Big Ten Icons Presented by Discover is an original series spotlighting the great coaches in Big Ten history. Last season, we counted down the top 50 competitors in the conference’s rich history. The first 30 were released online and the final 20 names were featured in full episodes hosted by legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson.
John Wooden cast such a giant shadow as a college basketball coach that his comparably impressive achievements as a player are easily overlooked. Indeed, when Wooden died at age 99 earlier this year, his incomparable run of 10 national championships over a 12-year stretch at UCLA led the tributes. Seven of those titles came in succession as the Bruins became the gold standard in the college game. The period also featured an 88-game winning streak, four undefeated seasons, a 38-game NCAA tournament winning streak and a 140-2 record at Pauley Pavilion, UCLA’s home court.
Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf obviously had his Northwestern football team in mind when he spotted a strong-armed freshman throwing feathery-soft spirals in an NU fraternity football league in the fall of 1940. Waldorf suggested the youngster might want to give the Wildcat varsity a try the following season. He did, and football’s gain was something of a loss for basketball, baseball and music. Otto Everett Graham Jr. was Waldorf’s discovery. Few athletes have ever been as accomplished, not to mention as versatile. Graham would win eight varsity letters in three sports at Northwestern and make All-America in football and basketball. He won a total of eight championships in the two sports as a professional and is a member of the College and Pro Football halls of fame.
Dave Winfield had never played a down of college football at the University of Minnesota, but the Minnesota Vikings thought they knew an athlete when they saw one. They drafted Winfield in 1973, envisioning a pass-catching, stretch-the-field tight end. They also knew that signing Winfield might involve outbidding the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and the Utah Stars of the rival ABA, who had seen enough of him on the basketball court to believe Winfield had a future at forward in the pro game. Winfield was a complementary player for the Gophers’ 1972 Big Ten champions, but Bill Musselman, his coach at Minnesota, called him “the best 6-6 rebounder I’ve ever had.”
Penn State being Penn State, it was inevitable that some of the records John Cappelletti set in his two remarkably productive seasons as the Nittany Lions’ starting tailback would fall as the assembly line kept churning out newer models. But the proud Italian kid from suburban Philadelphia remains the only Heisman Trophy winner in Penn State history.
Steve Alford may well have been the quintessential Indiana basketball player. He grew up in New Castle, a town that reveres the game, and learned it from his father, Sam Alford, a Hall of Fame high school coach at New Castle Chrysler. Under his father’s tutelage, Alford developed the fundamental skills, the shooting touch, the court sense and the toughness that constitute the preferred style of play in the land where basketball is king. A two-time all-state selection, Alford was the state’s leading scorer as a senior with 37.7 points per game and won the coveted title of Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1983.
He played only two years of varsity golf at Ohio State, but during that time, Jack Nicklaus offered enticing hints of what he eventually would become: the greatest player in the history of his game. During one stretch of his storied amateur career, Nicklaus entered 30 tournaments and won 29 of them, including the 1961 Big Ten (by 16 shots) and NCAA championships for the Buckeyes. He was the first player to win the NCAA individual championship and the U.S. Amateur in the same year, a feat later matched by Phil Mickelson (1990), Tiger Woods (1996) and Ryan Moore (2004).
“With the exception of the loss of some loved ones, I wouldn’t change a thing about my life—running got where I am today,” Favor-Hamilton said. “But winning titles seems so insignificant in comparison to the other gifts I’ve been given.” Motivation was never an issue for Suzy Favor. She enjoyed the buzz she felt and the adulation she received for “beating all the boys in school” in a quarter-mile race as a fifth-grader in Stevens Point, Wis. With her parents’ blessing, she joined the Stevens Point Area Running Club and began competing in AAU-sponsored age-group races throughout the Midwest. By the time she entered high school she was a serious, committed runner, talented enough to win the Wisconsin state cross country title as a freshman. The achievement was the starting point for a remarkable career, but it came with a price.
The look of bemused surprise on Peyton Manning’s face is one of the enduring images of that December evening in 1997. Manning was an All-America quarterback at Tennessee, the fresh-faced, well-spoken son of an All-America quarterback at Mississippi, the older brother of a fresh-faced, well-spoken future All-America Ole Miss quarterback. Given that pedigree, and an undeniably impressive four-year body of work that attracted reams of national publicity, Manning’s coronation as the Heisman Trophy winner was almost a foregone conclusion as the finalists waited out the vote on that Saturday evening at New York’s posh Downtown Athletic Club.