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Big Ten football, once riding high, is having to walk with new image

The stock criticisms of Big Ten football are that it is too conservative, predictable, and overrated. The first of these criticisms has subsided now that conference quarter- backs are passsing more, but the latter accusations continue unabated.

Much of the public still thinks of the conference as the Big Two and Little Eight, a mocking reference to the Ohio State-Michigan monopoly of conference honors and Rose Bowl appearances during the last 12 years. (Michigan State tied for the league championship during this period, yet didn't go to Pasadena.)

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Those looking to prove the conference is overrated might enter this season's nonconference record as Exhibit A and recent Rose Bowl record as Exhibit B. The former has seen Big Ten teams dip to an 11-15-1 mark this fall against outside opponents, their worst winning percentage since 1972. As for the Rose Bowl, West Coast teams have won every year but one (Ohio State, 1972) during the past decade.

The conference has had to swallow hard on a number of occasions this season, Iowa, a team supposedly on the way up, lost to Nebraska, 57-0; Michigan State fell to Oregon, 35-7; Wisconsin was defeated by Brigham Young, 28-3; and Illinois got pounded by Missouri, 52-7.

Even Michigan and Ohio State have had problems. After an ominous seven-point victory over Northwestern in their opener, the rebuilding Wolverines then lost to Notre Dame and South Carolina before beating California. Ohio State, meanwhile, possibly saw its dream of a national championship derailed last Saturday, when it was upset by UCLA, 17- 0.

Normally, a rematch in the Rose Bowl might be possible. But UCLA and four other Pac-10 schools, including No. 2-ranked Southern Cal, have been declared ineligible for postseason appearances, thus diminishing the Big Ten's chances for redemption in Pasadena.

Contacted in the conference's suburban Chicago headquarters, Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke admits to some disappointment regarding the circuit's early showing. Making it somewhat more difficult to digest is the fact that it follows on the heels of a banner 1979 season, when four Big Ten teams -- Ohio State, Michigan, Purdue, and Indiana -- went to bowls.

It looked like the beginning of a long-anticipated revival, and may yet prove to be. "Football is cyclical," Duke explains. "The whole history of the college game suggests tht if this is a down cycle for the Big Ten, it will be followed by an up cycle."

The Big Ten, of course, still enjoys a great deal of prosperity at the gate, which may be a more important barometer of success than bowl appearances, national rankings, and won-lost records.

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Duke is fond of billing Big Ten football as "America's most popular sport." the claim centers on the record attendance figures the conference seems to set each year. Last season the Big Ten's average home attendance was 63,478, a figure representing about 90 percent stadium capacity and outdistancing tht of any other major conference, in addition to the National Football League.

So what accounts for this tremendous popularity? Certainly the aura surrounding Big Ten games, with their vast stadiums, precision bands, and traditional rivalries, plays a major part.

Just as important, says Indiana Coach Lee Corso, are the demographics of the Midwest. "There are more people living in the Midwest than any other region of the country," he says. "And with so many media centers -- Chicago, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and so forth -- we get great coverage."

The largest alumni group in the nation gives the Big Ten some 2 million potential fans right off the bat. And through the leadership of business-minded don Canham, Michigan's ambitious athletic director, conference schools have learned how to "sell" college football to a wider audience.

Hayden Fry, Iowa's coach and one of five new head coaches to enter the league in the past two years, is a tremendous promoter in his own right. Fry's efforts to "market" Hawkeye football throughout the state helped Iowa sell out the season before it began. Mostly, however, people had become excited about Iowa's chances of producing its first winning campaign in 20 years.

Obviously, success on the field has its allure, and the Big Ten no doubt would like to be achieving more ot it. To discover the league's last up cycle you really need to turn back the clock a decade or two. Back in the late 1950s and early '60s it was not unsual to find three conference teams raned among the Top 10 (only No. 11 Ohio state cracked this week's Top 20). Furthermore, the Big Ten's champion won 14 of 20 Rose Bowls during the '50s and '60s.

A decision to adopt progressive legislative guidelines within the conference is probably most responsible for the conference's current struggles. when the Big Ten changed its approach to college footbal in the mid-'60s, Duke says, other conferences and institutions gained advantages they had not previously enjoyed. For example, the Big Ten's five-year experiment with financial aid based on need allowed nonconference schools to make recruiting breakthroughs in what were traditionally Big Ten recruiting areas.

"Instead of the island approach," the commissioner explained several years ago, "our attitude now is to show other conferences that our ideas [in such areas as academic requirements and limited grants] have merit." In fact, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has cut back on the number of scholarships a college may grant, a development that has infused the game with greater competitive balance.

The Big Ten was also hurt when the South and Southwest started opening their doors to black athletes, who once looked to Northern schools for a chance to play.

The Big Ten would certainly like to regain some of its lost prestige, but keeping things interesting within the family is also a major goal. As Duke says , "The millennium will occur when there's a 10-way tie for the conference championship."

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