Among the thousands upon thousands of young men who have worn football uniforms in the long and storied history of the Big Ten conference, only 33 are members of an ultra-exclusive club. That is the number of former gridiron greats who have had their jersey numbers retired by conference schools.
Eight active conference schools have retired at least two numbers while Ohio State has retired the highest number with seven. Meanwhile, four schools – Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern and former conference member Chicago – have never retired jersey numbers.
Today begins the first half of a list of the players whose numbers have been retired by the various Big Ten schools along with their accomplishments. Look for the second half later this holiday weekend.
We begin alphabetically by school.
32, Anthony Thompson – Not only is Thompson the only football player to have had his number retired at IU, he is the only athlete in any sport at the school to receive the honor. It was well-deserved. The Terre Haute, Ind., native was recruited heavily by Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois and Florida, but chose to stay close to home. The Hoosiers are glad that he did. The team was 4-18 in the two seasons before his arrival, and went 22-13-1 over the next three seasons with bowl appearances each year. By the time his college career was over, he had been named Big Ten MVP twice, set the conference record for single-game rushing with 377 yards against Wisconsin in 1989, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a senior. AT was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
50, Dick Butkus – Arguably the finest linebacker in college football history, it is altogether fitting that the best college LB each year gets an award named for Butkus. He was a two-time All-American and the Big Ten’s most valuable player in 1963 before embarking upon a Hall of Fame career in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. Butkus was elected to the College Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Illini retired his number in 1986.
77, Harold “Red” Grange – It is difficult to sum up Grange’s illustrious career in just a few words, so I’ll let famed sportswriter Damon Runyon do it: “This man Red Grange of Illinois is three or four men and a horse rolled into one for football purposes. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man O’ War.” Grange is a charter member of both the College and Pro Football halls of fame, and his number was retired by Illinois immediately following his final game in 1925.
24, Nile Kinnick – The guy did it all. He won the Heisman, Walter Camp and Maxwell trophies and was named Big Ten MVP in 1939, served as senior class president at Iowa and was a Phi Beta Kappa member. After graduation, Kinnick enrolled in law school but left after only one year to enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Tragically, his life was cut short when he died in a crash of his fighter plane during a training flight on June 2, 1943. Kinnick was a charter member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951, and Iowa renamed its football stadium in his honor in 1972.
62, Cal Jones – A three-time, first-team all-conference pick at guard, Jones became Iowa’s first recipient of the Outland Trophy in 1955. A native of Steubenville, Ohio, Jones had originally verbally committed to play his college ball at Ohio State. But when two close friends and high school teammates opted to go to Iowa, Jones decided to join them. After finishing his college career, Jones signed with Winnipeg in the Canadian Football League and made the all-pro team as a rookie. He was on his way home after the CFL All-Star Game when the plane in which he was riding crashed just north of the U.S.-Canadian border, killing all aboard. He was only 23.
11, Francis “Whitey,” Albert “Ox” and Alvin “Moose” Wistert – The Wisert brothers, each of whom wore the No. 11 for Michigan, are considered three of the best tackles in school history. In addition to wearing the same number, each earned All-America honors, two won national championships and each are enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame – not to mention the fact they each had pretty cool nicknames. Whitey played for U-M from 1931-33, followed by Ox (1940-42) and Moose (1946-49). Ox also had his jersey No. 70 retired by the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.
47, Bennie Oosterbaan – One of the top all-around athletes Michigan has ever produced, Oosterbaan was a three-time football All-American, a two-time basketball All-American and a three-year baseball letterman. Then after his playing career had ended, he returned to his alma mater to coach all three sports. His record in football was 63-33-4 with three Big Ten titles, a 14-6 win over California in the 1951 Rose Bowl, and the 1948 national championship. After his death in 1990, U-M associate athletic director Don Lund, who had played basketball for Oosterbaan, said, “There’s no question he was the greatest athlete we ever had here at Michigan.”
48, Gerald Ford – Long before the nation became acquainted with the 38th President, Ford was a hard-nosed center and linebacker at Michigan and helped the Wolverines to undefeated seasons and national championships in 1932 and ’33. Ford was named to play in several college all-star games following his senior season, and was courted by NFL teams such as the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. But he opted for law school, became a successful attorney, and after a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, entered politics and won the first of 13 consecutive terms to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was House Minority Leader in 1973 when tapped to become vice president upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew. Less than a year later, Ford became President when Richard Nixon resigned. He left the White House in 1977 and Michigan retired his jersey in 1994.
87, Ron Kramer – Kramer was another three-sport star for the Wolverines – football, basketball and track – who won the maximum nine varsity letters during his college career. On the gridiron, Kramer had few equals at the tight end position. He could block like a lineman and snag passes out the air like a polished receiver. He also handled punting duties and was good enough at basketball to be named team MVP three times. Green Bay made Kramer the fourth overall pick in the 1957 NFL draft, and the 6-3, 225-pounder enjoyed a 10-season pro career with the Packers and Lions. In 1978, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
98, Tom Harmon – One of the superstars of the golden age of college football, Harmon led the nation in scoring in 1939 and ’40, a feat that has never been equaled on the Division I level. He played running back, quarterback and kicker during his career, and won the 1940 Heisman Trophy. In his final game, he rushed for three TDs, passed for two others, kicked four extra points, intercepted three passes and punted three times for a 50.0-yard average during a 40-0 win over Ohio State. After football, Harmon went into broadcasting and acting and remained a popular figure until his death of a heart attack in 1990 at the age of 70. He is the father of actor Mark Harmon (“NCIS”) and the grandfather of actress Tracy Nelson and singers Matthew and Gunnar Nelson (country and rock group “Nelson”).
46, John Hannah – Hannah never played a single down for the Spartans, but the school would likely never have been a member of the Big Ten without him. Hannah was university president when he championed Michigan State’s acceptance into the conference in 1949. When Hannah retired from his post in 1969, MSU head coach Duffy Daugherty mothballed jersey No. 46 in honor of Hannah’s 46 years of service to the school, including 28 years as president.
78, Don Coleman – The big, sleek offensive and defensive tackle had the distinction of becoming the first Michigan State player to have his number retired when head coach Biggie Munn took it out of circulation in 1952. That was only one season after Coleman finished his college career that included consensus first-team All-America honors as a senior. Munn described Coleman as “the finest lineman ever to play for Michigan State,” and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
90, George Webster – Webster was a two-time All-American who also had his jersey retired only one year after finishing his career for the Spartans. Daugherty created a whole new position for the 6-4, 225-pounder, naming him a “rover” as a combination linebacker-safety. Webster, who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987, enjoyed a 10-year professional career in the NFL and old AFL. In 1989, he began a fight against the NFL Players Association to receive football-related disability benefits. The fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1998 ruled in favor of the NFL. Webster died in April 2007 at the age of 61.
95, Charles “Bubba” Smith – One of the most feared defensive players ever to buckle a chinstrap, the 6-6, 260-pound Smith was a two-time All-American in 1965 and ’66. He later became the No. 1 overall pick in the 1967 NFL draft and played 10 years in the league, most notably with the Baltimore Colts. In 1988, Smith was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, and in September 2006, Michigan State retired his jersey during the 40th anniversary celebration of “The Game of the Century,” a 10-10 tie against national champion Notre Dame.
We will finish the list on Saturday.
Sharing birthdays today: former NASA astronaut and U.S. Sen. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt; deposed Haitian ruled Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier; former Tennessee governor, ex-Secretary of Education and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander; smooth soul singer Fontella Bass (“Rescue Me”); Sixties television actor Michael Cole (Pete on “The Mod Squad”); Seventies television actress Jan Smithers (Bailey on “WKRP In Cincinnati”); humorist and author Dave Barry; Tony Award-winning actress Betty Buckley (she was also the mom on “Eight Is Enough”); actor Kurtwood Smith (Red Forman in “That ’70s Show”); Ratt lead singer Stephen Pearcy; eponymous talk show host Montel Williams; country singer Aaron Tippin; New York Mets outfielder Moisés Alou; New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman; big-time movie star Tom Cruise; Emmy Award winner Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa on “The Simpsons”); and jazz clarinetist Pierre Dewey LaFontaine Jr. You probably know him better as Pete Fountain.
FORTY-TWO YEARS AGO TODAY
Baseball is a game that has been played on the professional level for the past 140 or so years, and still you can go to a ballgame and witness something that has never happened before.
That was the case on July 3, 1966, when Atlanta Braves pitcher Tony Cloninger accomplished a feat no pitcher had done before him and none has done since.
Cloninger was a 25-year-old righthander in the Braves rotation that season, coming off his best year in the majors. In ’65 for the Braves – the team’s last year in Milwaukee – Cloninger had fashioned a 24-11 record with a 3.29 ERA and 16 complete games. Through the first three months of the 1966 season, he was 8-7 and on the mound when Atlanta traveled to San Francisco for a Sunday afternoon game.
In the top of the first, after the Braves had already scored three two-out runs off Giants starter Joe Gibbon, Cloninger stepped to the plate and rocked a bases-loaded homer off reliever Bob Priddy.
Three innings later, Cloninger was back in the batter’s box with the bases loaded again and he connected off reliever Ray Sadecki for his second grand slam of the game. Only 12 players in major league history have ever hit two grand slams in the same game, and Cloninger is the only pitcher. The Braves went on to win the game, 17-3, with three of Cloninger’s teammates also hitting home runs – outfielder Rico Carty, catcher Joe Torre and outfielder Hank Aaron.
Cloninger finished the 1966 season with a 14-11 record and 4.12 ERA and pitched six more years in the majors with Atlanta, Cincinnati and St. Louis. He retired after the 1972 season with a 113-97 record and 4.07 lifetime ERA.
He spent several seasons as a pitching coach for both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox before being diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2003. Cloninger was forced to give up his duties as pitching coach with the Red Sox, but returned to the team the following spring and is a player development consultant with the organization.
** Phil Fulmer just signed a contract extension that will keep him at Tennessee through the 2014 season. Fulmer’s deal is reportedly worth an average of about $3 million annually over the next seven seasons, a figure that puts him only in the middle of the pack as far as SEC head coaching salaries are concerned. Now, while you ponder that, consider the fact that Fulmer’s base salary with the university is only $375,000. The rest of the money comes from television and radio shows that bear his name, equipment and apparel fees (thank you, Phil Knight) and product endorsements.
** Here is one reason why Americans keep losing the Ryder Cup competition. Kenny Perry, one of the hottest golfers on the Tour this year, skipped the U.S. Open and will pass on the British Open to keep playing weak-field events on easy layouts in the States. Is it any wonder why the U.S. golfers begin to wilt under the pressure of playing for the Ryder Cup? Most of them are more interested in padding their already-fat wallets than getting some experience of the pressure of playing on the world’s biggest stages.
** If you like boxing and would like to watch one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world today slice up (literally and figuratively) his opponent, HBO will rerun last week’s lightweight bout during which Manny Pacquiao stopped WBC champion David Diaz on a ninth-round TKO. You can catch the bout at 9:30 p.m. Eastern tonight and again at 10 p.m. ET on Saturday.
** This just in from the New York media: Alex Rodriguez is getting a divorce and might be seeing Madonna on the sly. And we care about this because …?
** A little trivia for you to keep you occupied over the weekend. Name the first Cleveland Brown to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Then, name the first Cincinnati Bengal to be feature on the SI cover. Check back over the weekend for the answer.
** Hey, Brett Favre. Seriously, dude. Stay retired.