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Profiles In Badassery: James H. Smart

Recently our beloved Big Ten welcomed its 12th member in the Nebraska. Technically, the Cornhuskers are the 13th member of the conference, as the University of Chicago is still affiliated academically despite leaving athletically in 1946. Last year I even talked about them re-starting their Division I athletic programs as a radical expansion idea, but it did not come to fruition.

While Purdue is not the major player in the conference we wish it was (we have the fewest National Championship and third fewest conference championships of active members) the other eleven schools owe us a major debt. The Big Ten would not exist if not for the Purdue badass that spearheaded the creation of it. the funny thing is, he did it on the side while growing Purdue into the nationally respected academic institution it is today.

James H. Smart, in addition to having a moustache that would make Danny Hope's and Joe Tiller's cower in fear, he was the President of Purdue University from 1883-1900. During that time he helped create the Big Ten (Then known as the Western Conference) as the first major collegiate conference in the nation.

Smart's Early Years

A man with a moustache of that caliber cannot simply be born. I am sure there was something of a herald announcing his arrival with a song or at the very least a parting of the clouds. He was born on June 30, 1841 in Center Harbor, New Hampshire. He was primarily homeschooled, but begane attending the high school in nearby Concord at age 12. In an age where even a high school education was rare he was first employed as a bookkeeper before becoming a temporary teacher in Concord at age 17. Education would dominate his life from that point forward, as demonstrated in his official Purdue biography:

In 1859 Smart began his teaching career at Sanborton, New Hampshire. In 1863 he moved to Toledo, Ohio to assume a principal position of an intermediate school. By age 25 Smart became superintendent of the public school system of Fort Wayne, Indiana. In that role he was also a member of the State Board of Education. On July 21, 1870, Smart married Mary H. Swan and went on to have a son, Professor R. A. Smart and a daughter, Mary Farrington Smart. That same year he was given an honorary degree of A.M. (Artium Magister) by Dartmouth College. In 1872 he was elected President of the State Teachers Associations and he also was appointed representative of the United States at the World's Exposition in Vienna. In 1874, Smart was elected as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, which he held for six years. Smart was again a representative of the United States at the World's Paris Exposition in 1878. In 1880, Smart was elected President of the National Educational Association. He was also a member of the National Superintendents' Association and a member of the National Council. In 1883 Indiana University presented him with the degree of LL.D (Legum Doctor).

I guess we can get along if one of our most famous Presidents had a degree from IU, but not Purdue. It was after he earned this degree that he became the fourth President of Purdue on August 23, 1883. During his tenure one of the first buildings for Mechanical Engineering was built, and the School of Pharmacy was established. Unfortunately, the new engineering building burned to the ground four days after it was built, but we were able to quickly rebuild it.

Creating the Big Ten

College athletics was in its infancy in the late 1800's, and it was rife with cheating (not much different than now). Instead of having boosters pay for improper benefits and student-athletes getting five credits for classes such as fitness walking the cheating was more out in the open. Especially in football, schools fielded teams with out and out ringers. Our own nickname of Boilermakers come from Wabash college accusing us of hiring local railroad workers as football team members.

Something needed to be done, and Smart was the man to do it. On January 11, 1895 he organized a gathering of the presidents of seven Midwestern universities (Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Chicago) with the purpose of cracking down on many of the improprieties happening in football at the time. It was a monumental step, as the idea of an organized conference of collegiate athletics was almost laughable. Even the closely associated Ivy League did not form a formal conference until 1954.

Smart had a vision though, and one that would be the early blueprint of the NCAA itself. From the Big Ten's official history:

At that meeting, a blueprint for the control and administration of college athletics under the direction of appointed faculty representatives was outlined. The presidents' first-known action "restricted eligibility for athletics to bonafide, full-time students who were not delinquent in their studies."

This helped limit some problems of the times, especially the participation of professional athletes and "non-students" in regular sporting events. That important legislation, along with other legislation that would follow in the coming years, served as the primary building block for amateur intercollegiate athletics.

On February 8, 1896, one faculty member from each of those seven universities met at the same Palmer House and officially established the mechanics of the "Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives" or "Western Conference."

We all know what followed. The Big Ten emerged as the premier conference in the country, and one that the mere hint of expansion over 100 years later changed the entire face of college athletics. With the power of the Big Ten Network behind it (something Smart never envisioned... or did he?) the mere discussion of adding one school caused every other major conference in the country to essentially panic.

Indiana and Iowa would become the eighth and ninth members in 1899, with Ohio State joining in 1912. Chicago left athletically in 1846, but Michigan State joined in 1950. Penn State came calling just over 40 years later, and Nebraska joined little more than a week ago.

Smart was the spearhead, however. He was the one that organized the first meetings that created what we have today. He had no idea about TV contracts, endorsement deals, luxury boxes, and other stuff like that. Indeed, when he was creating the Big Ten one of the biggest problems they faced was players getting killed on the field because of the lack of safety equipment. More importantly, he wanted to place an emphasis on academics first, something that the Big Ten still champions today. Being a member of the Big Ten is not only great athletically, but you have a collection of some of the finest public universities in the United States working together and sharing research. Big Ten alumni have walked on the moon, healed the sick, made amazing scientific discoveries, and have dominated the Arts.

Later Life

Soon after helping to found the conference Smart's health began to take a turn for the worse. Even a handsome Purdue ‘stache like his could not keep the inexorable march of time at bay. In 1896 his health began to fail, but he remained as President so he could continue fulfilling his educational mission for the school. He helped grow Purdue's student body from barely 100 to over 1,000 strong.

Smart passed away on February 21, 1900, with Winthrop E. Stone succeeding him as President. Stone would go on to serve as one of Purdue's greatest Presidents during an era of massive growth, but he learned most of his skills as a Vice President under Smart.

Smart's legacy still rings through even more than 110 years after his death. In A History of Purdue University the book talks about his glory years where he had the ambition to make Purdue one of the premier land-grant institutions in the country. Whereas previous President Emerson White believed in a Spartan life on campus filled with only the pursuit of academics, Smart believed that academics could be meshed with other coming of age activities. Smart used to spend 16 hours per day studying and teaching earlier in his career. He diligently learned as much as he could, and worked hard to give others the same chances. He worked to expand Purdue beyond being just an engineering school. He worked at stretching thin budgets so students and professors could do the most with what they had. He fought to keep state funding even though it was felt that only Tippecanoe County benefitted from the school.

Smart was the man that truly started Purdue's growth into one of the premier engineering schools in the world. Only a badass like him could create something as awesome as the Big Ten as a side hobby.