Menu Close

Black Magic: African American Athletes and the Shifting Fortunes of Big Ten Football


Coclanis, Peter A. & Coclanis, Alex (2017). Black Magic: African American Athletes and the Shifting Fortunes of Big Ten Football. Middle West Review, 3(2), 21-43.


After many years of mediocrity and failures on the national stage, Big Ten football has been coming back in recent years. Big Ten teams have won some important non-conference games in recent seasons; the conference’s bowl-game record has improved; and several high-profile coaches have succeeded in generating new excitement in what was long perceived to be a stodgy grouping of teams. Ohio State’s victory in the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship game in early January 2015—the conference’s first national championship since 2003—is illustrative in these regards, as is the conference’s recent success in recruiting. The above comments are not meant to suggest that the Big Ten is dominating college football, as it did at certain earlier points in history, but the conference, after years in the wilderness, is at least becoming nationally relevant again. A number of commentators over the years have offered explanations for the Big Ten’s football woes over the last three or four decades which have included references to difficult coaching transitions, intra-conference competitive imbalances, antiquated offensive strategies, and the like. In October 2014 New York Times sports writer Marc Tracy wrote a lengthy piece on the conference’s secular decline in football wherein he adopted a broader social approach, finding parallels, if not correlations, between the relative economic and demographic decline of the “Rustbelt” since the 1970s and the slide in the fortunes of Big Ten football. In what was an otherwise interesting and well-researched piece, however, Tracy omitted one big factor: the easing of the color line in major southern athletic conferences in the 1970s. In this piece we focus on the important role that southern social institutions and racial policies played in shaping the fortunes of Big Ten football. More specifically, we argue that segregation in the South at the very least facilitated and supported the Big Ten’s prominence in football during its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, and that the desegregation of the major southern football conferences in the ’70s at once triggered and prolonged the conference’s relative decline.


Reference Type

Journal Article

Year Published


Journal Title

Middle West Review


Coclanis, Peter A.
Coclanis, Alex