The Origins of the Big Ten: Part I of IV

The Big 10 Conference has maintained a lofty place in the minds of collegiate sports fans for many years. Illinisports discusses the infamous nature of college sports in their infancy and the steps taken by Midwestern universities to unite for a common purpose in this article. Part I of IV.

Whenever cheating in college athletics is discussed, there are always some who remain convinced that cheating and general corruption have escalated over time. Oldtimers often brag that intercollegiate sports were clean and innocent in the beginning and later corrupted. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is no amount of athletic illegality carried on in the 21st century that could possibly surpass the lawlessness that unregulated intercollegiate sports found at their inception. For those who doubt this, the book "A History of the Western Intercollegiate Conference" (also entitled "A Brief History of the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives With Special Consideration of Athletic Problems, by Carl D. Voltmer, George Banta Publishing Company, 1935) is worth a look.

Early football games were violent contests with few if any rules to govern play. A quote from Voltmer's book reveals much about the nature of early play:

"Considering that football was first played in 1890 (at Illinois) it rapidly assumed parity with baseball. Like all western institutions the University complained that few high school graduates had even seen the sport--conditions were far from satisfactory to students and most repugnant to the faculty. There were no codes of (eligibility) rules and no organizations to enforce any...The one purpose was to win. Games were repeatedly broken up because of some savage quarrel as to team personnel or playing methods, and the athletic departments (of competing institutions) were frequently on bad terms."

The rapid growth of universities and faculties who generally ignored sports and their needs created a climate of lawlessness. Games were managed poorly, with numerous games terminated early by one team quitting out of protest. Officiating was unregulated and usually biased. Professionalism was commonplace, especially since so many athletes could make some spending money playing baseball in the summers. And the use of "tramp athletes" who migrated from team to team and had little if any affiliation with their respective schools was also common. Bitterness between instutitions was the norm.

An Iowa-Missouri game in 1894 was noteworthy in that some Missouri fans drew knives on the Iowa team during the game. The reaction by an Iowa journalist is interesting and revealing: "The faculty and students of M.S.U. (Missouri) are not responsible for the actions of the scoundrels who assaulted our men but certainly they should never again ask college men to play football in Columbia without a strong guard of armed men, without which no team seems to be safe on Columbia's grounds."

In 1896, a reporter for the Daily Illini figured the referees didn't want Illinois to score on Chicago because they allowed player/coach Amos Alonzo Stagg to substitute a professional star into the game. This was a player who "...has been in athletics there since the institution opened. He will probably still be there when Macaulay's New Zealander stands on the wreck of London Bridge and views the ruins of modern civilization."

The faculties of most middle western institutions regarded sports as a nuisance and waste of time rather than educational, so they tried to ignore it. They deferred control of sports to students. Over time, these students became influential alumni who took advantage of the power and prestige they created while undergraduates. Some of these alumni teamed up with students to establish gambling rings.

Another problem was addressed by a football manager in Michigan when he admitted that seven team members in 1893 were not enrolled at Michigan during the football season. Recruiting also became troublesome once high schools began training football players for their own schedules. Recruitment of athletes from high schools, smaller colleges, and fellow major college competitors became common (including during the season). Simply stated, there was an increasing pressure to win with no rules to limit cheating. One can understand easily how the lawlessness perpetuated by this situation could create a vicious downward spiral.

Thus, the presidents of seven schools met in Chicago on January 11, 1895, to create an organization that could control intercollegiate athletics. These schools were Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Purdue, Chicago, and Lake Forest. Michigan replaced Lake Forest within the first year. Chicago was represented at the meeting by Amos Alonzo Stagg, who was both an athletic director and faculty member. All the other institutions were represented by faculty from their schools, keeping the new conference controlled by faculty rather than athletic personnel. And 16 years later, a law was created to prevent any member of a physical education department from representing their school. Thus, both academic and athletic concerns could be addressed.

The rules adopted by the January 11, 1895 meeting reflect a need to prevent cheating and inequality. They were:

1. "Each college and university which has not already done so shall appoint a committee on college athletics which shall take general supervision of all athletic matters in the respective college or university, and which shall have all responsibility of enforcing the college or university rules regarding athletics and all intercollegiate sports."

2. "No one shall participate in any game or athletic sport unless he be a bona fide student doing full work in a regular or special course as defined in the curriculum of his college; and no person who has participated in any match game as a member of any college team shall be permitted in any match game as a member of another college team until he has been a matriculate in said college under the above conditions for a period of six months. This rule shall not apply to students who, having graduated at one college, shall enter another college for professional or graduate study."

3. "No person shall be admitted to any intercollegiate contest who receives any gift, remuneration or pay for his services on the college team."

4. "Any student of any institution who shall be pursuing a regularly prescribed resident graduate course within such institution, whether for an advanced degree or in one of its professional schools, may be permitted to play for a period of the minimum number of years required for securing the graduate or professional degree for which he is a candidate."

5. "No person who has been employed in training a college team for intercollegiate contests shall be allowed to participate in any intercollegiate contest as a member of any team which he has trained, and no professional athlete or person who has ever been a member of a professional team shall play at any intercollegiate contest."

6. "No student shall play in any game under an assumed name."

7. "No student shall be permitted to participate in any intercollegiate contest who is found by the faculty to be delinquent in his studies."

8. "All games shall be played on grounds either owned by or under the immediate control of one or both of the colleges participating in the contest, and all games shall by played under student management and not under the patronage or control of any other corporation, association or private individual."

9. "The election of managers and captains of teams in each college shall be subject to the approval of its committee on athletics."

10. "College teams shall not engage in games with professional teams nor with those representing so-called athletic clubs."

11. "Before every intercollegiate contest a list of men proposing to play shall be presented by each team or teams to the other or others, certifying that all members are entitled to play under conditions of the rules adopted, such certificate to be signed by the registrar or the secretary of the college or university. It shall be the duty of the captain to enforce this rule."

12. "We call upon the expert managers of football teams to so revise the rules as to reduce the liability to injury to a minimum."

Caspar Whitney, well-known sports writer, said in 1896 in Harper's Weekly: "The most notable clearing in the atmosphere is to be seen in the West. Football--indeed all Middle Western college sports--was very near total extinction last year because of a rampant professional spirit that had ranged throughout nearly all the universities, leaving corruption in its wake....The meeting last winter in Chicago marked the beginning of a new and clarified era in Western college sport."

To be continued ...

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