Reflections on a Howling Mob
U of I football fans flag the Big Ten
May 15, 1981
The U of I football program had been caught cheating in recruitment and sanctioned by the Big Ten conference. The news left most of us wondering, how bad would they have played if they hadn’t cheated? Anyway, those loyal to the Orange and Blue saw being held to the rules as a grave injustice and demanded that the school withdraw from the Big Ten, which reminded me of the Southern states withdrawing from the U.S. after they were sanctioned for violating federal race laws. It was great fun for a while.
A lawyer involved in the case described it as a "thermonuclear attack," which will give you some idea of the way people have been behaving. The Big Ten's proposed sanctions against the University of Illinois for the latter's improprieties in the Wilson case—three years’ probation, a ban on post-season play, and loss of an estimated $1.6 million in conference TV revenues—might have been excessive, as many alleged. They might be hypocritical. They might have amounted to (as a Springfield reporter phrased it) "the death penalty for a parking violation." But nukes?
The public clamor that followed announcement of the sanctions on May 2 was akin to an explosion. Rumbling was heard wherever there was a heart that beat with the blood of a loyal Illini. Demands that the university withdraw from the Big Ten conference with which the U of I has been associated for more than eighty-five years were near-unanimous. What I'm trying to say is, people were mad.
Part spectacle, part debauch, Illini sports are big box office. For many students, taking classes is merely a way to pass the time between ball games. For alumni, Big Ten football games are occasions for drunken revels, conferring on the celebrant a temporary state of resuscitated adolescence. This season Gov. Jim Thompson—who attended the U of I in Chicago in the days when classes were held on a boat dock, and who has since confessed regret at never having attended classes at a big university campus—has lived the senior year he never had. More than once he has shown up at the Assembly Hall decked out in war paint to cheer on the Fighting Illini basketball team. It is one indication of the exemption of collegiate sports from most social rules that a governor parading around in war paint did not seem out of place.
Bumper stickers quickly appeared on the streets of Champaign-Urbana saying things such as "Back the Big 9." A C-U banker who belongs to the boosterish Quarterback Club earnestly swore to a TV reporter that his organization would attend an upcoming spring football scrimmage in force, and, there assembled, would unfurl a banner expressing its opinions on the case. The idea caught on; the practice game usually draws about 500, but last week it reportedly drew 13,000. It was described by a Chicago Tribune reporter as a "raucous party," while an onlooker called it, not uncomplimentarily, a "howling mob."
The Illini is the state's best known football team, if not necessarily its best one, and reaction at the Statehouse in Springfield was equally vigorous. The university's legislative delegation cosponsored a resolution scolding the Big Ten for its effrontery. The governor said, in effect, that the U of I was his university, right or wrong; he was backing the Illini 1,000 percent. Urbana state representative Tim Johnson actually suggested that the General Assembly investigate the Big Ten, though on what grounds or for which crime was never made clear. I was surprised to learn, after an investigation of my own, that the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy had not attended a Big Ten school but was a Marquette man.
A more dispassionate reading of the facts, however, reveals that Illinois bent so many rules in the Wilson case that it looked like the Nixon White House. In its statement of response to the Big Ten, the university said the case "does not involve illegal aid to athletes, forged transcripts, or other violations which have plagued intercollegiate athletics in recent years." This is like a mugger telling the judge that he ought to be let go because he didn't shoot the guy too.
Officially, the Big Ten insists that the fate of Dave Wilson is immaterial to its complaints about the failures of the U of I to oversee its athletes. To the university, however, Wilson's fate is paramount. Wilson is a passer, a damned good one. He means touchdowns, which mean TV appearances, conference titles, bowl bids, sold-out stadia. Much has been made of the $800,000 a year Illinois might lose as its share of the Big Ten's TV take. But if the school accepts the penalties and does not play Wilson in the 1981 season, it could lose a lot more. Anticipating reruns of Wilson's record-setting aerial performances, fans are already lining up for seats for 1981. The university reports "a noticeable increase in sales" over last year. "We've seen a lot of new orders," explained one official.
One of the points of dispute between the parties is Wilson's switch of majors from agriculture to physical education. This seems a moot point, since clearly his real major is football. The Big Ten was impolite enough to describe him in court as a marginal student, but Wilson himself seems to have his own priorities straight. When he broke his wrist during his first game as a junior college freshman, he quit school rather than risk losing a year's athletic eligibility. And he is suing the Big Ten and others for $72 million, claiming that his chances for a professional football career have been damaged by the conference's insistence that anyone who calls himself a student be a student.
Ray Sons, the sports editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote feelingly the other day about college athletes who would never have stayed in school if coaches and counselors had not "steered them through courses in the proper way to wear a jockstrap." Sons acknowledged that NCAA football is a business, and that some players go to school only to learn that business, so that football players aren't really very different from students who go to college to learn to be accountants or journalists. He suggests that athletes not be required to attend classes at all. This might create a subspecies of "mercenaries and mopes," he admits, but "I would rather cheer for an honest student of football than a youth who is majoring in sham under adults with advanced degrees in hypocrisy."
Most of the public comment was not nearly so innovative, however. TV station WC1A in Champaign, which hasn't run an editorial since the distant days when Dick Butkus roamed between the sidelines of Zuppke Field, ran one about the sanctions story; as cheerleading, the only way it could have been improved would have been for co-anchor Cindy Klose to have punctuated it with pompons and a couple of high kicks.
The piece fueled the conference-withdrawal hysteria. A few sober heads, however, recalled that the university needs the Big Ten a lot more than the Big Ten needs the university. Ralph Hahn, a member of the university's board of trustees, told Springfield's State Journal-Register, "I just can't imagine . . . that fans from Chicago or Springfield, on a cold November afternoon, are going to journey to Illinois to see Mississippi State or Houston and pay ten bucks a ticket, when they can sit in their living room and watch Ohio State and Michigan play."
As the story unfolded, nonpartisans were left to ask, "If the U of I did nothing wrong, why were the sanctions so harsh?" One commonly heard explanation is that the conference was miffed because the university was secretly an accomplice in suing itself when Dave Wilson went to court to obtain an injunction "forcing" the school to let him play in the face of the Big Ten ban. State Rep. Virgil Wikoff of Champaign, however, suggests something more personal, even elemental. Cecil Coleman, whom the university fired as athletic director not long ago, is close to Wayne Duke, the Big Ten commissioner. And Bo Schembechler, the Michigan football coach who occupies a position among Big Ten coaches analogous to that held by Leonid Brezhnev among the Politburo, is presumed to be bugged with the U of I because it fired the man whom Wikoff calls Schembechler's "fair-haired boy" (Gary Moeller) as football coach after the '79 season. There is more of Sicily than of Schaumburg in this affair. If I were [university president] Stanley Ikenberry, and Wayne Duke offered to kiss and make up, I think I'd plead mono and get the hell out of there.
Of course, there were a few people who, when told that the sanctions might destroy the U of I sports program, merely yawned, turned over another page of their New Yorkers, and said, "So what?" They didn't say so publicly, however, and even if they had they wouldn't have been heard for all the bellowing. "I suppose there are a few members of the faculty so thoroughly engrossed in their ivory towers that they would be perfectly happy if the university had no athletic program at all," said Wikoff, amazed. This belief that athletics ranks far from the top on a scale of the things that a fine university is good for would not be tolerated if it didn't come from physicists and historians and others known for their eccentricities.
Next to going to Rose Bowls, putting things in perspective is one of the things taxpayers pay universities to do. It is hard to do when the subject is oneself, however. But while it is true that compared to the U of I's total budget of $700 million-plus, the $5 million spent on athletics is (as one C-U columnist put it) "downright anemic," the fact remains that $5 million will buy a quarter-million books or hire 200 professors. Maybe one of them could even throw a football. ●