BRT Note: This week’s incredible power poll was written by Transient Buckeye. How we have never made the comparison between our mostly-crappy teams and sinking ship/iceberg scenarios is a mystery, but a massive thanks to Transient Buckeye for righting that wrong!
I’ve always been fascinated with maritime history. As a young boy, my main interest was naval history, particularly that of World War II, inspired by some of my grandfather’s accounts of his brief service in the Pacific aboard a destroyer-minesweeper.
As I got older, I started to broaden my interests, and during the pandemic I started to spend more and more time investigating maritime disasters. One fascinating thing that links many disasters is that when you dig deeper into them, it’s usually not just one thing that was responsible. I’ve heard several different people describe this as the “swiss cheese” theory of disaster. If you stack three pieces of swiss cheese on top of one another, you probably won’t be able to see through all three of them, because the holes in the slices won’t line up. In the chain of events that produces disaster, usually all that would be required to avert it is for one link in the chain to be missing. The absence of at least one link in that chain is why most maritime voyages (or train trips, or plane flights) turn out perfectly smoothly. Every once in a great while, though, the holes in the cheese align, and something terrible happens.
And, as football fans, we all understand that when a season goes south, it’s rarely the product of a single factor. An injury to a key player, a coach engaging in a bit of hanky-panky with someone other than his spouse, or a sub-par recruiting class…any one of these, individually, can be mitigated. But when they all happen at the same time? That’s where we get into disaster country. So, with no further ado, here’s a crack at associating each of the Big Ten’s football teams with its maritime disaster spirit animal.
1. Michigan — RMS Titanic (North Atlantic Ocean, April 15, 1912)
First Place Votes: 9 High: 1 Low: 3 Last Week: 2
The story of the Titanic hardly needs to be repeated here. Pride of the British White Star line, the mighty vessel was launched to great fanfare in early 1912, and set off across the Atlantic on her maiden voyage. Displacing more than 52,000 tons, the Titanic was modern, elegant, and the envy of her competitors. Widely hailed as “unsinkable,” the ship arguably was being handled that way by Captain Edward Smith, right up until that little incident with the iceberg…
Similarly, Michigan has been the class of the Big Ten the past two seasons, and is aiming to extend that mark to three. The team continues to sail along, head raised proudly (some might say “arrogantly”), untroubled by navigational hazards or coaching suspensions. It’s been very smooth sailing through the opening stretch of the season, as the SS Wolverine cruises in stately majesty through its 2023 itinerary. Is there some iceberg lurking beneath those placid seas, just waiting to rip the bottom open and ruin everything? Only time will tell….
This is the “before” image. Will it be the “after” image, as well?
2. Ohio State – Pearl Harbor (Oahu, Hawai’i, December 7, 1941)
FPV: 3 High: 1 Low: 3 LW: 3
On the “date which will live in infamy,” the Imperial Japanese Navy’s First Carrier Striking Force launched an attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, in the Hawai’ian Islands. The attack inflicted severe damage upon the Pacific Fleet, as well as on U.S. Army and Navy bases across Oahu. While the Japanese achieved complete surprise, and undoubtedly won a major tactical victory, among modern military historians Pearl Harbor is widely considered to be one of the greatest strategic blunders in history. To paraphrase the English historian H.P. Willmott, Japan had instigated a war with the one country in the world that was guaranteed to be able to defeat Japan if it truly determined to do so—and in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was very determined to do so.
You might think that Ohio State is here because of its own recent history of experiencing unexpected ambushes, usually in the form of boiler(maker) explosions. Which…yeah. I’ll be huddled in the corner over here, crying. But that’s not the only reason! While Ohio State, like the Imperial Japanese Navy, is capable of unleashing devastating aerial bombardments, the Buckeyes, also like the IJN, have struggled of late when encountering foes with more robust strategic capabilities (or a better offensive line).
Another hookup from Kyle McCord to Marvin Harrison, Jr.
3. Penn State – M/V Doña Paz (Tablas Strait, Philippine Islands, December 20, 1987)
FPV: 2 H: 1 L: 3 LW: 1
The story of the M/V Doña Paz is horrifying and unknown in equal measure. A passenger ferry, the Doña Paz carried people between the various islands of the Philippine archipelago. In December of 1987, it set sail from the island of Leyte, bound for the Philippine capital city at Manila. Demand for spaces onboard was high, as Christmas was approaching, and as a result, the ship was massively overloaded when it departed—to the tune of at least 2,000 people in excess of its rated capacity. Shortly before midnight on the evening of December 20th, the Doña Paz collided with an unregistered fuel tanker, the MT Vector. The tanker lacked proper licensure to operate, and did not even have a certified ship’s master on board. Its cargo ignited almost immediately after the collision, incinerating both ships. Making the situation even worse, neither vessel had a working radio, so rescue efforts were significantly delayed. With a death toll estimated at well over 4,000 people, and just 26 survivors, the loss of the Doña Paz is believed to be the deadliest peacetime incident in maritime history. Despite this—and also despite the fact that this accident happened relatively recently—it has never attracted much attention in comparison to the far more well-known story of the Titanic.
Penn State has looked as good as any team in the Big Ten so far this season. But in terms of national attention, the Nittany Lions continue to linger in the shadow of their brethren from Ann Arbor, much as the tragic story of the Doña Paz is far less widely known than…wait…is someone singing “My Heart Will Go On?”
The Doña Paz in happier days….
4. Maryland – the SS Princess Sophia (Lynn Canal, near Juneau, Alaska, October 25, 1918)
H: 4 L: 10 LW: 4
The fate of the Princess Sophia wound up being largely overshadowed by the end of World War I, which happened about three weeks after its sinking. On October 23, 1918, the steamer left Skagway, Alaska, bound for Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, with 364 passengers and crew aboard, many of them miners heading south for the winter months. Early the next morning, with her navigation having been hopelessly muddled by a violent winter storm, the Princess Sophia grounded hard on Vanderbilt Reef, not far from Juneau. At first, the ship did not appear to be in imminent danger. While unable to free itself from the reef, the hull was intact, the ship retained electrical power, and the captain was able to report the Princess Sophia’s grounding by radio, leading to the dispatch of rescue ships.
But weather conditions continued to deteriorate, with a sea state so foul that the passengers could not be evacuated to other vessels. Wave action continued to crush the ship against the reef, eventually rupturing the hull and sending the Princess Sophia to the bottom. None of those onboard survived.
As the calendar still reads “September,” Maryland’s situation doesn’t look all that bad, either. The Terrapins have cruised through their early-season schedule, and with Taulia Tagovailoa at the helm, they look poised to potentially throw a scare into some of the Big Ten East’s traditional monsters. However, much like the dismal tale of the Princess Sophia, Maryland fans know all too well that early optimism can give way to crushing tragedy. Will fortune continue to smile upon the Terrapins, or will this season, like so many before, turn turtle and go to the bottom?
The Princess Sophia grounded on Vanderbilt Reef, shortly before she broke up and sank.
5. Wisconsin – The SS Edmund Fitzgerald (Lake Superior, November 10, 1975)
H: 4 L: 8 LW: 5
Growing up in Michigan, it’s impossible not to develop a respect for the hazards of the Great Lakes. Experienced mariners will tell you that sailing the Great Lakes poses its own set of dangers, some of them every bit as serious as those posed by the oceans. They’re big enough to experience major storms, but small enough that it’s impossible to navigate around bad weather in the way an oceangoing freighter could. Additionally, freighters built for the Great Lakes are often designed to maximize cargo capacity, with the consequence that they are significantly underpowered, making them difficult to steer and handle in poor weather conditions.
The Great Lakes are the gravesite for hundreds of vessels, but none more famous than the Edmund Fitzgerald, whose fate was immortalized in Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting 1976 ballad. Lost with all hands in 1975, the precise cause of the Fitzgerald’s sinking has never been conclusively established, but a number of plausible theories have been proposed, all of them rooted in the absolutely foul conditions that the ship endured as she attempted to get one more cargo run in before the end of the season (in the history of the Great Lakes, there are a loooooot of ships that have gone down trying to “get in just one more run” before the weather turns).
So why Wisconsin? Partly, this is historical. When the Edmund Fitzgerald set out on her final voyage, she departed from Superior, Wisconsin en route to a steel mill near Detroit.
Also, the image of a big, lumbering object trying to smash through all obstacles via sheer, brute force until something goes very badly wrong certainly sounds like a Wisconsin thing, though it remains to be seen how much this approach will change under Luke Fickell.
The mighty Fitz.
6. Rutgers – Typhoon Cobra, aka “Halsey’s Typhoon” (Southwest Pacific Ocean, December 17-19, 1944)
H: 4 L: 10 LW: 6
U.S. Navy Admiral William “Bull” Halsey holds a somewhat checkered reputation among historians of the Second World War. Halsey’s command style was aggressive, often verging on reckless, and while this certainly led to several impressive victories, it also left him prone to errors in judgment, which on occasion had quite serious consequences. In December of 1944, roughly two months after the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Halsey, concluding that the tattered remnants of the Imperial Japanese Navy posed little challenge to his fleet, set his sights a bit higher, and tangled with Mother Nature herself, sailing his command into the heart of a typhoon (in Halsey’s defense, he appears to have been the victim of some incorrect information provided by weather forecasters, but this sort of attention to detail [or, rather, lack thereof] had been a problem with him before). The fleet sustained significant damage as a result of the storm. Three U.S. destroyers foundered in heavy seas, and several other vessels were damaged, in some cases seriously. Nearly 800 U.S. sailors died during the storm, almost all of them among the crews of the three destroyers that were sunk.
Since his return to Rutgers, Greg Schiano has attempted to cultivate an aggressive, no-holds-barred mentality among his players. While this hasn’t yet translated into increased win totals, early returns from this season suggest that Rutgers might, just might, be approaching competence. The talent level in Piscataway is still not on par with the giants of the Big Ten East. Nevertheless, we can fully expect Schiano’s Scarlet Knights squad to sail at full steam into the heart of the gathering storm…whether or not doing so is actually a good idea.
Whoops! Wrong hurricane.
7. Iowa – SS El Faro (Caribbean Sea, October 1, 2015)
H: 5 L: 9. LW: 8
It’s very rare for U.S.-flagged cargo vessels to sink, particularly in waters relatively close to the United States itself, but the El Faro is the exception that proves the rule. The ship carried cargo between ports in Florida (chiefly Jacksonville) and Puerto Rico. The El Faro was well past its prime, and was considered by many of its crew to be barely seaworthy at the best of times. Late September 2015 was not the best of times, as Hurricane Joaquin was bearing down on the Caribbean. Bridge voice recorder data recovered months later seems to show the ship’s captain dismissing his crew’s concerns about conditions. Relying upon outdated and highly inaccurate weather reports, the captain steered his ship directly into the heart of Hurricane Joaquin, while believing himself to be well clear of the danger zone. The ship began taking on water on the night of September 30/October 1, causing a list which resulted in the ship’s engines having to be shut down. Shortly after dawn on October 1st, the El Faro went to the bottom, taking her entire crew with her.
Much like the El Faro’s captain, Captain Kirk continues to sail an unwavering course, paying no heed to storm fronts, external critics, or an offensive approach that Woody Hayes would label stodgy and uncreative. He continues to act as if proper handling and determination can overcome any storm, even those created by his idiot son.
And in the Big Ten West, he might even be right about that.
The El Faro docked in Jacksonville just prior to setting out on its final voyage. The phrase “on an even keel” does NOT come to mind.
8. Purdue – SS Mary Celeste (Atlantic Ocean, near the Azores, December 4, 1872)
H: 5 L: 11 LW: 12
The story of the Mary Celeste is one of the great unsolved mysteries of maritime history. A wooden brigantine, she sailed from New York City in early November, 1872, carrying a cargo of booze destined for the port of Genoa, in Italy. On December 4, another ship found the Mary Celeste sailing an erratic course some distance from the Portuguese coast. When the Mary Celeste was boarded, she was found to be completely intact, with no sign of any issue that might have prompted her crew to abandon ship. But abandoned she was, and the fate of her crew remains unknown even today.
Much like those who located the Mary Celeste, Purdue fans are coping with the disappearance of their entire coaching staff, after Jeff Brohm & Co. upped stakes for Louisville in the offseason. But, much like the Mary Celeste, which, after her discovery, was put back into service in the Indian Ocean, the Purdue program stands ready, needing only fuel for her Boilers and a firm new set of hands upon the wheel.
Now you see me, now you don’t see….my crew.
9. Minnesota – SS Minnow (some uncharted isle, September 26, 1964)
H: 7 L: 11 LW: 13
The outcome of the Minnow’s ordeal is a lot less grim than most of the entries on this list. Nevertheless, it produced significant inconvenience for the seven unfortunates aboard. Departing for what was supposed to be a mere three-hour tour, the Minnow encountered a violent and unexpected storm. If not for the efforts of its fearless crew, it surely would have been lost. In a stroke of good fortune, however, the Minnow eventually washed up on some uncharted isle, allowing its beleaguered passengers and crew to escape, making landfall with enough luggage and possessions to inspire many, many questions about how this “three-hour tour” had been marketed.
Hijinks ensued. At one point they even involved the Harlem Globetrotters.
Much like the Skipper, P.J. Fleck does his best to ensure his own team’s weekly tours of the football field do not eclipse the three-hour mark. He goes about his business with an eagerness and vigor matched only by Gilligan, the Minnow’s redoubtable first mate. And, much like Gilligan’s many enthusiastic, if not exactly well-considered schemes, Minnesota’s results on the football field seem to constantly fall just a bit short of expectations.
404 Error – Search for “Tina Louise Coconut Bikini” – Results not found
10. Michigan State – The Battle of Abydos (The Hellespont, November, 411 B.C.)
H: 6 L: 13 LW: 9
During the Peloponnesian Wars of the 5th Century B.C., Spartan armies held a decided advantage on land. However, their Athenian enemies were able to counterbalance this (for a time, at least) by utilizing their superior fleet. In 411 B.C., an Athenian fleet commanded by Alcibiades clashed with a Spartan fleet under the leadership of Mindarus. Despite being outnumbered, the Athenians carried the day, routing the Spartan fleet and inflicting significant losses.
The Battle of Abydos ended up with a whole lot of Spartans at the bottom of the sea. Michigan State fans, admittedly, were feeling quite seasick even before embarking upon their 2023 campaign. For some, hopes may have been modestly buoyed by the team’s performance through the first two weeks. However, this was quickly offset by the recent revelations of Mel Tucker’s conduct (one could say he had a hand in his own demise…). Tucker’s subsequent firing and the resulting uncertainty swirling around the program threaten to consign this season to a watery grave.
Holy shit, there actually is an image purporting to depict this battle!? You can find anything on the Internet!
11. Northwestern – The Battle of the Bilge, aka “Dumbkirk” (Lake Travis, Texas, September 6, 2020)
Last Place Votes: 2 H: 9 L: 14 LW: 11
As the 2020 Presidential campaign entered its final stages, hundreds of Donald Trump’s supporters decided to stage a public show of support in the form of a massive boat parade on Texas’s Lake Travis. However, much like the behavior of their beloved candidate, this operation was undertaken with a good deal more flair and pomposity than common sense. Vessels being driven at excessive rates of speed produced huge wakes, which resulted in several of the Armada’s vessels being sent to the bottom, though thankfully with no deaths or serious injuries. No enemy casualties were reported, unless you count muscle strain sustained as a result of laughing at this incident.
Northwestern fans might bristle at being compared to something so crass. But deep down, we know that they all aspire to someday recline on the rear deck of a well-appointed yacht, as their butlers steer them wherever they wish to go (or just sit at the dock, because do you have any idea how much fuel costs these days!?). And, much like the casualties of the Battle of the Bilge, Northwestern’s football program finds itself in the midst of a disaster entirely of its own making.
When metaphors go to sea.
12. Illinois – The Pequod (Pacific Ocean, precise location unknown, October 18, 1851)
H: 7 L: 13 LW: 7
Living aboard a 19th Century whaler took the phrase “deadliest catch” to a whole other level. Under the leadership of its obsessed Captain Ahab, the Pequod embarked upon a far-ranging search for the elusive white whale, a beast feared for the trail of dead men and crippled ships it left in its wake. Finding the object of his quest, Ahab threw his men and his vessel into a frantic pursuit of vengeance, one that saw Captain Ahab, the Pequod, and almost her entire crew destroyed in the climactic battle with the whale.
Look. There’s fourteen teams in the conference, and it’s hard to come up with good analogies for each and every one. But in the final year of the Big Ten West, Bret Bielema and his Illini have embarked upon one last, desperate pursuit of the ever-elusive division title.
And, while we’re on the subject, Bert himself does bear more than a passing resemblance to a great, white whale.
Call me Ishmael.
13. Nebraska – The M/V Sewol (near Byeongpungdo, South Korea, April 16, 2014)
H: 9 L: 13 LW: 10
Content Warning: Don’t read this part if you have a weak stomach, or if you wish to retain any faith in humanity.
The sinking of the M/V Sewol is, in my view, the most horrific of any of the entries on this list, not because of its death toll (although it was significant), but rather because of how every single aspect of the story is tarnished with corruption, scandal, and dishonor. The Sewol was a passenger ferry that sank while en route from Incheon to Jeju, both of them lying along the western coast of South Korea. The company that operated the Sewol had taken advantage of South Korean maritime safety law enforcement standards that were somewhere between “extraordinarily lax” and “completely nonexistent” to make a series of modifications to the ship that dramatically elevated its center of gravity, which made the vessel extremely susceptible to capsizing even in calm sea conditions—which is exactly what happened on the morning of April 16, 2014.
The vessel, at first, lay on its side, partially submerged, with most of the passengers probably still alive. And this is where the real horror started. Almost the entirety of the ship’s crew, including its captain and most of the senior officers, abandoned their posts and fled the ship, after having instructed passengers to remain in their cabins. Even though South Korean Coast Guard vessels and helicopters arrived on-scene shortly after the initial incident, rescue operations proceeded at a glacially slow pace, resulting in many of the passengers drowning when the ship rolled over and sank several hours later. The handling of the survivors and their families at the hands of the South Korean government was so callous that the resulting scandal led to the impeachment of the country’s president. The owner of the company that operated the Sewol (who also appears to have been something akin to the leader of a religious cult) went on the lam to avoid arrest, with his body being found some months later, the victim of an apparent suicide. Of the roughly 300 people who died in the sinking, more than 250 were students from a single South Korean high school.
Everything about this story is a complete fucking tragedy. The more you examine it, and the deeper you investigate, the worse you’re going to feel.
Which pretty much sums up Nebraska football for the last several years.
The M/V Sewol after it initially capsized, but before its sinking.
14. Indiana – Ever Given (Suez Canal, March 23-March 29, 2021)
LPV: 12 H: 13 L: 14 LW: 14
In recent decades, the world’s seas have seen growing numbers of truly massive container ships, and the Ever Given’s dimensions are truly jaw-dropping: A total length of well over 1,300 feet, it weighs in excess of 200,000 gross tons. Of course, no ship would be on this list if it hadn’t experienced some sort of misfortune. In March of 2021, the Ever Given famously suffered a steering failure while transiting the Suez Canal. The massive ship wound up wedged across the canal’s entire width, constipating global maritime trade in a manner not unlike the impact of Tom Allen’s buyout upon the Indiana athletic department’s financial flexibility.
In comparison to many of the other incidents on this list, though, the outcome was not especially bad (at least not in terms of human life, the economic impact of closing one of the world’s most important shipping lanes for six days scarcely bears thinking about). None of the ship’s crew were killed or seriously injured in the incident. In that sense, as disasters go, this one wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.
And for the first couple of weeks of the season, given the unexpectedly plucky nature of the Hoosier “D,” it looked like “not nearly as bad as it could’ve been” would be an apt descriptor for Indiana’s season. Unfortunately, the team’s offensive deficiencies have proven to be so severe that even the most optimistic of Indiana fans are now ringing warning bells (and tossing Walt Bell overboard), as their season appears to have well and truly run aground.
Your global supply chain management class didn’t envision anything like this.
What should the Good Ship OTE name its new yacht we bought with all the money we make keeping this site up and running?
This poll is closed
Bo Pelini’s Cat Hates Water
$20 Million Dollar Buyout
Now Sailing on Peacock
The Crab Bucket
13 Points Per Game