Big Ten Bashing throughout the nation has been replaced by Schadenfreude directed at the Southeastern Conference.
The German word for “happiness at the misfortune of others” extends to all corners of the country tired of hearing about the mighty SEC through its effective public relations firm, ESPN. That applies particularly to the SEC West, which lobbied for two of the four entries in the College Football Playoffs.
But the bully has been sullied.
The SEC West went 2-5 in bowl games, including a loss by the Alabama Death Star commanded by Nick Saban as the No. 1 seed in the first CFB. No one outside of “Phyllis of Mulga” and other Alabama fans shed a tear for Darth Vader (Phyllis probably envisioned Alabama-Auburn in one semi and Mississippi State-Ole Miss in the other).
Also note that the losers were the top five teams in the SEC West: Alabama to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, Mississippi State to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, Ole Miss to TCU in the Peach Bowl, Auburn to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl and LSU to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl.
Actually, we should have seen the SEC demise coming when Indiana won Sept. 20 on the road at Missouri. Indiana finished 4-8 and the bottom of the Big Ten East; Missouri won its second straight SEC East title. Oh, the irony.
We also could have been skeptical of the SEC with the early season rise of the two Mississippi schools to Nos. 1 and 3 in the nation. Their rankings unleashed Ole Miss romanticism from its national power days (omitting segregation), but the Magnolia state schools eventually faded.
The SEC will be back – make no mistake about that with so many football elements tilted its way. The Big Ten’s success will be cyclical for the same reasons.
- Football is religion in the South, whereas athletes in the Midwest split their allegiance with basketball. There are plenty of Midwest high school point guards without a college future who could have gone to college for free as a cornerback.
- No one raises an eyebrow at financial excesses that start in the SEC with facilities and salaries for head coaches as assistants. Arkansas coach Brett Bielema spelled that out for us when he said paying assistants was the reason he left Wisconsin, where he was on a statue plan, for the Razorbacks.
The South’s attitude toward spending with no limit to gain an edge began with Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant building a dorm in his name for his players. A prime precedent for ongoing entitlement that separates athletes from the student body was established. If the NCAA permits paying athletes, it will spare the SEC of its charade.
- The SEC has trumped the Big Ten with the nation's population shift the past 40 years. With increased numbers comes more Southern speed from a climate advantage and more skill from a stronger emphasis on spring football.
Millennials will have a hard time understanding this, but before the Rust Belt’s 1970s manufacturing decline, the Big Ten was the bully the rest of the nation wanted to see stumble.
This was evident from a Sports Illustrated article covering UCLA's monumental 1966 Rose Bowl upset of Michigan State. UCLA's Bob Stiles launched himself with a hit so hard he knocked himself out as he stopped Michigan State fullback Bob Apisa from a game-tying two-point conversion in the Spartans' 14-12 loss. Hall-of-Fame writer Jenkins wrote in SI: "It was the hardest blow of the game, and one of the most damaging ever inflicted on the Big Ten."
The Big Ten commanded the Rose Bowl and its television time slot ratings bonanza. In an age when few game were telecast nationally, there was no getting around the advantage of a 2 p.m. start in Pasadena that extended into evening hours of the Eastern time zone. The Big Ten teams were the glamour schools that the SEC clubs are now.
The first seven years of the post-World War II contract signed by the Big Ten and the West Coast schools that were predecessors of the Pac-12 were won by the Big Ten. They included routs by Illinois of 45-14 over UCLA and Michigan 49-0 over USC. If today’s media technology existed then, the Paul Finebaum of the era would have written a best-seller about how the Big Ten Conference can beat your conference.
But what gave Big Ten Bashing longevity was the delight the nation's fans outside the Big Ten took at watching Woody Hayes’ Ohio State teams and Bo Schembechler’s Michigan teams slip up in the 1970s Rose Bowls that became their banana peel.
Woody and Bo were a combined 1-9 – Woody 1-4 and Bo 0-5. Woody and Bo, cut from the same stubborn cloth, were such tyrants, fans around the nation loved watching their Neanderthal offenses implode and their tempers explode. It was a real life cartoon of the Roadrunner befuddling the Coyote. You have to have lived outside the Midwest to understand Woody and Bo were viewed as cartoon characters.
Throughout the decade, Ohio State and Michigan rolled up rankings and stats on their outmanned opponents -- Big Ten schools that didn’t recognize how far they had fallen behind in funding and recruiting until acting in the 1980s. That’s why they called it the Big Two and the Little Eight in the 1970s.
Then Woody and Bo’s Paper Tigers would be matched by talent against Pac-8/Pac-10 schools and out X'd and O'd by coaches who picked their quarterbacks and receivers for their ability to throw, run pass patterns and catch the ball rather than their ability to block. Bo himself described Tom Slade, Michigan's quarterback in the 1972 Rose Bowl upset loss to Stanford, as a pulling guard.
After Michigan’s Rose Bowl losses, the Los Angeles Times would write that Bo took his team home by bus to stay on the ground. Without Bo and Woody's arrogance, the rest of country might have accepted the socio-economic elements at work. Instead, Big Ten Bashing was cemented to the college football landscape.
Now, with the combination of Ohio State’s win over Alabama and Michigan having hired favorite son Jim Harbaugh, Ohio State and Michigan fans and the media are already romanticizing the “Ten Year War” between Woody and Bo. But let's keep in mind Woody's temper brought an end to that “war” (such a poor word choice for a nation emerging from the quagmire of Vietnam). Woody was fired for attacking a Clemson linebacker who intercepted a pass and ended up on the Ohio State sideline in the 1978 Gator Bowl.
The SEC West is taken aback by Schadenfreude, but it will pass. The Big Ten, particularly fans outside of Columbus and Ann Arbor, have been long forced to live with Big Ten Bashing borne by Woody and Bo.