- Creating the Big Ten: Courage, Corruption, and Commercialization by Winton U. Solberg
The Big Ten Conference, originally the Western Conference, is the oldest Division I collegiate athletic conference in the United States. Today, the conference has fourteen member institutions that sponsor championship competitions in twenty-eight sports; football is by far the most important, the oldest sport to be sponsored by the Big Ten, and the reason for the conference’s formation in 1895. The Big Ten’s first fifty years of existence is the focus of Winton U. Solberg’s Creating the Big Ten.
Issues surrounding the game of college football today, such as player safety and player compensation, are the same issues that consumed the Big Ten a hundred years ago. While Solberg does not draw connections to the modern day, it is impossible for the similarities to go unnoticed. The book is divided into two parts, with the first four chapters addressing the formation of the Big Ten and the next ten detailing scandals and subsequent conference decisions that ultimately molded the governing body, and the game, into what it is today. At its lowest points, Solberg’s work reads like a summary of committee-meeting minutes, while its greatest successes bring a little something from every school into a larger narrative. This work is not for a casual sports fan looking to read about specific games, players, or coaches from the past. Creating the Big Ten fills a hole in the scholarship by telling a league-wide story.
Originally, faculty representatives from each school came together once a year to make conference decisions. This book deals with the deliberations but not the men who made them. The book contains no protagonist, few coaches and players are named, and the university representatives are flat characters without description other than the motives of their respective schools. The closest thing to a main character is John L. Griffith, the first commissioner of the Big Ten. However, the position of league commissioner was not created until 1922, nearly twenty-seven years after the conference’s formation. Griffith saw his role as doing what was best for the Big Ten, while growing the sport into an increasingly profitable enterprise. A savvy reader will note many similarities between Griffith and current commissioner Jim Delaney.
The first half of Creating the Big Ten reads dryly and is presented almost as a timeline of events. This is presumably because Solberg lacked sources outside of meeting minutes and newspapers. This book is for the reader interested in league responses to issues such as players getting paid, stadiums being built, coaches getting power, and rules being developed to curb excess.
The second half of the book is more dynamic. One of the most interesting chapters discusses the censure of the University of Iowa in 1929. When university alumni were caught with a slush fund for players and recruits, the conference, with its reputation on the line, had to do something. Faculty representatives voted based on the recruiting practices at their institutions, so schools that had been cheating similarly to Iowa voted for lenient penalties. Quotes included in this chapter add drama, and analysis is used here more than elsewhere in the book. [End Page 132]
The greatest asset of Solberg’s work is in compiling the achievements, scandals, and issues at each school, allowing for greater comparisons across the conference. Most readers will come to this book with a reasonable knowledge of their favorite team but little insight into the history of other schools in the Big Ten. A good example of this is Chapter 7, “The Big Ten Stadiums”; each member institution went about fundraising differently for the expansion of its playing fields, and the pros and cons of each are listed.
Another positive of this book is showcasing the Big Ten’s role in mediating issues between schools. For example, scheduling conference games became difficult when larger schools realized that they could leverage their fan bases...