Thursday, August 22, 2013

Next for Big Ten Football--The Big Twenty?

“How many teams are in the Big Ten now,” she asked?

I had to think a minute before answering: “Fourteen.”

That bit of numerical craziness somehow seems fitting. The relative sanity that once prevailed in college football is vanishing rapidly as the almighty dollar lures institution officials to forsake the last remnants of tradition and stop pretending they are sponsoring amateur teams primarily to benefit students.

But then, Big Ten conference membership often has been a bit bizarre. After starting with seven schools in 1896, the conference quickly grew to include ten midwestern universities and gain the name that became official years later. However, Michigan was kicked out in 1907 for violating rules. So the Big Ten had only nine functioning members until the Wolverines returned from exile in 1917.

The University of Chicago, a powerhouse throughout the early days of college football, was a charter member of the conference. But the Maroons’ gridiron program fell on hard times in the 1930s, and the school dropped football in 1939.

Robert Hutchings, the Chicago president, said years later in an interview for Sports Illustrated, “The university believed that it should devote itself to education, research and scholarship.” What a novel thought! An educational institution should focus on academics.

The Big Ten numbered nine for the next ten years. Several attempts to add Notre Dame failed, although the school was a national football power whose South Bend, Indiana, location was smack in the midsection of the Midwest. Rumors had it that the Irish wanted in, but several rival schools kept them out. Instead, Big Ten schools voted to actually become ten again in 1949 by adding Michigan State to their ranks.

Perhaps in a “tit for tat” action, the Notre Dame trustees said no in 1999 when Big Ten officials tried to negotiate a deal to add the Irish to the lineup.

The tensome held for a long time, but ultimately the administrators just couldn’t resist making sense into nonsense. In 1993 they added Penn State to the conference. That not only again disrupted the namesake math, but it stretched the definition of “Midwest” beyond reason. In a feeble bow to tradition, conference commanders voted to keep the Big Ten name, but alter the logo to include a semi-hidden “11” in their emblem.  The “little 11” logo lasted only until 2011, when Nebraska became the 12th Big Ten member.

Ten that is eleven didn't last. Would The Big Something be appropriate? 
Conference officials didn’t bother to stick a little “12” into the logo. They knew bigger things lay ahead. Sure enough, next year the University of Maryland and Rutgers University will field Big Ten teams for the first time. Maryland’s location is self-evident, and the last time I looked Rutgers was in New Jersey, a midwestern state if there ever was one. But regional identity no longer is considered a virtue by the “Big Something.”

University of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez recently said, “We’ve come up with a thinking that we want to be national, we want to have to play at least two bowl games in Florida, we want to play in Texas, we want to play in the desert (Arizona) and we want to play in California. Also New York—so we can spread our brand nationally.”

Sounds more like a corporate marketing exec than an educational institution official, doesn’t he? Alvarez is not alone.

Michigan State AD Mark Hollis said, “This (adding Maryland and Rutgers) creates new opportunities to be where our alums and donors are.” His comments came in a discussion about entering more television markets. The Big Ten now has its own network. After the 2012 season, the conference paid each school $25.7 million  as its share of television loot, most of it earned by selling ads through its own network.

The expansion frenzy is far from over. In public statements, Michigan AD Dave Brandon has strongly hinted at more growth. That probably will mean going to 16 teams in two eight-team divisions. It’s looking more like a professional league alignment all the time.

Sorry sports fans. I can still work up a little rah-rah spirit at the prospect of a traditional Wisconsin-Minnesota game or a Michigan-Ohio State contest, but Rutgers vs. Nebraska leaves me cold. Count me out. I’ll concentrate on backing the Green Bay Packers. At least they don’t deny being professionals who want to rake in more dollars by promoting their “brand.” 


PiedType said...

I certainly share your sense of loss as our old conferences and their traditions and rivalries disappear. I grew up in Oklahoma, where one eats, sleeps, and breathes OU football, and the Big Eight. I've lost track of which of those teams have gone where in recent years, and I no longer care. If they didn't care, why should I? said...

Dick, I am so ignorant about football, I have nothing to say. Dianne

Barb said...

oh the one hand I agree, traditinal rivalries are nice. On the other hand? What was happening was that a few big conferences got all the money and everyone got left out of money and championship games and lots else. Certainly the mountain west has suffered greatly. That said, I'll be rooting for Michigan State.

Tom Sightings said...

Why can't they just change the name? After all the PAC-10 became the PAC-12 without California falling off the edge of the continent. How about the Big Easy, since it's so easy to get in? Regardless, I'm afraid I agree with Robert Hutchings -- that universities should exist for education not touchdowns.