Hayden Fry, the Iowa coach, was talking in his cluttered office last Friday about the Hawkeyes leading the Big Ten. "We have no right to be where we are, I assure you," he said. Indeed, league-leading Iowa? Five-one-overall Iowa? Undefeated-in-the-conference Iowa? Sixth-ranked-in-the-country (by the AP) Iowa? The mind reels, because when it comes to football, the only national category the Hawkeyes lead in is most consecutive years without a winning season: 19. Even Kansas State and Northwestern have done better.
"If history holds true," Fry continued, "our bubble will be burst somewhere in the near future. I tell you, somebody is going to flat put a king-size hole in our inner tube."
The following day, Minnesota flat did just that, 12-10. You should have bet both the house and spouse that they would. After all, upsets are happening everywhere to everybody this year and in all of the best neighborhoods. In this weird season, almost nothing has been predictable—to the joy of many heretofore deprived fans (all five Big Ten games Saturday were sellouts, setting an NCAA single-day record for average game attendance—77,767—in a conference) and the chagrin of the followers of heretofore fat-cat powerhouses.
And nowhere have things been more wacky than in the Big Ten, that once-predictable league where either Tweedledee or Tweedledum would win, and the other eight members regularly offered themselves up as fodder. Over the last 12 years, Michigan won the conference twice, Ohio State thrice, and six times they tied; in 1978 the Wolverines tied with Michigan State but went to the Rose Bowl anyway. But that was yesterday. Today everybody is having a great time. Except Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler, whose Wolverines were nearly everyone's No. 1 preseason pick but who have already been thrashed by Wisconsin and, two weeks ago, Iowa. "I liked the good old days," says Bo, "when we dominated people and everybody hated us."
November 2, 1981
Last Saturday afternoon, the Wolverines mopped up Northwestern, 38-0, and that was significant because Northwestern is the only team in the Big Ten that can still be counted on to go out and do what it is supposed to do: lose. Northwestern is 0-5 in the conference and 0-7 overall, just as God intended.
Otherwise, the Big Ten standings look like a practical joke or the result of a computer glitch. Ohio State has had a case of the flounders, with a non-league loss to Florida State followed by a conference loss to Wisconsin. Yet, at 3-1 in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes are now tied with Iowa for the lead—and because of a quirk in scheduling, they don't play each other. Five teams are at 3-2 and definitely in the chase: Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Michigan. Even Indiana at 2-3 and Michigan State at 1-4, given the tenor of the year, are not dead and gone.
But why this chaos in the Big Ten? The most convenient answer is that the NCAA's 30-95 rule that went into effect nationally in 1978—no school may give more than 30 football scholarships in any one year and no more than 95 players on a team can be on scholarship at one time—is making itself felt. Previously, the big (read rich) schools would sign up hordes of players and stockpile them, not so much to play them as not to play against them. The 30-95 rule seems to have made for better balance by spreading talent around, and thus it is perfectly understandable why some of the big, rich schools despise it.
But what we are seeing this year in the Big Ten is much more than just the effect of 30-95. Mike White, the aggressive coach at Illinois, which beat Wisconsin 23-21 Saturday (remember that Wisconsin had knocked off both Michigan and Ohio State), considered the Big Ten standings late last Saturday night. "To me," he said, "the key to everything is what Wisconsin did the first week of the season to Michigan. That gave all the rest of us hope." White, who formerly coached at California, confessed that "it just seemed like every time we'd go out to play USC or UCLA, we were beat before we started. Everybody has been the same way against Michigan and Ohio State." White is correct. Take a bow, Wisconsin.
But today's parity isn't entirely the product of a piece of legislation or a new, can-do frame of mind; technology has also dealt the status quo a severe blow. Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham notes the heavy emphasis all teams have put on weight training (the Wolverines recently spent a tidy $60,000 on new weight equipment), which means a player once thought too small for the Big Ten can gain the weight and strength to be competitive. And with the scholarship limitations, everybody lacks depth, not just the poorer teams.
Yet another factor in the Big Ten is—at last—the emergence of some variety in coaches and coaching philosophies. No longer is it the world according to Woody Hayes. White, for example, lives by passing and just may succeed in giving the lie to the conventional wisdom that you must establish a running game before you can throw. Fry, who coached 11 years at SMU and six more at North Texas State before going to Iowa in 1979, keeps everyone loose by talking about scratching where it itches and plowing up snakes and killing them and a bunch of other down-home stuff nobody quite understands. Behind that verbal smokescreen, Fry concentrates on melding a bunch of athletes who might be a step slower than the blue-chippers, who gain all the attention running and throwing, into yet another swarming defense. And Indiana's Lee Corso, with his quick tongue and agile mind, is also something of a loose cannon on the once stable deck of the good ship Big Ten Football. Says White, "It used to be that everybody in the Big Ten did the same thing. So you prepared next week just like last week. And at the end, the team with the best talent won. The coaches were all disciples of one another. Now you get to Thursday and you're still trying to figure out how to prepare for the game."
For years the Little Eight was awestruck and intimidated by Hayes at Ohio State and Bo at Michigan. After so many losses at the hands of the Big Two, the Little Eight coaches started copying them. That didn't work, either. But then along came not only 30-95, but new faces and new ideas. It was too much for Woody, who punched his way out of the business—it was only coincidence that the immediate cause was an intercepted pass—and the jury is still out on how Bo will adjust. Meanwhile, all the other coaches have new courage and new resolve—thanks again, Wisconsin—and there is nothing more dangerous and confusing to the old order than a conference full of players and coaches who can look at the scoreboard and get proof that they are just as good as anybody else.
Nowhere is this more evident than at Iowa. The Hawkeyes went to the Rose Bowl after the 1956 and '58 seasons and tied for the Big Ten title in '60, all under Forest Evashevski. Then the Hawkeyes dived under the rock, and four coaches couldn't get them flying again. Last year, when Iowa had a predictable 4-7 season, Fry, coach No. 5, didn't look as if he could, either. So what that he had copied the Pittsburgh Steeler uniforms (down to the exact width of the stripes) and put his team in them, hoping some of the Steeler excellence would rub off? They still played like Hawks.
But the Iowa fans kept on hoping and cheering and attending, and the Hawk-eyes began showing some steel. Saturday's defeat? We're talking progress, not miracles. Hayden was calm before the game. "If we don't get it," he said, "we'll tee it up again next week. People will come. It's the only dance in town." Evashevski, now a color man for Iowa football broadcasts on WHO radio in Des Moines, took a stab at describing the essential decency of Iowa's fans thusly: "They wear rubbers when it rains and take them off before they come into your house."
Fry may act as if he just rode into town on the back of a wagonload of wood, but that's just his way. Of his players he demands blood, sweat and tears—and then the real work begins. Iowa has recruited heavily in New Jersey and New York (17 kids from those states are on the roster, including five starters) and isn't shy about picking up junior college players, either. Both Illinois and Iowa recruit J.C. athletes, something Michigan and Ohio State frown on. It's sort of like buying a ready-made team off the rack, they figure. Fry is winning this year with players generally unwanted elsewhere; for example, Defensive End Andre Tippett of Newark, N.J., now a top pro prospect, and Reggie Roby, the nation's leading punter with a 50.2 average despite a poor day Saturday, from Waterloo, Iowa. Only a few teams besides the Hawkeyes went after Roby.
Iowa can kick and defend, but the offense has been sputtering. Although the Hawkeyes gained 204 yards against Minnesota, just 116 of them were on the ground, and they have scored only one touchdown in their last two games. Bear in mind, however, that the team has lost eight starting offensive players to injury, including the entire starting backfield. Minnesota was no offensive powerhouse itself last Saturday, but it got four field goals—all the Gopher scoring—from Jim Gallery, including a 52-yarder in windy Kinnick Stadium. "Our offense just wasn't worth a flip," said Fry. "We lost to Minnesota because they beat us." Iowa got a 34-yard field goal from Freshman Tom Nichol, but he missed two other attempts late in the game that would have won it. Iowa scored its touchdown on a two-yard run by Tailback Phil Blatcher to culminate a 40-yard drive in the third quarter.
The hot novelty item in Iowa City these days is something called Hawkeye Pain Pills. The directions read: "Take two tablets with a large glass of your favorite spirits. Repeat as often as necessary to achieve the desired level of pain relief or until you forget why you are taking these pills." While Iowa fans needed them most last weekend, the entire Big Ten might do well to lay in a supply as its members keep inflicting pain and surprise on one another.