Skip to main content
Original Issue


Oklahoma and Nebraska achieved their lofty rankings at the expense of a conference that is fast becoming a bad joke

Iowa State Coach Jim Walden was flailing his arms one day last week in Ames and fuming that it was "totally embarrassing" for Oklahoma and Nebraska to dominate the Big Eight the way they have—especially this year. Walden was indeed wound up. "I look at Barry Switzer, and he knows he's a good coach," said Walden. "But does he know if his team can cover an onside kick or play prevent defense? Oklahoma's players don't know yet if they can play with a chill down their spines. That's a terrible thing because the level of competition in our conference is so bad."

Down the road, in Manhattan, Kans., K-State coach Stan Parrish, whose team lost 59-10 to Oklahoma and 56-3 to Nebraska on successive weekends last month, agreed with Walden. "It's ugly," he said. "It's embarrassing to stand on the sidelines and watch. We played the best half of football possible against Oklahoma, no mistakes, just terrific. And we were behind 31-10."

It's not just that the Sooners and the Huskers are dominating. It's more than their eight national championships, five Heisman winners, nine Outland winners and five Lombardi winners—the only such honors the league can claim. We're way beyond that. We're talking humiliation, demoralization and ruination in what once had been a proud conference.

Proof: Two weeks ago Oklahoma beat Kansas 71-10, after which Switzer implied the margin should have been a lot more. "I'm disappointed in the field conditions," he said afterward.

Proof: During a recent four-week span, Nebraska beat Kansas, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Missouri by a combined score of 187-12. Missouri was the most potent offensively; the Tigers scored seven.

Last year Oklahoma destroyed Missouri 77-0. Not long ago, Mizzou coach Woody Widenhofer ran into Switzer and said, "Barry, I'm going to get you one of these years." Chortled Switzer, "Well, hell, Woody, last year you got within 77." Indeed, a favorite Switzer exhortation to his team over the years has been, "Let's quick hang half a hundred on 'em and go home." Too often, way too often, the Sooners oblige. And then some.

Since before the season began, Oklahoma has been No. 1 in virtually every poll—including SI's—while romping through its conference schedule and wiping out a lackluster slate of non-Big Eight foes. North Texas State, Tulsa, North Carolina and Texas fell to the Sooners by the combined score of 206-23. Polls tend to reward consistent winners, no matter whom they beat. But if a team is judged also by the quality of its opponents, can it truly be said that Oklahoma is, in fact, the No. 1 team in the country?

The computerized rankings of The New York Times, which give substantial weight to the strength of a team's schedule, placed the Sooners No. 7 last week. That, in turn, may be too low; but as Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State are led to slaughter, it is interesting to contemplate whether Oklahoma or Nebraska would be undefeated this late in the season if they had to play in, say, the powerful Southeastern Conference. Outstanding teams by any other standard, they are tainted by the mediocrity of the rest of the Big Eight. So Oklahoma is No. 1, but with an asterisk.

Since Switzer and Nebraska's Tom Osborne took over their teams in 1973, the only other Big Eight school to go to the Orange Bowl as conference champion has been Colorado, way back in 1977.

"There's a greater disparity and separation in the conference right now than there's ever been," Switzer told SI's Duncan Brantley last week. "There are two reasons for that. Oklahoma and Nebraska are better. We're at a peak right now. Secondly, the other teams are low. So now, because both of us are good and they're in the worst shape they've been in, there is a tremendous gap."

Should Switzer be concerned? Well, the poor quality of conference play means that the Sooners won't make it onto national television as often as they would with better competition. ABC's director of college sports, Donn Bernstein, says that beyond the Big Two, "it's just not an attractive conference because there is no success out there." Says Jim Walden, "Can you imagine CBS [which now has rights to CFA games] trying to figure out a team to put Oklahoma and Nebraska against in a TV game?"

In fact, between 1984 and '86, the Little Six have appeared on network telecasts a grand total of eight times. A team needs to be on TV to enhance its recruiting, but if it loses, or worse, gets drilled, recruiting suffers. So the winners get the best players and the losers get the leftovers. And away we go.

A perfect example of reverse recruiting occurred in Lincoln on Saturday as Iowa State played Nebraska—sort of. The highlight of the day for the Cyclones came when the wind blew the ball off the tee just before their opening kickoff. That at least delayed the carnage, which ultimately read 42-3. Said Walden afterward, "I think we played pretty good or we would have gotten beat 75-0."

Consider the depth of the disparity. The undefeated Huskers scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions. The first time the Cyclones had the ball they drove surprisingly well, then fumbled on the Husker one. On their second possession they fumbled a kickoff and Nebraska recovered. On the third possession quarterback Brett Sadek threw an interception, and on the fourth Judge Johnston got off a punt that went five sad yards. After that it was all hit and giggle.

Said Sadek: "I think our defense played very well." Let's check it out. The winners rushed for 604 yards and averaged a whopping 8.1 yards a play; Keith (End Zone) Jones rushed for 240 yards (the fifth-best single-game total in Husker history) and two touchdowns on only 15 carries; 18 different players carried the ball for the winners; 94 Huskers saw action. Madness.

Elsewhere, however, parity seems to be the rage, even in the Big Ten. Since 1983 it has had four different champs, and it is likely to have a fifth this year. Since 1973 seven different teams have won the Southeastern Conference title and five different Pac-10 schools have gone to the Rose Bowl. The ACC has had four different champions during that same period. But the last time a team other than Oklahoma or Nebraska won the Big Eight outright was in 1961, when Colorado did it—long before any current player was born.

Historically it hasn't always been just Oklahoma and Nebraska in the Big Eight. Missouri had some starry moments under Dan Devine and went to the Orange Bowl in 1970, following the 1969 appearance by Kansas. In 1971 Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado finished 1-2-3 in the final AP Top 20 poll. The Other Six have provided, albeit infrequently, some thrills of their own: e.g., Gale Sayers carrying the ball for Kansas, Lynn Dickey passing for Kansas State in the '60s. Then there was Missouri defensive back Roger Wehrli, an All-America in 1968, and Iowa State's wonderful Dirty 30 in 1959, short on numbers but long on want-to.

Certainly Oklahoma State, the last to join the conference, making the Big Seven the Big Eight in 1958, is getting superior performance from running back Thurman Thomas, who rushed for 173 yards against Oklahoma on Saturday. Indeed, the Cowboys gave the Sooners a scare, holding Oklahoma to a slim 10-3 halftime lead before finally losing 29-10 and knocking out quarterback Jamelle Holieway and fullback Lydell Carr for the rest of the season. The full effect of those injuries probably won't be felt until the Sooners' Nov. 21 showdown with Nebraska, but the fact is, Oklahoma State couldn't take advantage of Oklahoma's sudden vulnerability. Says Cowboy coach Pat Jones, "Since I've been here, our winning percentage is .704. At some locales that's really good. But we've got Barry down there, following up on what Alonzo Stagg started."

So what caused the crisis in the Big Eight? First, Osborne and Switzer inherited solid programs from Bob Devaney and Chuck Fairbanks. Then both proceeded to make them even better. Nebraska's win over Iowa State and the Sooners' triumph over Oklahoma State gave each coach his 146th win, surpassing the league record of 145 by Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, since the Tom and Barry Show hit the road to rave reviews, the other six schools have had 23 coaches. Kansas has had five, and with grumbling getting louder about second-year man Bob Valesente, the Jayhawks could be heading for six.

In turn, this means wholesale turnovers in assistant coaches and in recruiting miscues while the new guys learn their way around. There is obviously no such problem at Nebraska, where assistant John Melton has been around for 26 years, George Darlington 15, Milt Tenopir 14 and Charlie McBride 11. "The problem is kids want security," says Parrish, "and winning is security."

What's more, their routine appearances in major bowls give Oklahoma and Nebraska an extra 18 days of practice every year. Considering that most players are around for five years, that's some 90 additional days of workouts—which amounts to almost another year of practice. How in the world can a K-State, which has been to exactly one bowl, the Independence in 1982, compete with that? It can't.

And it bothers Stan Parrish, who hasn't won in 14 games, enormously. "Look," he says, "the crime is not losing but in failing to do all you can to win. But we are crawling on our elbows to get the job done. And after games we are totally spent." At Lawrence, Valesente sounds more optimistic—sort of like a fortune cookie: "Adversity never lasts forever. Failure is never fatal. Success is never final."

But, ah, futility, thy name is Kansas. On Saturday the state's two teams showed up for their annual classic, and sure enough, nobody won. With no time left Mark Porter's 38-yard field goal attempt for K-State was blocked, and the game ended in a 17-17 tie.

The perennial dominance of the Big Two has had a snowball effect. Colorado coach Bill McCartney points out that Oklahoma and Nebraska "use all those rings and all those watches and all those trophies. All that glitter attracts a lot of kids." Then because the two biggies are good, once players are signed they tend to stay. Conversely, athletes slogging along at schools mired in adversity often drop by the wayside—academically as well as spiritually. Valesente says that last year he was missing 34 players who had been in the program but left before their appointed time. Naturally Osborne thinks keeping players is simple: "You do that by winning."

Which brings us to the heart and soul of the problem: scholarship limits. Currently the NCAA allows a maximum of 30 players to be recruited each year, but no more than 95 may be on scholarship at any given time, and the 30 limit is scheduled to drop to 25 next August. These strictures make it nearly impossible for schools that are losing, and which suffer higher attrition, ever to have 95 players on scholarship. In fact, Iowa State has 58; K-State has 73, but six are hurt, leaving 67. The only schools in the conference at the scholarship limit of 95 are Oklahoma and Nebraska—of course—and Colorado.

The disparity makes Parrish boil: "I say, please let me have at least as many bodies as you do even if they're not as good bodies. The big schools have got to give us a chance. You know what the current system is? Nuts. Flat-out nuts."

The NCAA should consider a remedy, and several coaches and athletic directors in the Big Eight are considering a proposal to that end. They are hoping to introduce legislation at the NCAA convention in January that would give today's have-nots a fairer deal. It comes down to this: If a coach needs to bring in 40 players on scholarship to reach 95, so be it.

Parrish says Switzer and Osborne have both told him they would go along with such a proposal. And Oklahoma AD Donnie Duncan sounds encouraging: "My position is that I'm going to be a good listener." Good. After all, even Switzer said, following the drubbing of Kansas, "It really means nothing." Precisely.

The Big Eight has other ways out of the darkness that don't require anything but common sense. And innovation. For example, the schools should consider giving a new coach at least a five-year contract. That way, says associate Big Eight commisioner Prentice Gautt, the coach can move the program forward "without people yapping and the hound dogs at his heels." At Colorado, where McCartney has done wonders with a moribund program, the coach says schools should "settle on a guy and have blind faith in him."

McCartney suggests that Oklahoma and Nebraska ought to "play each other in the first or second conference game [instead of generally at season's end] and take the wind out of somebody's sails."

Kansas AD Bob Frederick thinks the conference also has to rethink the way gate receipts are shared. Currently a visiting school's maximum share is $175,000. But Frederick has figured out that if the Nebraska gate were shared on a 50-50 basis, his school would have come out with $450,000. "This is an area that has to be revisited," he says, though it's doubtful Oklahoma and Nebraska would want to revisit it with him.

This is not to say that the Little Six are poverty-stricken. Surprisingly, Kansas leads the conference in athletic fund-raising with $2.6 million this past year. The Jayhawks have a hard core of more than 3,400 active boosters (and a winning basketball program), and the Kansas campus boasts a spectacular new indoor practice facility. Oklahoma State recently spent $500,000 on new artificial turf. Throughout the Big Eight, facilities are better than good enough to attract a prospective football player.

Nor do the schools, again to their credit, cry much about underpopulation or bad climate. After all, no cruise ships depart from Norman or Lincoln, either. Boulder is the only town in the league that wins beauty contests, and that is not nearly enough of an edge.

And while tradition is often cited as a factor in successful programs, it ain't necessarily so. All tradition is to many an 18-year-old is who won last year. You can bet most of the Oklahoma players have no idea who Billy Vessels was; at Nebraska the name Johnny Rodgers would evoke mostly blank stares.

Nope, the answer lies largely in the numbers. Parrish stares out across his football stadium and shakes his head. "Can you imagine?" he says. "We have so few players that in practice we can't hit in the hittingest league. There is no competition for positions. So it all adds up to one thing. Losing on Saturday."

Compare that with the talent glut at Oklahoma, where second stringer Rotnei Anderson stepped in for the injured Carr against Oklahoma State to run for 191 yards on 30 carries.

But over at the Kansas locker room—not far from the sign that lists winning the Orange Bowl as this year's goal, offensive lineman Jim Davis is unbowed: "There are no better programs in America than Nebraska and Oklahoma, and we get the chance to play them every year. That's a great opportunity." Now that is truly the college spirit.



Iowa State's Joe Henderson learns a simple truth about life in the Big Eight these days: There are just too many Cornhuskers.



The Cowboys didn't beat Oklahoma, but they may have done something even worse when they knocked out Holieway for the season.



The Sooners gave Ronnie Williams a rude introduction to the nation's leading defense.



The Cyclones could not stop Jones on this TD run, or any of the other 17 Husker rushers.



Walden regrets that Oklahoma players will never experience the thrill of an onside kick.



K-State's Bobby Lawrence (51) recovered Arnold Snells' fumble in the Cellar Bowl.

"There's a greater disparity in the conference right now than there has ever been."