"The Unappreciated Big Eight"



The Unappreciated Big Eight

By Dr. Ken


My exposure to college football came early thanks to the small Dumont black and white television set we had propped on a table in the living room. In retrospect, it was small, inefficient, and purchased used, in less than pristine condition. Its condition necessitated “tin foil” wrapping around the antenna and a lot of directional manipulation of both the antenna and set itself to manage reasonable reception. Yet it was that television that brought Army, Navy, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Iowa among the earliest teams I can recall, into my house and consciousness. Those early memories predate my attendance at the Uniondale versus Long Beach High School football game, the first contest I saw “live” and this too provided a great memory and an excitement about the prospect of actually playing football in high school and beyond that never left me. Through my “introductory period” in the mid to late-1950’s and then through the 1960’s, the Big Ten was considered to play the best collegiate football with the SEC not far behind. Once Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles became entrenched at Texas and Arkansas respectively, one could count on one or both being in the Top Ten or Top Fifteen annually. The same could be said for the ascension of USC under John McKay, and certainly, each season brought one or two superior teams into the top reaches of the nation’s elite but consistently, one could find two or three Big 10 or SEC teams in any year’s “Top” rankings. As Ole Miss failed to change with the racial climate of the ‘60’s, they fell from national prominence but there were enough Alabama and LSU teams to fill the void.


Colorado finished 1971 ranked Number 3 behind Nebraska and Oklahoma



If there was an unappreciated and under-represented conference, perhaps it was the Big Eight. Through the 1950’s, it was often derisively referred to as “Oklahoma And The Seven Dwarfs” as Bud Wilkinson’s program was so absolutely dominant. The Sooners’ two major consecutive win streaks obviously included complete domination within their conference but nationally, none of the other schools could place a consistent winner in the Top Fifteen for many years. Kansas was really good for a year or two as was Missouri. Colorado among those chasing the Sooners, was perhaps more consistent in being respectable against teams from other parts of the nation than the other six within the Big Eight but in general, it seemed as if they all were somewhat overlooked. When Oklahoma became an also-ran in the mid-1960’s it gave the others, especially a rejuvenated Nebraska under Bob Devaney the opportunity to shine. When Oklahoma “resurfaced” in 1971, it was big news that both the Sooners and Nebraska had cracked the Top Ten but many still don’t realize that while Nebraska was number one for the second consecutive season and Oklahoma two,  the final polls noted that the Big Eight’s Colorado was number three. During the years of my “football consciousness” dating back to 1955 and 1956, no single conference had pulled off a one-two-three finish. Keeping with Big Ten and SEC domination, Ohio State and Michigan State finished two-three in 1957 with Auburn a disputed national champion due to its record of NCAA infractions. 1959 found another two-three finish, this time by the SEC with Ole Miss and LSU coming in behind Syracuse and Ernie Davis. 1960 had two Big Ten teams in the top three, with Minnesota garnering the crown and Iowa as number three behind Ole Miss. Once more, in 1969, there was a close call as the SWC’s Texas, in part due to President Nixon’s proclamation, was National Champion with its vanquished foe Arkansas third. Penn State who believed it deserved the legitimate national crown was wedged between them at number two. The Big Eight’s 1971 accomplishment never seemed to have the national impact it deserved.


The Sooners; Dominance in the 1970’s



In the seasons that followed, Nebraska and Oklahoma continued to dominate not only their conference, but the national rankings. Throughout the 1970’s Nebraska or Oklahoma, especially the latter, was always a Top Three finisher, including some National Championships, in every season but one. Year by year, one of the other Big Eight teams would step up and complete an enviable season and/or post a major upset, yet as a conference, they remained unappreciated. In the late-1970’s I returned to school in Missouri and realized that the fan base there and throughout the Big Eight states was no less ardent or demonstrative than the fans populating the rest of the country.



Phil Bradley led the ’78 Missouri Tigers


When Missouri opened the 1978 season at Notre Dame and followed it in week two with a home opener against Alabama, it seemed that everyone I encountered within that two week period was a hard-core, Mizzou fan who was enthralled that their Tigers were playing with the best in the nation. The ‘Bama home opener especially had everyone in the St. Louis area talking and making travel plans to attend the game. As the numerous Big Eight helmet reproductions offered by HELMET HUT depicts (see the College Section at: http://www.helmethut.com/colindex.html  ) the Big Eight uniforms through the suspension helmet era were beautiful and in so many cases unique.  Colorado in particular (http://www.helmethut.com/College/Colorado/coloradoindex.html  ) had multiple, horn-adorned helmets and their unusual Columbia blue designs of the early-1980’s.



The combinations of silver and purple of K-State and the variations on Missouri’s old gold and black made the Conference a great source of easily recognizable helmets with jersey combinations to match. Everyone has their favorites but it took a number of years of living in the Big Eight region for me to fully appreciate their brand of football.