Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Big Ten Icons

Maybe you've seen the promo, Big Ten Icons, sponsored by the college athletic conference. They're naming the top 50 student-athletes, and as of this week they're down from #50 (Iowa wrestler Tom Brands) to #10 (Indiana hoopster Isaiah Thomas).

The problem with lists like this is that they purport to be for "all-time" but end up being heavily weighted toward more recent names. What they really mean is the top 50 that people today might remember. So, through #10, you've got 37 who were prominent since 1950 and 4 from before (George Halas, Bronko Nagurski, John Wooden and Otto Graham). Then there's the fact that many of them became household names not for playing sports in college, in the Big Ten, but for what they did later. Halas is a particular case in point. Not only is he best known as the founder and "papa" of the Chicago Bears, he wasn't even particularly prominent as a player. Wooden, by contrast, is best known as the Wizard of Westwood, but the fact is he was one of the best college basketball players in American before WWII.

Then there's the fact that 23 of the top 41 are football players and 10 basketball players, leaving just 8 from other sports. Not to mention that several of the Big Ten Icons never played in the Big Ten. I mean Penn State grads of the '70s and '80s like Jack Ham, Curt Warner and Lavar Arrington. The Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1990. And, finally, some may quibble about just 2 of the top 41 being women.

EDIT: Not to mention, the program is called Big Ten Icons. Not Big Ten Student-Athlete Icons, but Big Ten Icons. Now, who thinks of the Big Ten and doesn't think of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler and Bobby Knight? When you dig deep into Big Ten history, who doesn't come up with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Doc Meanwell and Fielding Yost? Of course, the same could be said everywhere. College sports is a coach's game, and the greatest icons tend to be coaches. Or just, "Ohio State halfbacks" from Vic Janowicz and Howard Cassady to Archie Griffin and Eddie George, or Ohio State football or Michigan football or Indiana basketball, for that matter.

Of course, some of these issues will be more easily forgiven depending on how they (the Big Ten Network, sponsors of the promo) do with the top 9 yet to come. I don't agree with many of the existing choices, including some of those mentioned above, but taking them at face value, here is what the final 9 choices should be.

9. John Havlicek, Ohio State basketball
8. Nile Kinnick, Iowa football, died in WWII, Iowa stadium is named after him
7. Jerry Lucas, Ohio State basketball
6. Archie Griffin, Ohio State football, still the only 2-time Heisman Trophy winner
5. Dick Butkus, Illinois, football
4. Dan Gable, Iowa, wrestling, probably the greatest American wrestler who ever lived
3. Magic Johnson, Michigan State basketball
2. Red Grange, Illinois, football, the most famous gridder in America pre-WWII
1. Jesse Owens, Ohio State, track, star of 1936 Olympics

But even if the Big Ten Network picks these 9 in this order, I will still insist that Bob Richards, Eddie Tolan, Willie Heston and Neil Snow, Lou Boudreau, Lou Groza, Walter Eckersall, Jim Parker, Rick Mount and Gary Hall belong on the list ahead of Arrington, Halas, Chuck Long, Warner, Ham, Quinn Buckner and others.


Assuming for the moment that I've guessed the final 9 correctly, then the basketball part of the list looks like this.

3. Magic Johnson, Michigan State
7. Jerry Lucas, Ohio State
9. John Havlicek, Ohio State
10. Isaiah Thomas, Indiana
12. John Wooden, Purdue
17. Steve Alford, Indiana
27. Glen Rice, Michigan
28. Quinn Buckner, Indiana
29. Cazzie Russell, Michigan
32. Scott May, Indiana
35. Glen Robinson, Purdue
38. Calbert Cheaney, Indiana

Well, I think that Chris Webber would be a lock to make the Top 50, but now that means he'll be top 9. And how can you rank Glen Robinson and Calbert Cheaney and not Jimmy Jackson? I have no idea which of my top 9 they would bump out of there, because neither of them is better than Red Grange or Dick Butkus or Jerry Lucas.

But more to the point, this list does a huge disservice to the history of Big Ten basketball. Any fair reading of college basketball history would have to raise these names, and Big Ten Icons doesn't (or, at least, hasn't):

Chris Steinmetz, Wisconsin 1905
John Schommer, Chicago 1909
Branch McCracken, Indiana 1930
Jimmy Hull, Ohio State 1939
Gene Englund, Wisconsin 1941
Andy Phillip, Illinois 1943
Don Schlundt, Indiana 1955
Terry Dischinger, Purdue 1962
Rick Mount, Purdue 1970

And so, among all of the names mentioned above, here is my all-time all-Big Ten basketball stars.

All-Time All-Big Ten

First Team

Magic Johnson, Michigan State 1979 MVP
Jerry Lucas, Ohio State 1962
Isaiah Thomas, Indiana 1981
John Wooden, Purdue 1932
Cazzie Russell, Michigan 1965

Second Team

John Schommer, Chicago 1909
Don Schlundt, Indiana 1955
Terry Dischinger, Purdue 1962
Chris Webber, Michigan 1993
Rick Mount, Purdue 1970

Third Team

Steve Alford, Indiana 1987
Andy Phillip, Illiniois 1943
Branch McCracken, Indiana 1930
Gene Englund, Wisconsin 1941
Glen Rice, Michigan 1979

EDIT: Finally, the Real Big Ten Icons

1. Ohio State Football
2. Michigan Football
3. Jesse Owens
4. Red Grange
5. Woody Hayes
6. Magic Johnson
7. Indiana Basketball
8. Amos Alonzo Stagg
9. Jack Nicklaus
10. Bobby Knight

11. Dick Butkus
12. Bronko Nagurski
13. Bo Schembechler and Fielding Yost
14. John Wooden
15. Bernie Bierman and Minnesota Football
16. Dan Gable and Iowa Wrestling
17. Bubba Smith
18. Isaiah Thomas
19. Archie Griffin
20. Doc Meanwell

21. Piggy Lambert
22. Herb Brooks
23. Michigan Ice Hockey
24. Purdue Basketball
25. Jerry Lucas
26. Joe Paterno and Penn State Football
27. The Ohio State Halfbacks--Janowicz, Cassady, George
28. Otto Graham
29. Badger Bob Johnson
30. Vivian Stringer

31. Mark Spitz
32. Illinois Football
33. Nile Kinnick
34. John Havlicek
35. Tom Izzo
36. Wisconsin Basketball
37. Branch McCracken
38. Bob Richards
39. Eddie Tolan
40. Alex Karras

41. Joe Raycroft
42. Michigan State Basketball and Michigan State Football
43. Willie Heston and Neil Snow
44. Lou Boudreau
45. Indiana Soccer and Coach Jerry Yeaghley
46. Paul Brown
47. Walter Eckersall
48. Vic Heyliger
49. Tom Harmon
50. Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty

51. Doc Councilman and Indiana Swimming
52. The Purdue QB from Bob Griese and Mike Phipps to Mark Herrman and Drew Brees
53. Fritz Crisler
54. Jim Parker
55. Jay Berwanger
56. Gary Hall
57. Rick Mount
58. Lou Groza
59. Chick Harley
60. Troy Smith

61. Bronco Horvath
62. George Sisler
63. Red Berenson
64. John Schommer
65. Bob Zuppke
66. Wisconsin Ice Hockey
67. Jud Heathcote
68. Bud Foster
69. Elroy Hirsch
70. Michigan Swimming and Ohio State Swimming

71. Penn State Gymnastics
72. Steve Alford
73. Cazzie Russell, Glen Rice and Chris Webber
74. Alan Ameche
75. Kent Benson and Scott May


  1. Is this some kind of joke? You have Wisconsin basketball ahead of Michigan State basketball?!?!?!?!? Purdue basketball ahead of MSU basketball? Michigan ice hockey ahead of MSU basketball and Izzo? Magic Johnson ahead of Indiana basketball? Wisconsin Ice hockey and Penn State gymnastics ahead of Steve Alford?

  2. The Big Ten was founded in 1907 not 1970. I went back to the beginning. Wisconsin was national basketball champion in 1912, 1914 and 1916. You made my point for me. History didn't start last week.