CHAMPAIGN – When the Illini football team reported 40 autumns ago following marginal summer training, the staff received on-field coaching help from fifth-year seniors.
Unlike Nebraska, Oklahoma and other powerhouses, the Big Ten did not permit redshirting. As they finished classes toward graduation, these fifth-year students picked up a few bucks assisting on the field.
In the day, leaders of the major conferences agreed that freshmen should serve a year's apprenticeship before playing with the big boys, and mini-schedules of freshman games were played. The stodgy Big Ten went a step further by setting up stiff academic transfer rules to discourage junior college transfers.
And, until 1975, just one Big Ten team could attend postseason play – Rose Bowl only – and for many years a repeat conference champion could not succeed itself in Pasadena.
It became the Big Two-Little Eight with Ohio State and Michigan dominating until the conference was freed for multiple bowl opportunities. Just as the wild-card concept has kept 16 Major League Baseball teams in strong playoff contention into late August, today's multiple bowl system makes nearly all November football games critical where once they weren't ... bringing greater depth, incentive and balance to the Big Ten.
In the day, well ... you wouldn't recognize it. The only 300-pounders were viewed as obese. Today, Illinois has 19 squadmen weighing between 290 and 320. At 240, Dick Butkus would be an average-sized linebacker today.
Guard Ron Guenther, Illini MVP in 1966, was listed at 5-foot-9 and 204 after spending his summer as a carpenter. Summer weight training was encouraged but not required. Coaches were slow to accept the idea of water breaks at practice because their coaches years before didn't believe in it. Nor had it become a "requirement" for entire squads to spend their summers training on campus.
You could burn your leaves, smoke in a restaurant and drive without a seat belt. Some of us left our doors unlocked. Men felt undressed without a hat, and donned suits and ties where none are worn today. The common fear was global freezing.
There were no cell phones, much less the Internet, and television viewing was limited to the three major networks. The great John Wooden, who won 10 NCAA basketball crowns at UCLA through 1975, never saw his coaching salary reach $35,000 a year. Some college coaches sold insurance in the summer to make ends meet. Penn State was a happy independent, and Rush Limbaugh would be fired a couple of times before finding his niche. For those who missed Cary Grant in "Gunga Din," Halloween brought out the only "terrorists" we knew about ... pint-sized window soapers.
News-Gazette and Courier sports writers waited two or three days for the mailman to deliver out-of-town newspapers with stories about other Big Ten teams. Long-distance costs restricted our telephone calls. A blog was presumed to be some sort of heavy smog (it still is), and sports call-in shows hadn't yet clogged the radio airwaves.
Football road trips in the 1960s sometimes required traveling reporters to locate a Western Union office that would take typewritten pages and transmit an all-caps article for the newspaper's proof reader to correct and the Linotype operator to produce in hot metal. Sunday columns seldom had fewer than a dozen mistakes.
Times, they are a-changin'
Yep, those were the good old days.
Practices were open and Pete Elliott, Illini football coach from 1960 through 1966, conducted post-practice interviews informally in a small locker room while he and his assistants showered and dressed. Nobody played "gotcha" in those days.
That would inevitably change, as did a wrong-minded attitude permeating the community's business leaders that, for those in the know, for those who understood what was happening elsewhere, Illini football and basketball really couldn't be expected to succeed without stretching the rules.
An Illini "slush fund" providing monthly stipends for athletes ran through the Butkus-Grabowski and Jones-Dunlap eras until assistant director Mel Brewer, keeper of the illegal books, turned them over to the university president in December 1966. That prevented Elliott from being named athletic director, caused coaches and players to be severed, and sent Illinois careening toward several subsequent run-ins with Big Ten and NCAA investigators.
Guenther and his compliance officers now make concerted efforts to keep the contributors happy without letting them get too close to the athletes. And the continuing flow of alumni contributions has led to an astonishing buildup of facilities on the south campus.
Memorial Stadium, constructed for less than $2 million in donations during the Roaring '20s when few women attended games, was later found to have too few restrooms for the ladies. And no stadium builder thought far enough ahead to construct suites to take advantage of lucrative corporate interests ... those suites, restrooms and other amenities now going up at a cost of $120 million for full stadium renovation. Imagine! It takes $120 million to improve a structure built for less than $2 million.
For many years, football fields were covered with grass. Those fields hadn't yet been named after anyone and often became badly worn and sometimes muddy during the course of the season.
Long before artificial surfaces became popular, Julie Rykovich intercepted an Ohio State pass and tiptoed from the mud to the grassy sideline for a 98-yard return that beat the Buckeyes 16-7 in the UI's first Rose Bowl season of 1946. And who in attendance can forget when Tommy O'Connell squinted through a driving snowstorm and found an unguarded Rex Smith in the slop to edge Michigan 7-0 in 1951? Or 15 years later when Bruce Sullivan matched Rykovich's 98-yarder and dove into a snowbank with the clinching score in Ann Arbor?
Michigan was always tough but didn't carry the same fear factor in those days. Illinois beat the Wolverines seven of 10 in the 1950s. That's just one of many, many changes.
Back in the day
About that 7-0 score: Illinois went undefeated (6-0) in Big Ten play in 1951, scoring 85 points for an average of 14 a game. The next Rose Bowl team went 8-1-1 overall in 1963, scored more than 20 just once and averaged 16 points a game.
That was an era of quick kicks on third down (a Ray Eliot favorite), fullback emphasis out of tight formations and a reluctance to pass. Thirteen fullbacks led the Illini in rushing from Ruck Steger in 1947 through John Wilson in 1971. If Bill Tate, Ray Nitschke, Bill Brown, Jim Grabowski or Rich Johnson was injured, it would be in the headlines. Last week, Illini fullback Russ Weil was sidelined with a sprained ankle and it was barely noticed. Weil had one carry as the starting fullback last season.
This is an era where the quick kick is passe, fullbacks are often glorified guards and pass-happy quarterbacks scan a field spread with receivers from sideline to sideline. With the exception of Rocky Ryan and Rex Smith, who each caught 45 passes in O'Connell's record year (1952), no Illini ever caught more than 23 passes until Bob Trumpy took in 28 in 1964 and John Wright followed with record-breaking seasons of 47, 60 and 52. When Mike White arrived at Illinois in 1980, the Big Ten was unprepared for his passing innovations. Now everybody is doing it.
Equipment has improved as rapidly as training and good diet. Interior helmet design has gone from the suspension style (patterned after World War II helmets) and by the early 1970s moved to liquid gel and air, all geared to disperse the blow to the head. Shoulder pads changed from closed cell foam to smaller sizes with open cell foam.
Medical innovations have been even more extraordinary. A ligament tear was once a career-ender, but not after doctors learned to reattach and sew ligaments together. Cartilage repair in the post-war period required an incision from the thigh to the shin bone. Now, arthroscopic surgery brings athletes back in a matter of days.
There's no way the changes in the next 40 years will match the improvements of the last 40. In fact, it might go in reverse, so save your typewriter. You never know. Any day now the Internet could wither on the electronic vine (just kidding).
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.