Sports Executive and Author


Bay Blog: Big Ten Expansion


The Big Ten Conference seems poised to forever change the landscape of Division I athletics by expanding to as many as 14 to 16 schools.  For the moment, with the addition of Nebraska, it may be that the league will stop at 12, which will be enough to form two six-team divisions and allow a confernce championship football game. However, Notre Dame is still at large, and the Cornhaskers presence doesn't speak to the league's desire to expand its eastern television base. In fact, one could argue that Missouri, with the St. Louis market, would have been a stronger choice.  

But Omaha and Lincoln notwithstanding, the Big Ten's TV footprint already encompasses more television sets than any other conference, and if it added 2-4 more schools, it could darn near form its own version of the NCAA,

Whatever happens, however, the Big Ten has lagged far behind the rest of the country in expansion for nearly twenty years - and it has cost them. 

When Penn State was added as the league's 11th team in 1990 a 12th should have quickly followed, which would have given the conference a leg up on everyone.  But the Big Ten presidents and conference commissioner Jim Delaney arrogantly shoved the Nittany Lions down the throats of the conference athletics directors without the courtesy of even a civilized discussion.  I was the AD at Minnesota at the time, and the arbitrary action of the CEO's and the commish was unprofessional and insulting.

I personally felt betrayed, and I had a difficult time hiding my feelings from the media. I was careful not to be derogatory of the Council of Ten, Delaney or my president, Nils  Hasslemo. I had the greatest respect for Penn State and said that if the conference decided to expand, Penn State had the kind of profile the Big Ten should consider. But I also said that any plan to expand should take into account the viewpoints of athletes and coaches, and consider such fundamental issues as team travel. Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight was more blunt. He said that traveling to Penn State constituted a "camping trip," and I started getting hate mail from State College. 


I have always felt that the plan to expand was shepherded through the Council of Ten by Illinois chancellor, Stan Ikenberry, a former Penn State vice-president, and Big Ten Commissioner, Jim Delaney. The former commissioner of the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference, Delaney was smart, had a law degree and was very aggressive. He was exactly the kind of forward-thinking commissioner that college athletics needed.  But he was insensitive. He had been hired by the presidents and, unnecessarily, never let the athletics directors forget it. He often patronized the ADs and didn't have the respect for the profession of athletic administration that a commissioner should. I know that he was driven by a philosophy that too much analysis could mean paralysis - and he didn't want the expansion plan for the conference to get tied up in debates on campus or in a multitude of conference committees.

I knew what he meant. Faculties are famous for often doing nothing but arguing. It's part of being a faculty member, and the commissioner did the right thing in pushing the agenda to get action. He was on the right track, and, in retrospect, initially had the Big Ten out in front of everyone. But the substance of what he had helped engineer was negated for a time by his lack of style.


In June of 1990 Penn State was approved, barely, because more presidents than not, did not want to embarrass Penn State or themselves.  But the price for peace would end up stifling conference growth indefinitely.  In order to quiet the criticism of their arbitrary actions, the presidents agreed to put a moratorium on any further expansion without serious and comprehensive consultation on every campus. After the circus everyone had been through there was little enthusiasm for further exploration of adding a twelfth school.


In the meantime, however, in three other major conferences where expansion had been better planned and more thoroughly considered, things began to happen.  Over the next six years, while the Big Ten appeared stuck in the aftermath of its premature action with regard to Penn State, the Southeastern Conference, the Big Twelve and the Atlantic Coast all grew to twelve schools, divided into two six-team divisions and established conference championship games that would bring them more revenue, more television exposure and a much better chance of having two teams in the Bowl Championship format to determine the BCS champion.  

Still, the Big Ten has finally added a twelfth school, even if it has taken them twenty years  to figure out how to do it.




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