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Big Ten football suffers from a lack of leadership

Sep 19, 2014

Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

In 1895, the presidents of seven Midwestern universities met at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago to form what we now call the Big Ten. They created the world’s first school-based sports organization, predating even the NCAA. 

Soon the rest of the country’s colleges and high schools followed suit, forming their own leagues based on the Big Ten model. 

The uniquely American marriage of academics and athletics – something no other country would even consider -- had been officially consummated. The Big Ten quickly established itself as the nation’s premier conference on the football field, too, and kept it up for decades. From 1900 to 1970, Big Ten teams won 39 national titles – more than one every two years.

When the Rose Bowl started pitting the Big Ten against the Pac-10 in 1948, the Big Ten won 11 of the first 12. Sometimes the Big Ten would send its runner up – and that team would crush the Pac-10 champion, too. 

The Big Ten’s hey-day looked like it would never end. This was the fifties, after all, and if Silicon Valley impresses you today, the Motor City was at least its equal, dominating the region, the nation, and the world with its might. It attracted millions of people to work and live in the Midwest, and generated unprecedented wealth. Some of these resources made their way to state universities, which grew in power and prestige.

In just three decades, Michigan State alone exploded from 4,000 students to 40,000, while winning six national football titles. 

But since 1970, the Big Ten has won exactly two national titles. What changed?

Almost everything. 

The Big Ten states have been losing money, power and people ever since. But thanks to the advent of the Big Ten Network on TV, the Big Ten itself has never been more profitable. Amazingly, Northwestern now gets twice as much money from TV deals than Notre Dame. 

But all that money has not improved Big Ten football. In the season's second week, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all went down.

But all that money has not improved Big Ten football. In the season’s second week, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all went down. While the SEC still has eight undefeated teams, the Big Ten can claim only two, Penn State and Nebraska, which squeaked by McNeese State, for cryin’ out loud. No, I didn’t know McNeese State had a football team, either. 

Why is this? You can point to a lot of factors, including the exodus from the rust belt, the advent of spring football leagues in the South, and, I believe, lower ethical standards outside the Big Ten. 

But if I had to pick one factor, it’s the quality of the head coaches – something the schools can readily change. 

15 years ago, nine of the league’s 11 teams appeared in the Top 25 at some point that season. They were led by six coaches who are now in the Hall of Fame – legends like Joe Paterno, Barry Alvarez and Hayden Fry -- and three others who were the best their schools have had for a quarter century. Of the current Big Ten coaches – now numbering 14, somehow – only four have been coaching their current team for more than four years. Only one, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame -- and that’s because of the two national titles he won at Florida, not in Columbus. 

When it comes to winning football games, there is no substitute for leadership. And right now, the Big Ten simply doesn’t have it. 

There’s your answer.