Hickey: The most beloved football player of all time at each B1G school
We’ve reached the middle of summer — or as it is otherwise known, peak wedding season. But love and reverence need not only be applied to new spouses.
At every Big Ten school, there are certain athletes who are loved and revered above all the rest.
Much like true love, there’s no secret sauce to why that’s the case. Sometimes it is on-court or on-field success. Maybe it’s charisma. But something about these athletes have given them a special place in the hearts of their fans.
We previously named the most beloved basketball player at each Big Ten school. Now it’s time to reveal Saturday Tradition’s picks for the most beloved football player for each program.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You may not agree with your school’s pick — and if that’s so, feel free to let us know.
Illinois: Juice Williams
You’re probably thinking, “Shouldn’t this be Dick Butkus?”
And you’re right.
But if you told Dick Butkus you loved him, he’d knock you right on your ass. Butkus is respected, revered and feared.
Beloved? Not a term he’d want any part of.
So, we turn our attention to another graduate of Chicago Vocational High and the University of Illinois.
Juice Williams is eminently lovable. His nickname conjures fun. And his game conjured up a rare level of success on the field for Illinois.
Much like Red Grange nearly a century before him, Williams’ legend is built on a singular performance: his 4-touchdown showing to lead Illinois to a 28-21 win at No. 1 Ohio State in 2007. It was Illinois’ first win over a top-ranked team since 1956 and helped the Illini to their first Rose Bowl since the 1983 season.
Illinois has not finished a season ranked ever since.
Some might not even remember that Williams was benched at the end of his senior season in 2009. The Legend of Juice was too strong.
Indiana: Antwaan Randle El
Antwaan Randle El never made a bowl game, because he was coached by Cam Cameron. But he’s still beloved in Bloomington because he’s the most electrifying player to ever wear an Indiana football uniform.
Randle El was a 3-sport star — drafted by the Cubs and good enough at basketball to have a short stint playing for Bobby Knight. But his passion was playing quarterback, and only IU was willing to put him at that position rather than defensive back.
Randle El’s 1998 freshman season was so impressive that the Big Ten’s freshman of the year award was later named for him. For his career, he became the first player in Division I history to pass for 40 touchdowns and rush for 40 touchdowns — a sign of things to come in the game.
Randle El was carried off the field by teammates and fans after beating Kentucky in his final game in 2001, and he’s been riding that wave ever since.
Iowa: Nile Kinnick
It’s right there on the label. Kinnick Stadium is the lone Big Ten stadium named for a former student-athlete. And in our corporate-labeled culture, it won’t be joined by many others in the future.
Nile Kinnick is Iowa’s lone Heisman Trophy winner, taking home the award in 1939 after leading the Hawkeyes to the No. 9 national ranking after winning 2 total games the previous 2 seasons. That he chose the Hawkeyes over playing at then-national power (and hated rival) Minnesota gave him even higher status among Hawk fans.
Kinnick’s Heisman acceptance speech is played pregame at his namesake stadium. In it, he references his gratitude for not being involved in the conflict in Europe. But when the time came for the US to enter World War II, he signed up as a Navy pilot. Kinnick died crash-landing a training flight in 1943 — a loss that assured he would never be forgotten.
Maryland: Stefon Diggs
We skip quite a few generations moving from the most beloved Hawkeye to the most beloved Terp.
As a 5-star recruit, Diggs could have played anywhere in the country. The Montgomery County native elected to stay home at Maryland, immediately endearing himself to the fanbase.
And then he actually started playing, launching a love affair that has not ceased.
Diggs was Maryland’s first Big Ten star, earning second team all-conference honors in the Terps’ first year in the conference. He’s since been named an NFL All-Pro twice, making him the most successful offensive player from Maryland since Boomer Esiason.
Michigan: Charles Woodson
Picking an all-time most beloved Wolverine is a nearly impossible task. There are too many choices. There’s at least one person out there who will vouch for Jim Harbaugh. Or Anthony Carter. Or Desmond Howard. Dan Dierdorf, perhaps. Maybe even Tim Biakubutka.
Actually, especially Tim Biakubutka. Having a fun nickname (Touchdown Tim) and running for 313 yards in a single game against Ohio State will endear a guy to Michigan fans.
There are those who will vouch for Tom Brady, of course, but that is revisionism. There’s a reason Brady fell to the 5th round of the NFL Draft — he was only a part-time starter at Michigan.
So, we turn to Charles Woodson — Michigan’s last Heisman Trophy winner, and the linchpin of the 1997 national champions. And perhaps best of all, an Ohio native who fled north for college.
Woodson did it like no one else ever has. He remains the lone defensive player to win the award. And because Tennessee fans remain very angry online about that particular outcome, Michigan fans have reason to continue praising Woodson all these years later.
There’s a lot of love in Ann Arbor, but Woodson is a cut above.
Michigan State: Kenneth Walker III
Maybe we’re prisoners of the moment, but then so are Michigan State fans. You can’t find a player who would receiver a louder ovation at Spartan Stadium than Walker.
Had he played in another era, Walker might have been Michigan State’s first-ever Heisman winner. Unfortunately, he’s a running back in the 2020s, so his 6th-place finish in 2021 is as good we’re likely to see from a back for a while. Though it was his only season in East Lansing, he made it count.
Walker’s career performance against Michigan assured him of a permanent place in Michigan State lore. His 5 rushing touchdowns were the most ever for a Spartan against the Wolverines, and Michigan State’s comeback for a 37-33 win was one of the great games in program history.
Michigan State’s massive struggles running the ball in its first season post-Walker only further highlighted how rare a talent he is. His place in Spartan hearts may still be growing.
Minnesota: Tony Dungy
Tony Dungy was Minnesota’s passing leader in every major category when his career ended in 1976. But as a Black quarterback, an NFL career demanded a move to defensive back — which he did for 3 seasons before entering the coaching ranks.
Dungy was a respected NFL defensive coordinator, but frequently passed over for head coaching jobs until the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the plunge in 1996. He quickly turned the NFL’s most woebegone franchise into a playoff contender.
In Indianapolis, Dungy reached the zenith. He became the first Black head coach to win a Super Bowl, leading the Colts to the 2005 title.
His role on NBC since his retirement from coaching makes Dungy the most visible Minnesota football alum since Bronko Nagurski.
Nebraska: Tommie Frazier
Much like Michigan, Nebraska has produced stacks of football legends. But only one player captured the imagination like Tommie Frazier, who is among the finest players to not win a Heisman Trophy.
Frazier led the Cornhuskers to consecutive national championships in 1994 and ’95, with his 75-yard touchdown run against Florida marking perhaps the signature moment in program history.
There’s no topping that. Which explains why Frazier’s No. 15 was retired by Nebraska just a year after he graduated.
Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald
A former all-American linebacker who took over the program after the tragic death of Randy Walker and became the most successful coach in program history. You can’t be a greater symbol of the Wildcats than Pat Fitzgerald.
Fitz burst onto the scene in 1995 as the defensive nucleus of Northwestern’s first Big Ten title since 1936. His 14-tackle showing at Michigan helped the Cats to their first win in Ann Arbor since 1959. He was named an all-American in 1995 and ’96 — Northwestern’s first since 1962.
That alone would have been enough to at least put him in the same neighborhood as the legendary Otto Graham. But Fitzgerald’s skill leading the program in the wake of Walker’s death and beyond lifts him to another level. He’s had multiple opportunities to leave Evanston for better jobs yet has stayed true to his roots.
Ohio State: Archie Griffin
No Michigan player has ever pulled an Archie Griffin. No player anywhere has — the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner.
That unique distinction in college football history makes Griffin the most beloved of all Buckeyes. Sure, Ohio State has produced better running backs since he left — Keith Byars, Eddie George, Ezekiel Elliott — but Archie’s place remains unassailable.
The love for Griffin in Columbus is still so strong that he was included in this year’s spring game.
Archie Griffin, college football's only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, scores a touchdown in Ohio State's spring game. What a moment. pic.twitter.com/01xx885Tan
— Eleven Warriors (@11W) April 15, 2023
Penn State: Franco Harris
When you arrive at the Pittsburgh airport — prior to renovations, anyway — you are greeted by mannequins of the two most significant figures in Pittsburgh history.
George Washington and Franco Harris.
And maybe the love for Franco is more a Pittsburgh phenomenon thanks to his Hall of Fame career and Immaculate Receiving with the Steelers. But he is also among the most beloved of all Nittany Lions.
Franco certainly isn’t alone.
Fellow Nittany Lions-turned-Steeler Jack Ham has to be near the top of the list. He is considered the forefather of “Linebacker U” — but he’d probably respond in the same manner as Butkus if described as “beloved” to his face.
The defensive tackle combo of Matt Millen and Bruce Clark, known as “Salt and Pepper” in their day, is also high on the list of beloved Lions. Saquon Barkley, who took over the title of Penn State’s best-ever running back, is another all-time favorite.
Purdue: Drew Brees
Though some of us consider ourselves Kyle Orton Men, there’s no topping Drew Brees in the eyes of Purdue’s fanbase. And for very good reason — Brees changed the entire face of the program.
The undersized Brees arrived alongside new coach Joe Tiller in 1997, and the duo turned a moribund program that had lost 7 of 10 Old Oaken Bucket games into a Big Ten champion. They did it by featuring an offense that had never been seen in a conference that invented “3 yards and a cloud of dust.”
Brees finished just below 4,000 passing yards in each of his 3 seasons as a starter — a remarkable feat at a time with 11 regular-season games and no conference championship game.
By the time his career was over, Brees led Purdue to its first Rose Bowl since the 1966 season. The Boilers have not been back since, because there has never been another Brees. He set 19 Purdue passing records and 13 Big Ten passing records in his career.
Brees’ eventual Hall of Fame NFL career added to his legend, and he was brought back as an interim assistant coach for last year’s Citrus Bowl against LSU.
Drew Brees is pretty secure in his spot as the Neil Armstrong of Purdue football.
Rutgers: The McCourty Twins
Devin and Jason McCourty are the most successful football players in Rutgers history. That they also happen to be twin brothers is a remarkably unique cherry on top. Ronde and Tiki Barber are the only more accomplished set of twins in NFL history.
The duo started — and starred — at cornerback during the program’s late-2000s breakthrough in Greg Schiano’s first tenure. This was the first time Rutgers football truly became a thing, and the McCourtys were among the faces of that transformation.
Devin went on to a 13-year career with the New England Patriots, winning 3 Super Bowls and being named an All-Pro on 3 occasions. Though not a star, Jason carved out his own 12-year pro career, winning Super Bowl LII alongside Devin. Jason is now in the spotlight as one of the faces on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football.”
Wisconsin: Ron Dayne
The Badgers are now in their 4th consecutive decade of churning out star running backs. Most have gone on to experience more NFL success than Ron Dayne.
Yet none have ever captured Wisconsin’s imagination like the powerful Dayne.
Built like a fullback, the 250-pound Dayne was instead used as a bulldozer with the ball by Barry Alvarez. Ultimately, that bruising running style is part of the reason his popularity is impossible to surpass.
A testament to reliability, Dayne broke the Division I record with 7,125 career rushing yards over his 4 years. With bowl stats included, that mark has yet to be surpassed — and at this rate, it’s quite unlikely to fall.
In 1999, Dayne became Wisconsin’s first Heisman Trophy winner since Alan Ameche in 1954. Dayne’s No. 33 is 1 of 6 Badger numbers to be retired.