It’s the never-ending argument or debate in sports, who’s the greatest? If you think narrowing it down to one is difficult, try coming up with a top four. It’s especially difficult when you have to factor in players and coaches across different eras, many of which from a time long before you were born. But like most sports fans we try. And, I’m opening myself up to ridicule and badgering by trying to come up with the faces that shape up the Big Ten. So without further or do…..
Woody Hayes, HC, Ohio State (1951-1978). In twenty-eight seasons, Coach Hayes led the Buckeyes to five National Championships, thirteen Big Ten Conference Titles and 205 victories. A Mount Rushmore for Big Ten football would have to start with the legendary Hayes, who is the most accomplished coach in conference history. Three times he won the College Football Coach of the Year Award. On top of being a great leader on the field, Coach Hayes is known for being one of the first to recruit and start African-American players and hire African-American assistant coaches.
His coaching tree has produced several legendary coaches in college football such as Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Ara Parseghian (Notre Dame), Lou Holtz (Notre Dame) and his own successor at Ohio State, Earle Bruce to name a few.
Bo Schembechler, HC, Michigan (1969-1989). In twenty-one seasons at the helm in Ann Arbor, Schembechler’s Wolverines won or shared the Big Ten Title thirteen times and won 194 games. Six times he was awarded the Big Ten Coach of the Year Award. Ten times in his career, Coach Bo led Michigan to the Rose Bowl.
Along with Coach Hayes, these two can largely be credited with helping the Big Ten Conference gain the prominence it has. And, the “Ten Year War” between Ohio State and Michigan is why the annual meeting between the school is largely regarded as one of the greatest rivalries in sports.
Archie Griffin, RB, Ohio State (1972-1975). The only two-time Heisman Trophy winner was, and still is in the conversation for greatest college football player ever. #45 is the only running back to lead the Big Ten Conference in rushing for three straight years. When he graduated from Ohio State in 1975, he was the NCAA record holder in rushing yards (5,589) and carries (924). His 31 games with at least 100 rushing yards from 1973-1975 is still an FBS record. The Buckeyes were 40-5-1 in his four seasons.
In 1990, Griffin was named to the Walter Camp All-Century team, and ESPN named him twenty first out of twenty fifth on the Top Players in College Football History list.
Dick Butkus, LB, Illinois (1962-1964). While he’s mostly remembered and revered for his time as a Chicago Bear, history shows he was just as dominant as the leader of the defense with the Illini. He finished his career with 374 tackles in three seasons, in an era when freshman weren’t allowed to play varsity. In 1963 he won Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player, and in 1964 he was awarded the American Football Coaches Association Player of the Year. Adding to his accomplishments, Butkus finished sixth in Heisman Trophy balloting in 1963 and third in 1964, a rarity for defensive players.
In 1990 he was named to the Walter Camp All-Century team, and in 2000, College Football News named him the sixth-best ever college football player. ESPN ranked him nineteenth out of twenty-five on their Top Players In College Football History list.
I think it’s safe to say he is the best linebacker ever, I mean, he has his own award given out yearly to the best high school, collegiate and professional player at the position. That’s more than Mount Rushmore worthy.
Charles Woodson, CB/KR/PR, Michigan (1995-1997). The only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy and leader of the 1997 National Champion Wolverines. He racked up the awards after ’97 season, from the Walter Camp, to the Thorpe, to the Bednarik award and others. But, his final season in Ann Arbor is really the one people only remember, not his entire career.
Joe Paterno, HC, Penn State (1966-2011). Earlier this year, the NCAA restored his 111 wins taken away as punishment in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal to make him once again the winningest coach in college football. My knock against Joe Pa is that a majority of his success came before Penn State joined the conference in 1993, and his team’s were 13-22 against Ohio State and Michigan.
Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin (1996-1999). Dwayne won the 1999 Heisman Trophy and finished his career in Madison as the NCAA’s All-Time Leading Rusher (6,397 yards, 7,125 if you count bowl games). While he was consistent as a thousand yard rusher all four seasons, like Woodson, his last season is the most impactful year when he gained acclaim as the best player in the conference.
Drew Brees, QB, Purdue (1997-2000). Before he donned the black and gold of the New Orleans Saints, he wore the same as a member of the Purdue Boilermakers. Brees finished his career in West Lafayette as the Big Ten’s All-Time leader in passing yards (11,792), touchdown passes (90), total offensive yards (12,693), completions (1,026) and attempts (1,678). In a 2010 Big Ten Network Icons documentary, Brees was ranked forty-eighth out of fifty on the conference’s top student athletes. He was also named the Big Ten’s best quarterback of the 1990s.
His other honors Include, Big Ten Offensive POY 1998 & 2000, Big Ten MVP in 2000, 2000 Maxwell Award Winner, Big Ten Medal of Honor winner in 2001.
Pat Fitzgerald, LB, Northwestern (1993-1996). Before he was leading the Wildcats as head coach, Fitzgerald was the defensive leader on the field helping turn the program around from conference doormat, to conference champions. In 1995 as a consensus All-American, he led Northwestern to the first of consecutive Big Ten titles and a berth in the Rose Bowl, the school’s second ever and first since 1949.
“Fitz” is a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and is the first two-time winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award. In 2008, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.