The Origins of the Big Ten: Part III 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 III of IV.

Baseball, football and track were the main three sports governed by the Western Intercollegiate Conference (eventually named Big 10) at its inception. Basketball went from no popularity to quite popular, so a schedule of 12 conference games and 5 nonconference games was created for the first time in 1906. The first conference track meet was held in 1901 with the first indoor meet in 1911. The first cross country meet occurred in 1908, while the first tennis meet was 1910, and the first swimming meet was held in 1911. To emphasize scholarship, the Conference Medal of Honor was established in 1915.

In 1897, the number of men available to participate in sports varied considerably between conference members. Northwestern was the smallest with 317 men. Purdue was next with 569, while Illinois had 746, Wisconsin had 1229, Chicago had 1345, Minnesota had 1813, and Michigan had 2081. Iowa and Indiana were added to the conference in 1899, and they were among the smallest in terms of enrollment. Obviously, the discrepancies between schools created some inequality. And the need to find quality athletes to compete in the various sports was great but was gradually alleviated as more students enrolled at the various institutions.

The University of Illinois displayed its first football team in 1890, playing a three-game schedule. Illinois' own George Huff undertook a study which demonstrated that football was first generally intercollegiate in 1891. So Illinois had a six-game schedule in 1891 and played 14 games in 1892. Many of the middle western universities hired eastern coaches because the sport was better developed there.

Football has undergone many changes in its rules over time. Initially in the 1890's, the football field was 330 feet long with two 50 yard lines. The two halves were 45 minutes each. This was reduced first to 40 minutes each half, and then in 1906 a further reduction to the present 30 minutes was approved. Each team was given 3 downs to gain 5 yards on offense. Additional rule changes included adding one down in 1912, making four downs to go 10 yards. Also, the length of field was reduced to 300 feet, its present length.

As for scoring, a "goal by touchdown" was initially 6 points (we believe this was a touchdown plus an extra point conversion kick); a "touchdown failing goal" (extra point kick not successful) was 4 points; field goals initially were 5 points each, but they were reduced to 4 points in 1904 and 3 in 1909; and a safety was 2 points just like today. The touchdown value was later increased to 6 plus 1 for the extra point.

No forward pass was permitted until 1906. There was no requirement as to how many players had to line up on the line of scrimmage, so some players would line up in the backfield for "momentum plays". These plays allowed some team members to be moving forward before the snap. And they allowed linemen to assist the running backs and quarterbacks by methods such as catapulting them across the line of scrimmage or providing a wedge of blockers attached arm in arm to thrust aside the defenders.

Rough, exhausting play (with no passing to stop the clock) resulted in many serious injuries and numerous deaths. Northwestern even dropped football for two years around 1905 from a firestorm of protest about the brutality and danger of football.

Rough play eventually led to the invention of protective gear. The games were "softened" first by a knit cap to cover the ears (advertised in 1891 by Spalding as "an absolute protection for sore ears") and later with leather headguards. But these advancements were slow to gain acceptance as some believed protective gear reduced the manliness of the game.

Reforms by the football rules committee of the NCAA (newly formed by 1906) were drastic and included thirty minute halves. From then on, at least six men were required to line up on the line of scrimmage, and one player was required to flank the line if there were only six players on the line. A neutral zone was established, with each team required to stay on their side of the zone until the ball was snapped.

One forward pass was allowed for each possession as long as the passer was back of the line of scrimmage. Kicking team members were required to be onside when ball still touched ground, and hurdling was forbidden. Any player disqualified twice for rough play became suspended for the rest of the season.

Kicking played a major role in early football games as this is how "football" got its name. Emphasis was on defense and setting up the offense to win the game on a drop kick. For those who believe modern athletes are superior to those who came before should reconsider. After all, in 1898 a Wisconsin drop kicker named O'Dea kicked a 62 yard field goal against Northwestern after dodging an onrushing Wildcat player.

Go Illini!


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