By Ross Forman
I walked into the new Big Ten Experience in Rosemont, Ill., at the conference headquarters expecting to see, and perhaps hold, some most famous trophies and other artifacts in Big Ten history.
I thought there’d be a game ball from a classic Michigan-Ohio State football game.
I thought there’d be a red game-worn sweater from Bobby Knight, the former Indiana basketball coach.
I thought there’d be some cool relics used by Dick Butkus during his stint at the University of Illinois, when he sported uniform No. 50 before switching to 51 with the Chicago Bears.
I thought there’s be game-worn shoes, probably size 15 or so, used by Magic Johnson during his magical days at Michigan State.
I thought President Ford would be represented, too, ideally with a jersey or other game-worn souvenir from his Michigan days. Ford, after all, attended Grand Rapids South High School, where he excelled in football. He then played center and linebacker for the Wolverines, helping Michigan to undefeated seasons and national titles in 1932 and 1933.
I even wanted to see a stick, helmet or jersey used by former Minnesota star Megan Bozek, who played defense for the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team earlier this year in Sochi, Russia.
Sadly, there were no souvenirs, no relics and no memorabilia at the Big Ten Experience. In fact, the only visible trophies I saw – about five or 10 of them – were in the lobby to conference offices. And those trophies were off limits to visitors to the Big Ten Experience – we could just see the backs of the trophies, and though no one was around when I visited in mid-September (absolutely no one), the receptionist to the Big Ten Experience would not open the locked door to the lobby that leads to the stairs and conference offices so I could see the trophies from the front and take a picture of them.
The receptionist also told me I was the day’s first visitor – at about 1:30 p.m.
So, on the Monday that I visited, I had full reigns of The Big Ten Experience, an interactive digital museum. No other visitors came during the hour I was there, and no Big Ten employees stopped in to see if I had any questions, what I thought or even if I wanted to have my photo taken. There is, after all, a Heisman Trophy photo-op section – but I would have to take the picture selfie-style.
So who has won the Heisman from a Big Ten school?
Well, of course, Archie Griffin comes to mind immediately. He is the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, who went on to a seven-year career in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals. Griffin won four Big Ten Conference titles with Ohio State and was the first player ever to start in four Rose Bowls. He played for the Buckeyes from 1972-75.
Griffin finished fifth in the Heisman vote as a sophomore and won the award as a junior and senior. He was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986, and his uniform number (45) was officially retired by Ohio State in 1999.
Griffin ranked No. 21 on ESPN’s list of the Top 25 players in college football history.
Griffin has long been a regular on the autograph circuit. For instance, he appeared at the National Sports Collectors Convention this summer in Cleveland. One of the most common items Griffin signs, aside from OSU relics, is the 1974 College Football preview issue of Sports Illustrated – with Griffin on the cover – that came out on Sept. 9, 1974.
Troy Smith (Ohio State) was the most recent Big Ten player to win the Heisman (2006).
Ohio State has produced the most Heisman Trophy winners of any school, as the honor has gone to a Buckeye seven times, an honor shared with Notre Dame alum who have captured the trophy.
Michigan has had three Heisman Trophy winners, same as Nebraska, while two have gone to Wisconsin. Minnesota and Penn State each produced one Heisman winner.
Inside the Experience
The Big Ten Experience opened this past summer, showcasing the storied academic and athletic history of conference schools – and the sporting stars who have walked on their campuses. The Big Ten Experience is located at the conference’s headquarters (5440 Park Place), which is less than a 10-minute walk from the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center – the home of numerous sports memorabilia conventions, such as the recently concluded Fanatics Authentic Show and the 2015 National Sports Collectors Convention.
The museum is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free.
The Big Ten Experience features a collection of 13 interactive exhibits, showcasing conference notables dating back to 1896, the year the conference was founded. Here’s a glimpse at some of the exhibits:
– This is B1G – A compilation of the conference’s “firsts,” “bests,” “icons” and “timelines,” including notable speeches, membership and commissioner timelines, NCAA Championship teams, rivalry trophies, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, national awards (including athletic and academic honors) and more.
This was one of my favorite parts of the Experience, especially watching speeches by John F. Kennedy in 1960 at Michigan, Woody Hayes at Ohio State’s 1986 commencement, President Obama in Wisconsin in 2012 and Bo Schembechler in the Michigan locker room in 1983.
– Game On (interactive game) – Visitors attempt to catch a football, stop a soccer ball or block a hockey puck through an interactive game that promises to test your speed, agility and hand-eye coordination.
This was very cool, and challenging. I guess I’m not as good of a hockey goalie as I thought.
– Honoring Legends. Building Leaders – Read letters from notable Big Ten alumni, such as Bud Selig, written to Big Ten fans. You also can watch “Faces of the Big Ten,” a 30-second video featuring hundreds of Big Ten student-athletes, past and present, and learn more about the conference’s most prestigious honor – the Big Ten Medal of Honor.
– Basketball court with interactive radio calls – There are 14 program-changing audio calls from men’s basketball games throughout the years. Each call is located on the court where the actual shot took place.
Another favorite part, especially hearing the call of Keith Smart’s game-winning basket for Indiana’s basketball national championship in 1987. There also was vintage audio clips of Magic Johnson and more.
– Football/basketball touch screen – This is “the spot” for football and basketball junkies, as it features fantastic finishes in various games, incredible slam dunks, Heisman Trophy winners and great Rose Bowl moments.
This section also has the option to view every Rose Bowl game program cover dating back to 1902.
Also available for viewing here at the Experience is every past Sports Illustrated cover with a Big Ten tie.
– Current Big Ten Champions – Every Big Ten Championship team, NCAA Championship team and/or individual champion for the current academic year is featured in this interactive touchscreen.
– Big Ten Theater – A unique, behind-the-scenes look at Big Ten student-athletes and conference traditions in three-minute films from each member institutions. Films include: Illinois Track and Field: A Work of Art; Indiana Basketball: Assembly Hall; Indiana’s 6th Man; Iowa Wrestling: The Pursuit of Excellence; Michigan Gymnastics: Go Blue. A Game Day Tradition; Michigan State Basketball: The Journey Starts at Midnight; Minnesota Men’s Ice Hockey: A Hockey State of Mind; Nebraska Volleyball: Honor the Past. Invent the Future; Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse: Games Aren’t Won on Gameday; Ohio State Marching Band: TBDBITL; Penn State Men’s Gymnastics: We are Penn State Gymnastics; Purdue Diving: Fear is Not an Option; and Wisconsin Football: Jump Around.
I’ll admit, the Big Ten Experience wasn’t quite what I was expecting, certainly not for a collector – if you’re looking for game-used or game-worn memorabilia, that is.
That said, the Big Ten Experience definitely is a must-see spot for sports fans, historians and, yes, collectors, too. Just don’t expect to see any memorabilia in person.
The Big Ten Experience is a new wave museum, showcasing the conference’s illustrious past, mixed with a futuristic approach.
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.