Big Ten: Sandy Stephens

Big Ten Friday mailblog

February, 22, 2013
NFL combine weekend is upon us. We'll have an update Monday on how the Big Ten contingent fared in the early testing.

To your emails ...

Brian from Atlanta writes: Adam, How can you think Chicago makes sense for the B10 CCG until two things change: 1. The game stops being a primetime game so the windchill isn't below freezing for much of the game, 2. The groundskeepers at Soldier Field learn how to grow a decent field in December? I've seen elementary playgrounds with better grass than Soldier Field has, and a rock hard field with bad grass causes injuries (head and knee). I'd be OK with the game played in the afternoon outdoors in Chicago, but they need a decent field.

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, I completely agree with you about the playing surface at Soldier Field. As a Bears fan, it's embarrassing to see that slop on Sundays. They should have installed FieldTurf when they did the renovation. The field certainly would be a concern for the Big Ten, mainly because of player safety. No one wants to see injuries in the title game, especially because those teams will be advancing to major bowl games or the playoff. The Big Ten would need assurances from Soldier Field and the Bears that the playing surface would hold up.

I'm less concerned about the weather. While an afternoon kickoff might be the way to go, the temperature in Chicago on the first Saturday of December isn't always frigid. Last year, we had temperatures in the 40s and low 50s. Thank global warming, I guess. While there's always potential for bad weather, it's not as if this game would be played in late December or early January. And c'mon, this is the Big Ten. These teams are used to playing in the cold. This type of thinking is why we haven't had November night games in the Big Ten, which in my view has hurt the league's image/brand.

Chas from Ames, Iowa, writes: ARitt: I appreciate your constant criticism of Iowa Football and the article about Ferentz allegedly reducing recruitment of Florida. Do you think this could be due to the fact that his most recent hires have deep, deep ties in another football hotbed [the Country of Texas]? If so, why would that be a bad thing [especially if one considers that Iowa has done well with athletes from Texas since Hayden Fry's heyday in the 1980's]?

Adam Rittenberg: Chas, as someone who has read this blog from the start, you know criticism or praise depends on how the team is performing. Iowa has deserved the recent criticism, just like it deserved the praise I doled out in 2009. You and others have pointed out the staff's ties to Texas, which is great. But I don't get the either/or argument at all. You can recruit both Texas and Florida. There's no rule that prevents teams from doing so. Sure, Texas can be a bigger emphasis now with former Longhorns assistants Greg Davis and Bobby Kennedy on staff. But Kirk Ferentz has had the chance to make many more hires. Why not bring in one assistant with ties to Florida so you can have a presence there as well? Both states mass-produce talent, and a program like Iowa that has limited in-state talent should have a presence in both spots, even if Texas is emphasized more than Florida.

James from Lincoln, Kan., writes: Looking at the Combine numbers for invitees over the last 3 years, and as a Husker fan, should it be concerning that the list of invitees from Nebraska have been declining over the last few years. Now although I am sure there were some snubs in the past (Baker Steinkuhler), shouldn't a school with Nebraska's pedigree be able to send more than 3 players to the NFL combine in any given year?

Adam Rittenberg: You would think so, James. I wouldn't be overly concerned, but I would closely monitor the number of defensive players Nebraska sends to the combine in the coming years. Nebraska sent four defenders in 2010, four in 2011 and three in 2012, but only one (safety Daimion Stafford) this season. Bo Pelini has produced NFL defenders everywhere he's been, but the unit certainly took a step backward in 2012. Nebraska is looking for leadership and star power on that side of the ball. I think the number of offensive players Nebraska sends to Indy will fluctuate a bit -- partly because of the offensive system it runs -- but Big Red should always be sending a handful of defenders to the combine under Pelini.

Heisman Voter from New York writes: Adam and Brian, as a Heisman voter, let me be the first to congratulate you two for your omission of Kawann Short from the Top 25 player rankings. Sure he was a consensus All-Big Ten and he had the most sacks (7) and TFL (15.5) by a defensive tackle, in addition to his 1 FF and 4 blocked kicks, but his team was bad this year. That's why he as an individual doesn't deserve to be with the likes of Hankins, whose 1 sack, 4 TFL, zero fumbles forced, and 12 wins completely overshadowed Short. By now you realize this is sarcasm. For the record, I am not a Purdue fan, but I find it astounding that Short gets so little respect because the rest of his team hasn't been among the best. He has been one of the most consistent performers the last three years, racking up 19.5 sacks, 44.5 TFLs, and an astounding 8 blocked kicks. Can you explain how he gets left out, because it really seems like you're using team record as the most important stat. Oh, and Replogle would like a word too...

Adam Rittenberg: You make some fair points, Heisman, and both Short and Replogle had good seasons and were considered for the list. Again, it's a very exclusive group, only 25 players, and we looked for guys who made the biggest impact week in and week out -- beyond the numbers. Hankins' stats don't come close to reflecting what type of impact he had on games this past season. The same goes for Penn State's Jordan Hill, who had better numbers than Hankins and was even more dominant, especially late in the season. It's not all about the numbers for the defensive tackle position. My issue with Short is he'd have a few huge games every year and then disappear for others. And I can't look past the fact he led a Purdue defensive line that quite frankly underperformed this season and was gashed by so many opponents. That reflects poorly on him. The same goes for Replogle at Indiana. Again, both men had solid seasons overall and were considered for the Top 25, but neither made as big of an impact as Hankins or Hill.

Adam from Washington D.C., writes: Your Iowa article was atrocious today. I'm a Michigan fan so I don't have a dog in the fight other than I hate reading ignorant stuff. Iowa needs to recruit better players and have them stay. Literally the sentence before you said "I don't see a good reason for them to leave Florida," you explain that none of their Florida recruits had panned out. Then you say something nonsensical about Michigan ramping up Southern recruiting efforts. You do realize we're recruiting Florida significantly less since Michigan fired Rich Rod and went with Hoke, right? It's like you just type stuff that you think sounds good but don't actually back it up with anything factual. That's why you're no longer in my google reader. It's sad, because sometimes you do great work. Other times, you two the ESPN line wayyyy too much.

Adam Rittenberg: It's a major ego blow not to be in your google reader. Not sure how I'll possibly recover. The argument that Iowa should de-emphasize Florida because it has had a run of recruits who didn't pan out doesn't make sense to me, either. We know there are many Florida recruits who do pan out. Just look at Wisconsin, which has players like running back James White (Fort Lauderdale), safety Dezmen Southward (Sunrise) and linebacker Conor O'Neill (Delray Beach), as well as recently graduated players like safety Aaron Henry (Immokalee). Wisconsin's success in Florida should encourage Iowa, especially since Bret Bielema and Charlie Partridge are no longer in Madison. Just because you've had a bad run doesn't mean you throw up your hands. As for Michigan, of course I realize the Wolverines are recruiting Florida less without RichRod. But as noted in the post, Michigan was the only other Big Ten team besides Iowa not to sign a Florida player this year. That should change in the future. WolverineNation's Tom VanHaaren, who knows Michigan recruiting better than anyone, told us on a recent podcast that the staff is emphasizing Florida and Southern recruiting more in the 2014 class. The article linked in the post supports this. Michigan will continue to focus on the Midwest but Hoke and his staff are spreading their recruiting net as well, which should be reflected next year.

Cody from Okinawa, Japan, writes: Adam,During this break from college football, I keep running into articles and speculation about further B1G expansion. Maryland and Rutgers are in, and that is tolerable for me. But rumors of Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Virginia have me worried. I know there has been growing support for a pod system with more teams, but lets stop and consider games like Ohio State at Georgia Tech, Nebraska at Virginia, North Carolina at Michigan. That is not B1G football! I'd love to see a column from you outlining the negative aspects of further expansion.

Adam Rittenberg: There are several potential drawbacks, Cody. The first is more general -- that bigger isn't always better. Big Ten teams will play one another less often -- despite more overall conference games -- and the intimacy of a league, which commissioner Jim Delany often has talked about, will be harmed to a degree by going to 16 or more teams. Another drawback is that North Carolina and Georgia Tech -- and, to a lesser degree, Virginia -- are in fundamentally different areas of the country than the current Big Ten members. Although the Big Ten wants to become a bi-regional conference -- Midwest and East Coast -- it also wants to maintain a certain culture. The culture around college sports in North Carolina and Georgia is different -- not better or worse, just different. My friend David Jones outlines it well, writing:
People belong with their own kind. And most Carolinians aren't transplanted New Yorkers and Ohioans working for GlaxoSmithKline. They are hot-weather-barbecued Southerners who grew up in the pines. They love their area's unique basketball heritage, they talk like Andy Griffith and see the world in different ways than we do. Many of them are wonderful people. My kid goes to camp in northwest North Carolina every year and I've met many of the locals. But they do not belong in the Big Ten. And they will feel like the foreigners they will be if this expansion happens.

His point is that Big Ten folks can relate to Maryland and Rutgers better than they'll be able to relate to North Carolina and Georgia Tech, and vice-versa. Will the Big Ten get richer financially? Sure. But the league's core values -- the essence of who it is -- could be harmed by these moves.

Michael from Los Feliz writes: Hey Adam, I enjoyed your article about Michigan State in honor of Black History Month. However, as a Gopher fan I hope you take some time this month to check out the Gophers' legendary 60s teams. Sandy Stephens was the first African American QB to play at the collegiate level, and he led the Gophers to a National Title and 2 Rose Bowl appearances (1 win). He finished 4th in Heisman balloting at a time when America was still segregated. That is astonishing. Other All-Americans on those teams include Bobby Bell and Carl Eller. All those players remarked on how little racism they found in Minneapolis in comparison to their respective hometowns. This is an important legacy.

Adam Rittenberg: Completely agree, Michael. Minnesota came up a lot while I was doing my reporting for the Michigan State story. Although other Big Ten teams recruited blacks from the South and provided tremendous opportunities for these players, Minnesota and Michigan State certainly were ahead of the curve. Former MSU quarterback Jimmy Raye, who faced the two obstacles of being black and being a black quarterback from the South, told me, "I wanted to go to school at the University of Minnesota because Sandy Stephens had played quarterback there and taken them to the Rose Bowl. He was the first black All-America quarterback, so I knew if I was being recruited by Minnesota, I would have a chance to play quarterback there." Players like Raye were very aware that Minnesota had brought in Bell and Eller from the same state (North Carolina). I agree that it's a very important legacy.

Big Ten lunch links

December, 6, 2011
And then my herbalist took this weird bee pollen paste, rubbed it around my gums, and now my mouth feels like a spaceship.
It's time to spotlight another former Big Ten player selected to the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2011 ...

Sandy Stephens, QB, Minnesota, 1959-61

There might be more famous members of the 2011 Hall of Fame class, but few left a more significant legacy than Stephens did at Minnesota.

Sandy Stephens
AP Photo/CEKSandy Stephens (15) was the first African-American to play quarterback for the Gophers.
Stephens was the first African-American to play quarterback for the Gophers, but he always preferred to be remembered for what he did between the lines. He did plenty.

After Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in 1959, Stephens guided the team to back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances and a national title in 1960, the program's first since 1941. He remains the only quarterback to take Minnesota to Pasadena, fulfilling the goal he set when he first arrived on campus. A multisport star in high school, Stephens turned down a chance to play pro baseball to suit up for coach Murray Warmath in Minneapolis.

In 1961 Stephens became the first black quarterback to earn All-America honors. He also received the Chicago Tribune's Silver Football as Big Ten MVP that year and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. Stephens capped his career by scoring two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl as Minnesota beat UCLA. He was named Player of the Game and entered the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1997.

Stephens never played quarterback in the NFL, which remained hesitant to use black signal callers, and had a brief career in the CFL. He died in 2000 and had his No. 15 jersey retired by Minnesota later that year.

Stephens joins John McGovern as the only Minnesota quarterbacks to enter the College Football Hall of Fame.
Former Minnesota coach Murray Warmath, who guided the Gophers to their most recent national title, died Wednesday at 98.

Warmath coached Minnesota for 18 seasons, winning two Big Ten titles and appearing in two Rose Bowls (his teams went 1-1). He's the last coach to guide Minnesota to a Big Ten championship (1967).

Warmath was one of the first major college football coaches to sign multiple black players in a single recruiting class. One of them, quarterback Sandy Stephens, guided the Gophers to consecutive Rose Bowls following the 1960 and 1961 seasons. Stephens became the nation's first black All-America quarterback and Warmath went on to sign other standouts such as Bobby Bell and Carl Eller.

For more on Warmath, click here and here. What a life and career, and it's interesting to read about Minnesota's glory days as a college football powerhouse.

Minnesota's Mount Rushmore

February, 19, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota's Rushmore truly tested my research skills, as almost all the viable candidates played or coached at the school long before I was born. It's both a testament to the Gophers' success as a national powerhouse in the 1930s and 1940s, and a reminder of the program's extended run of mediocrity ever since.

There are several slam-dunk selections here, but also I'm bracing for your e-mails. I'll post some Rushmore reaction from the first six teams on Friday's blog.

  • Bronko Nagurski -- One of the greatest players in Big Ten history, Nagurski won All-America honors at both tackle and fullback and starred for the Gophers in the late 1920s. A Hall of Famer at both the college and pro levels, Nagurski played on Minnesota teams that went 18-4-2. College football's national defensive player of the year award bears his name, and Minnesota football is headquartered at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex.
  • Bruce Smith -- A dynamic halfback who did his best work in the clutch, Smith easily won the 1941 Heisman Trophy and led Minnesota to back-to-back national championships. Minnesota's only Heisman winner didn't lose a game in his final two seasons as the Gophers went 16-0.
  • Paul Giel -- Giel didn't play during Minnesota's glory years, but he won two Big Ten MVP awards as a standout halfback. The runner-up for the 1953 Heisman Trophy, Giel racked up 2,188 rushing yards and 1,922 passing yards after starting his career as a quarterback. He's a College Football Hall of Famer and one of only four Minnesota players who have their numbers retired.
  • Bernie Bierman -- The architect of Minnesota's dominant run compiled a 93-35-6 record during 16 seasons as coach. Bierman's teams owned six Big Ten championships, five national championships and five undefeated seasons. The mild-mannered Bierman coached 14 All-Americans and six College Football Hall of Famers.
Others considered for the Gophers' Rushmore included: Sandy Stephens, Bobby Bell, Tom Brown, Francis Lund and Tyrone Carter.