed college football game in the nation each year. From 1947 through '59 Big Ten schools went 12--1 in the so-called Granddaddy of Them All. The era marked the arrival of Michigan State, which won two Rose Bowls, and a new coach, Woody Hayes, who resurrected Ohio State. By 1969 he had a rival worthy of his scowl in his former assistant Bo Schembechler, at Michigan. For the next decade the two locked in a death grip, and Wolverines-Buckeyes morphed into arguably the most acrimonious, and attention-grabbing, feud in sports.

More recently other schools have taken turns at the top: Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin, resurgent Northwestern. Penn State began Big Ten play in 1993 and became a force, winning the '95 Rose Bowl.

Through the decades Big Ten football has only tightened its hold on students and fans. In 2010, Michigan (111,825 average), Ohio State (105,278) and Penn State (104,234) were the top three FBS schools in attendance. This year they will be joined by Nebraska (No. 11, average 85,664) and its devoted fan base. Big Red will be the latest power color to enliven Big Ten autumns.


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