The 1990 Big Ten Football Season: Chaos & A Four-Way Crackup

1990 was one of the craziest years college football has ever seen. The Big Ten not only wasn’t immune, it was the epicenter of the chaos. Here’s a look back at the key storylines in the 1990 Big Ten football season…


Michigan was in their first year of the post-Bo Schembechler era and longtime Wolverine offensive coordinator Gary Moeller was the new man in charge. When Moeller’s team coughed up a 24-14 lead in South Bend on opening night and lost 28-24, it was a sign of things to come for the conference schedule.

The insanity of this entire college football season can be underscored by the fact that even though Michigan had lost its first game, they were #1 in the polls by mid-October when they hosted Michigan State. Trailing 28-21, the Wolverines scored a late touchdown. The era of overtime in college football was still six years off, so Moeller went for two points, to win or lose it.

Desmond Howard ran a slant-in. The pass fell incomplete. Whether it was because Desmond stumbled or because he was held was the subject of fierce debate. Michigan lost 28-27. A week later, at home against Iowa, the Wolverine defense allowed an 85-yard touchdown drive to beat them 24-23.  Michigan had won outright Big Ten championships in 1988 and 1989. But there was opportunity for someone new to step up.


Iowa and Illinois both started 4-0 in conference play and were two games ahead of the field when they met in Champaign on November 3. The Hawkeyes had lost only to perennial power Miami. The Illini were ranked fifth in the country.

Illinois lost a fumble on their first possession and Iowa running back Nick Bell made it hurt, rumbling 44 yards for a touchdown. It was the first of what would be many early indications that this would be a Hawkeye day. They led 28-0 by the second quarter, scoring touchdowns off both a halfback option pass and a fake field goal. The final score of the league’s most significant regular season game was 54-28.


John Cooper was in his fourth year coaching Ohio State and the way this season ended had to give the good people of Columbus an indication that Cooper’s tenure would be one of constant heartache. Two weeks after Iowa took control of the league race, the Buckeyes went into Iowa City and knocked off the Hawkeyes 27-26, rallying from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit.

Ohio State hosted Michigan for the traditional season finale. The Buckeyes needed a win, along with an Iowa loss to get to the Rose Bowl. The Hawkeyes were facing a good bowl-bound Minnesota team on the road.

The Michigan-Ohio State game was tied 13-13 with less than two minutes to play. A tie was as good as a loss for the Buckeye’s Rose Bowl hopes, so Cooper went for it on a fourth down inside his own 30. It didn’t work, the Wolverines kicked a field goal and won the game.

To make it worse for Ohio State fans, Iowa lost at Minnesota. Although Hawkeye fans can point out that their game was in the first half when the results from Columbus rolled in—so who knows if Iowa let up, knowing the Rose Bowl bid was theirs.


Iowa might have had the Roses, but their two late losses led to a traffic jam at the top of the standings. Michigan State also finished 6-2 in the conference. So did Illinois. And after all their heartbreak, so did Michigan. Ohio State, because of a tie to bowl-bound Indiana earlier in the year, was a half-game back.

Four teams would go into the history books as quad-champions. For the Wolverines that was particularly significant—they resumed their dominance of the league the next two seasons, with outright titles in 1991 and 1992. Getting a least a piece of the 1990 crown ensured a historic run of five consecutive Big Ten championship seasons.


Iowa’s Matt Rodgers was the All-Conference quarterback and Bell ran for 1,000 yards in the Hawkeye backfield. Bell was one of several good running backs. He was joined by the two Vaughns—Jon Vaughn at Michigan and Indiana’s Vaughn Dunbar.

But the most prolific of them all was Tico Duckett, who rolled up nearly 1,400 yards and won the Big Ten rushing title. Duckett went on to the NFL, as did his younger brother T.J. Today, the Duckett brothers run a successful distributing company back  in Michigan.

Who was the league MVP, you’re asking? Well, it didn’t come on the offensive side of the ball. There were other good quarterbacks—Jason Verduzco for Illinois and Elvis Grbac at Michigan. But the defensive talent at Illinois was eye-popping. Moe Gardner was a dominant defensive tackle and ended up the consensus Big Ten Player of the Year. Darrick Brownlow at linebacker also got his share of love.

I also want to give mention to Iowa linebacker John Derby. I played high school football with him in southeastern Wisconsin. To be more specific, I was on the scout team at defensive tackle. Derby played both ways, at fullback and linebacker. During one cold fall practice, a play was designed where Derby essentially came up the middle and knocked me on my posterior with a block.

One of the offensive lineman had trouble getting the play right and we had to run the play about 8-10 times in order to do it to the satisfaction of our exacting head coach. Derby dutifully barreled me over each and every time. And each and every time he graciously picked me up off the ground and lamented that we had to keep running the play. Good guy and it was great to see him get a Rose Bowl trip in his senior year at Iowa.


Bowl season didn’t treat the Big Ten well. Ohio State lost to Air Force in the Liberty Bowl, completing their season of missed opportunity. Illinois was shut out by Clemson in the Hall of Fame Bowl. And Iowa’s 46-34 loss to Washington in the Rose Bowl wasn’t as close as the score makes it sound.

Only two of seven teams won their bowl game. Michigan State knocked off USC 17-16. And by year’s end, Michigan was back on the rise. The Wolverines blasted Ole Miss in the Gator Bowl, finished seventh in the country and put the conference on notice that order would be restored next year.


The retirement of Schembechler left a big void in the conference. Although no one knew it, a new legend had arrived in 1990. Barry Alvarez, the defensive coordinator on Lou Holtz’s best Notre Dame teams of 1988 and 1989, took over a floundering Wisconsin program. The Badgers were bad in 1990, winning only one game. But the good times weren’t far around the corner.

Actually, one person knew a legend had arrived. That would be Barry himself. In his first press conference he warned people to get their season tickets now, while they still could.