Let’s go back to the end of the Roaring ’20s, just for kicks.
From 1926 to 1941, Minnesota won or tied for the Big Ten football championship eight times. During that same stretch, Northwestern won or tied for the title four times, Illinois twice and Purdue three times.
Zip ahead to the decade starting in 1968. Ohio State won the crown outright three times and Michigan once. All the other championships from 1968 to 1977 were shared by Michigan and Ohio State, 10 in a row for the pair.
Move on to the most recent decade. Michigan or Ohio State has won the Big Ten title seven times since 2013, with Ohio State doing it four times in a row from 2017 to 2020 and Michigan winning the last two.
Meanwhile, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana — and, just for kicks, we’ll add ‘‘new guys’’ Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland — have, in the last 20 years, won the title zero times. Schools such as Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa occasionally rise in the Big Ten, but they’re swiftly beaten down by Ohio State and Michigan.
It just goes on. And it’s kind of nauseating.
Sports leagues are supposed to be about fair competition. What’s fair about the Big Two and Everybody Else?
At any rate, the arms race in college football has ratcheted up and now flies at warp speed. At some point in the late 1960s and early 1970s, colleges started to get quite serious about revenue-producing Division I football.
Schools began recruiting the element they always had shunned — the elite Black athletes, the great ones who, because of ingrained prejudice and institutional segregation, had gone mostly to small, historically Black colleges.
Consider that Willie Lanier, Bob Hayes, Buck Buchanan, Art Shell, Mel Blount, Jerry Rice, Richard Dent and Walter Payton are Hall of Famers who went to HBCUs, such as Jackson State and Prairie View A&M.
Decades ago, Ohio State and Michigan went after the big time as hard as they could, profiting from large alumni bases, fertile recruiting grounds, over-the-top facilities, star coaches and their historic legacies of winning. They can’t be uprooted.
But now Colorado and Deion ‘‘Coach Prime’’ Sanders have shown another way to get ahead, something for the wannabes to ponder, if they’re willing to admit all they care about is winning.
Basically, it’s this: Forget education, civility and long-term commitments. Forget college. Just get talent.
Pay your coach whatever he wants, give him every freedom he demands and treat him like a god if he can bring in the studs — maybe even his own son. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders passed for 510 yards and four touchdowns in Colorado’s upset victory Saturday against TCU.
You think the whole D-I football world wasn’t watching that display?
Colorado was 1-11 last season. Coach Prime came in, told the losers to get out, brought in his own guys, set up business deals and film deals, treated the program like a dot-com startup and established that the business is this alone: winning.
Never heard a peep from him about education, sportsmanship, higher meaning. Just winning. Of course, he established the mandatory us-against-the-world mindset. He raged at his players after they watched a practice brawl between teammates: ‘‘If one fights, we all fight! You understand that?’’
Back some years ago, Colorado was, as usual, terrible in football. Split end Loy Alexander, the team’s leading receiver in 1983, declared after the Buffaloes finished 1-10 in 1984: ‘‘We’ve got enough altar boys; we need some athletes.’’
Along came coach Bill McCartney, a load of athletes, a bunch of wins, bowl games and a program in such turmoil that Rick Reilly wrote in Sports Illustrated the three things a ‘‘campus policeman won’t leave the office without: handcuffs, his copy of the Miranda warning and a University of Colorado football program.’’
This is a new era of transfer portals and NIL freedom for players and big-money contracts for coaches. Conferences mean nothing. The NCAA means next to nothing. In 2024, there will be 18 teams in the Big Ten, 16 in the SEC, 18 in the ACC and 18 in the Big 12.
The big boys have their carpet bags open, going for that one super-conference, for all the marbles.
Maybe 0-1 Northwestern should take note. Losing badly to Rutgers was an alarm bell. The Wildcats are close to being the worst team in the nation. They have integrity after their hazing-scandal shakeup. They have good kids on the roster, real students, maybe altar boys.
But they could get left behind. And Coach Prime and his troops march on.