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.
December 11, 1972
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.
The prophecies holding that this will be the Big Ten's best year in history rest on similar numbers. No less than 78% of the players who started in the conference last winter have returned, as have 39 of the 50 top scorers and 11 of the 15 finest rebounders. The Big Ten is still big, still bulging with pectorals and eating its porridge. But the league is quick, too. Big, quick and smooth. Rock breaks scissors, cuts paper, wraps rock. Everything.
While Ohio State stumbled on the road last week at Washington despite Allan Hornyak's 25 points, other schools popped up all over to throw down the gauntlet. Iowa has filled its only weak spot with the addition of Carnell (Candy) LaPrince, who with Rick Williams forms one of the best backcourt combinations in the conference and makes the Hawkeyes especially dangerous. Indiana, whose Steve Downing scored 31 points in an easy win over Harvard Saturday, may be, too. But it is between Michigan and Minnesota, and possibly Ohio State, that the race should be run this season.
In Ann Arbor basketball is treated in the same loose manner as student government, where last week the council narrowly defeated a proposal to establish a "student dope co-op." The Wolverines' Johnny Orr, a frank and fun fellow who some rivals claim has trouble leading his team out of the dressing room, reflected on his coaching strategy the other day. "Last year we had one offense—Henry Wilmore," he said during a press conference. "Now we have two offenses—Wilmore and Campy."
But a lack of cohesion and the unmistakable overlapping of styles between Wilmore and Russell may haunt the Wolverines all season. In addition, defensive techniques are guaranteed to be absent. As Notre Dame's Digger Phelps said before the game Saturday, "Orr's idea of D is to beat you 91-89." Which turned out to be nearly on the button.
"We got 63 in the second half," said Orr, smiling. "We must have a pretty good offense." But the offense does not yet take advantage of Russell's speed inside, and Wilmore, who scored 21 points but did not appear to start playing until Campy sat down, does not look like a happy second banana.
The Wolverines' high promise will be put to the test early in Big Ten competition when they open at Ohio State and play five of their first seven games against contenders. If Russell and Wilmore are working with each other by then, Orr will be in line for Coach of the Year.
By that time, too, all the nice folks in Minnesota unfortunately may still be trying to explain away that night of terror in the Ohio State game last January, even while attempting to squeeze themselves into the 18,000-seat Williams Arena. Musselman—who has the looks of Steve McQueen and the reputation of Charles Manson—and his team have captured the soul of the Twin Cities faster and to a greater degree than the Twins, Vikings, North Stars or Mary Tyler Moore ever did. Each seat is sold out for the main building as well as 500 season tickets in the adjacent hockey rink, where students and citizens swoop in from the blizzards to huddle in blankets and watch the games on closed-circuit TV. "We avoid talking about last year," says one man downtown. "It's like Vietnam—we want to forget it."
Still, "the incident," as the events of last Jan. 25 are referred to around the campus, is destined to stay with the Gophers for a long time. Musselman, Behagen and Corky Taylor, the other suspended player, are properly sober and reflective about the affair, but the humorists are getting in their licks. When it was announced that Minnesota had sold 1,400 tickets in the ice rink for the closed-circuit telecast of the opening game against weak California-Irvine, one guy cracked, "Who says the fight game is dead?" Other ticket buyers have requested "ringside seats" to Minnesota games. And a student group has invented dance steps known as the "Corky shuffle" and the "Behagen stomp."
The team has taken refuge in work, for which Musselman admits to a certain fanatical affection. His mother still labors on the line at the Frito-Lay factory in Wooster, Ohio. "How can I let my mother work harder than I do?" he asks. "If you're not intense in this business, you're not around very long. I must succeed."
This year's goal obviously is to succeed UCLA. The coach mentions the Bruins constantly. A sign, "Conditioning Is a Must to Beat UCLA," is in the locker room. Insiders say not a day goes by when there is not a crisis at basketball practice. One afternoon the heat in Williams Arena was faulty, and Musselman was upset. "Feel the heat. Feel this," he complained to nobody in particular. "How are we going to beat UCLA with a cold building?"
Musselman bore his burden well late last season, holding on at a time when his wife Chris confesses to "lying on the kitchen floor for three days and wanting to just give up." For the two players involved the experience was worse. Taylor did not eat for two weeks. Behagen, to whom basketball was the only salvation after a checkered career as a youth in the ghettos of New York, at first was lost. Then he started reading law, took up the piano and found love and guidance from a beautiful former stewardess.
"You figure out priorities after something like that," Behagen said last week. "This game was everything for me, but mostly fun. Now I know it's a lot more serious. I know it can be taken away from me at any time. I hope I don't have to start all over, having to prove myself, but maybe I do. I try to avoid talking about the incident. I can't explain it, and I don't want to try."
Musselman has warned the players, indeed his entire team, that they are being watched. In his first team meeting he told them, "Nobody leaves the bench. Hands go straight up on fouls. Nobody questions the referees. Everything is 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir.' "
"I've done a lot of thinking," says Behagen. "I know Corky and I are going to hear things, harassment and stuff. But I'm ready for it. I've been up against adversity all my life. It's nothing new. It just has to be overcome. It's up to me. I have to watch myself and do well, and then maybe people will forget."
With Jim Brewer, the Big Ten's MVP last season, remaining a tower on defense, and with sophomore Greg Olson and veterans Keith Young and Dave Winfield able to operate at better advantage in Musselman's new wide-open game, the Gophers seem an awesome collection to reckon with in the future.
For now they must continue to weather the bad moments. Such as the other day when a small boy, a visitor to practice and surely unaware of the connotations, laughingly shouted out, "Hey Ron, Ron Behagen, wild man."
As the words hung there, the tall player could only wince and bow his head. When he slumped away, he must have understood that even as he watches himself and does well, it may take more time before people will forget.