Arrogance, Scheming, and The Big Ten: Now In Book Form

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Lately, things have been rather rough for the 12 teams in the Big Ten conference. From pederasty and politics and an avalanche of disgrace at Penn State to tats-for-sacks at Thee Ohio State University (not to mention an overall dearth of double-Us), the whole court—both on and off the field—seems out of order.

Too B1G to fail? Hardly. James Delany’s been at it in Park Ridge since 1989, a long con if ever there were one. So, if ever there were a time for some good, ol’ fashioned PR, here and now would be nice. After all, Michigan State is at Michigan this Saturday. Kickoff is 3:30 pm.

Alas, said time is not nigh; David J. Young, M.D.’s meticulously researched Arrogance and Scheming in the Big Ten: Michigan State’s Quest for Membership and Michigan’s Powerful Opposition is simply too damning and too damn incendiary. And just as The Patriot-News’ Sara Ganim became the second-youngest Pulitzer winner for her toppling of those rotten towers at State College, first-time author Dr. Young should be commended for exposing similarly awful truths in Ann Arbor (and, to an admittedly lesser extent, East Lansing).

Sure, that college athletics isn’t perfect ain’t exactly news. First and foremost, as Young dutifully notes here, the NCAA is in the business of making bank (e.g. just fill in the _____, dude). For the most part, though, Young’s book looks back to a time when the rawest of deals were sealed by handshake only.

Starting in 1817, he painstakingly reconstructs entire meetings, entire seasons even, in which the most shadowy figure on the scene is often the president of the university, himself. In one chapter on what will forever be known as “The Spaghetti and Meatball Contract,” the antagonists are none other than Michigan Governor Harry Kelly and Notre Dame’s Father John Cavanaugh.

You see, it wasn’t just U of M that had it out for the little land grant school. Vita, Dulcedo, Spes, my ass.

Of course, many times more the institution is guilty of mere incubation. “Overzealous alumni and fans were part of the problem for a program obsessed with winning,” Young writes here. That he’s talking about the Western Conference in 1927, and not the Big Ten right fuggin’ now, is almost unbearably sobering. The machinations and serial undermining and general sense of ill will between Michigan and Michigan State, too, have a sort of queasy timelessness about them.

The misplaced priorities, epic arrogance and constant scheming on display in today’s Big Ten are more or less the same ones that were roiling, loudly, during its prehistory. How this makes you feel will depend a lot on how you feel about those particular priorities, but their evolution (or proud, high-handed and repeated refusal of it) makes for fascinating reading.

Here are some spoilers: The Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science is finally allowed to join the Big Ten...in 1953. That following New Year’s Day, MSC beat UCLA 28-20 in the Rose Bowl. Apropos, the 1954 Rose Bowl was the first “colorcast” transmission from Pasadena. Progress, if that’s what all this is, will have its way.

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