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

The hope of keeping down expenses and profit to prevent professionalism and greed was short-lived as teams soon discovered there was money to be made playing intercollegiate sports. The 1905 Thanksgiving Day game between Michigan and Chicago, a game in which Chicago beat Michigan 2-0, drew 25,791 people and $35,000 in ticket income. Not all games drew this well, but profit potential was obvious.

World War I disrupted intercollegiate sports considerably. For awhile, the War Department was basically in charge of college sports as it decided which schools would house "Students Army Training Corps" and thus have enough athletes to continue competitions. So there were some temporary rules modifications at that time to accommodate the changed climate.

Upon the war's conclusion, it was realized that American youth were sorely lacking in physical training and poorly prepared to fight a war because of it. Universities realized the need to subsidize organized classes in physical training for all its students. And they realized the fund-raising potential of appealing to the public to support financially these physical education classes.

At the same time, college sports programs benefitted from the influx of war veterans who had not yet used up their eligibility. Combined with the normal enrollment of students too young to fight the war, this influx made for some outstanding teams. Combining this with the natural optimism generated from successfully ending the war and the "Roaring 20's" mentality, public interest in intercollegiate sports soared.

Thus began what some called the "stadium construction era". Anticipating future gate receipts and seeing how discussions of the need for physical training could be an effective marketing device, football stadia and indoor fieldhouses grew up all over the Midwest and throughout the country. Memorial Stadium and Huff Gymnasium on the University of Illinois campus both were built during this boom time of the 1920's. Both offered many facilities for athletic activity of both athletes and the general student body and were thus seen as worthy of financing. And the indoor facilities, available for use even during cold or inclement weather, allowed for the addition of other conference sports such as golf, wrestling, gymnastics and fencing.

Officiating bias was widespread throughout this time, and steps were taken to improve the quality of officiating and to standardize the rules governing officiating. Among the changes were to limit pay so that only the most dedicated would apply, limiting allowable travel expenses, and developing a rating system to weed out the most incompetent or biased ones. According to many, this is still a work in progress, but the officiating problems seen in 2006 are much less obvious and less correctable than those found in the early twentieth century.

Recruiting rules have changed many times, often in reaction to problems created by overzealousness. But the basic attitude early in the 1900's was to not offer scholarships to athletes to help guarantee their amateurism. Much discussion also centered on the unfairness of giving scholarship money to rich students in equal amounts to poor ones. A need-based scholarship program did evolve over time. Eventually, of course, the difficulty of obtaining accurate financial records, and the need to preserve the privacy of US citizens, led to providing equal amounts of scholarship aid for all athletes regardless of need.

It seems a constant human condition that we go to extremes to win. If we play a game that has no rules, the game quickly degenerates into a quagmire of unsportsmanlike behavior. For those who believe a government or governing board should give its citizens more and more freedom to pursue their own agendas at the expense of their fellow humans might benefit from studying times when there were no government regulations, such as what happened prior to the formation of the Big 10 Conference.

Perhaps a good summation of the general philosophy of the Western Intercollegiate Conference (Big 10) is provided by a statement from an alumni committee organized by the conference to address athletic concerns in 1927. Their recommendations included a desire to promote a "Big Ten Alumni Code Of Honor" as stated in the following:

"We believe there is a high degree of amateur excellence in sports within the Big Ten. We pledge our assistance in improving and sustaining this excellence. In intercollegiate sports it is the true amateur who should compete. Good sportsmen, and men of honor, will look with disfavor on anyone who, from a lust of victory, or other gain, loans or makes money gifts to Conference athletes on the basis of athlete's skill, thereby placing in jeopardy the amateur standing of such athlete."

Much has changed since then, and perhaps the men who formulated this philosophy would roll over in their graves to see the status of major college athletics in the 21st century. But the overriding philosophy of faculty control of honest and fair amateur athletic competitions between conference members remains today as it has since its inception.

It is hoped the basic tenets upon which the conference was created will remain as the foundation for whatever other rules are created over time. They have served conference members well.

Go Illini!


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