Big Ten football thrives at gate, but not on field according to major polls
In the Big Ten Conference prosperity is not currently an across-the-board proposition. On one hand, there are the stadium-bursting crowds that have become a conference trademark, on the other, the circuit's declining national prestige as measured in the national rankings.
Big Ten attendance figures are generally the envy of every circuit in the country, including the National Football League. Two weeks ago, for example, the conference established an all time single-day record with an average of 77, 260 spectators for six games. And last Saturday, Michigan drew the second largest crowd in collegiate history (106,113).
That the turnstiles get such a workout can be attributed to any number of things - tradition, slick marketing, huge stadiums, a large population base, and the lure of scenic campuses - but not to the existence of awesome teams, at least not this year.
Since the first wire service poll in 1936, the conference has never failed to place at least one school among the season's Top 10 teams. But unless things change over the second half of the season, that streak will end.
Illinois is the only conference member among the latest Top 20, and the Illini hold down the 13th and 15th spots in the major polls. Notably absent are Michigan and Ohio State, the conference bullies who were expected to reassert themselves after letting Iowa grab last season's Rose Bowl berth.
As a measures of how grave the situation has become, consider these additional facts:
* There are still two Big Ten teams looking for their first victory, and neither one is named Northwestern (Purdue and Michigan State are 0-5).
* The circuit's record against against non-conference opponents this season was a dismal 8-14, the worst mark since 1971.
In the opinion of Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler, blame for the slow start really belongs at the feet of the schedulemakers, who in this case are the athletic directors.
''In the future we shouldn't be scrapped with a deal where we play a Big Ten team the opening week,'' he said at a recent Big Ten luncheon. ''It's stupid when we have to open with a Big Ten team. We're all gearing up for that opener since it counts in the conference standings. You'll see us do better once we drop this scheduling.''
There's a catch, however. Schedules are usually drawn up years in advance, with very little flexibility built in. To quickly repolish its reputation, therefore, the Big Ten needs to eliminate the early-season, emotional letdowns.
Actually, there should be no shame in the gradual erosion of Big Ten's steel-girded image. It was bound to happen as various factors came into play.
Where once the conference was a beacon for black players, now it is no more integrated than any other major conference. Scholarship limitations have also evened out competition throughout the country, and the trend toward more and better passing attacks has given opponents another equalizer. The conference also prides itself on maintaining school entrance and elgibility standards that elsewhere have been ignored, skirted, or bent.
The Big Ten, of course, is often criticized for being stodgy and conservative , a rap engendered during the Woody Hayes era at Ohio State, but that is hardly valid today.
Big Ten teams throw the ball, some a lot. The foremost advocate of the forward pass is Illinois Coach Mike White, the only Big Ten mentor with previous head coaching experience in Pacific 10 Conference.
The significance of this is that White took some of his West Coast ideas with him to Champaign. One of these was to recruit junior college players, who have already gained important seasoning. Another was to go to the air, something he was a master at teaching. As an assistant at Stanford, he had schooled quarterbacks Jim Plunkett and Mike Boryla, and as the head coach at California he helped Steve Bartkowski and the late Joe Roth develop.
At Illinois his first protege was Dave Wilson, a transfer student from Fullerton College, a junior college in California. Two years ago he became to the first quarterback in history to pass for better than 600 yards in a game ( 621 against Ohio State). Wilson became the focus of conference brouhaha over his elgibility and wound up entering pro football's supplemental draft in the summer of 1981.
Jumping into Wilson's shoes was Tony Eason, who was named the UPI's Midwest Player of the Week for his four-touchdown strikes against Purdue last Saturday.
While the Illini were handling the Boilermakers, Northwestern (now 2-4 overall) was chalking up its first Big Ten victory after 38 losses, upsetting Minnesota 31-21.
In another milestone, Wisconsin ended a long period of frustration playing in Columbus, Ohio, by beating Ohio State on its home field for the first time in 64 years. The Badgers had managed only three ties, along with 18 losses, before Saturday's 6-0 win.
Illinois now leads the Big Ten with a 4-0 conference record, followed by Michigan at 3-0 and Iowa at 2-0.