In a move that could make dollars, but not necessarily (football) sense, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has his league in advanced talks to make a bold change, one that should cement his legacy in the history of college athletics, one way or the other.
The Big Ten, in a move that would stun the industry, could again expand its ranks, this time pushing to the East Coast by adding Rutgers and the University of Maryland. The move is not official, but both schools are in advanced talks with the conference, sources told Yahoo! Sports. An announcement could come early next week.
If the moves are completed, the league will have 14 members and leave college athletics, which appeared to be done with the chaotic conference realignment carrousel, once again scrambling, with teams from New England to the Rocky Mountains potentially impacted.
The talks come despite repeated Big Ten statements that it was content with its current 12-member configuration. For Delany, who at 64 is nearing retirement, it is his biggest gamble yet in running a conservative, often staid, band of mostly Midwestern land-grant behemoths. No matter how many members, the league will maintain its name.
Immediately, initially and perhaps for years to come, though, the conference's possible expansion will raise only questions.
Namely, why in the world would the Big Ten, which is already struggling on a national level in its historic flagship sport of football, take on two programs known for decades of struggles?
And why would a conference known to so value its commonality and closeness decide to add universities with little to no shared cultural identities. It's a long, long way in every imaginable way from College Park, Md. to Lincoln, Neb.
There is no perfect answer but Rutgers and Maryland do bring TV sets for the Big Ten Network to be placed on basic cable tiers, and thus generate millions in additional revenue. The states should also provide fresh recruiting ground for current members to fan out and potentially improve their rosters.
It certainly isn't to immediately bolster football credibility.
Rutgers (9-1) has turned into a good Big East program, although it's still seeking its first league championship. Even Rutgers' most devoted backers, however, would acknowledge it has major strides to go before it can compete with Big Ten powers such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin. To start, it's a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten program, at best.
Maryland (4-7) is an also-ran in the weak ACC and would immediately become arguably the worst team in the Big Ten. And if not the worst, well, does anyone actually want to watch a Maryland-Minnesota game to find out otherwise?
Neither boasts the kind of huge, six-figure stadiums, decades of storied success or state-wide legion of devoted fans like other Big Ten programs, especially the league's last two expansion candidates, Penn State (1993) and Nebraska (2011). Maryland's campus is on the edge of Washington, D.C., a professional sports market. Rutgers is essentially in the New York market where pro sports also rule.
There is no doubt that each school could become a major passion in its state, although that would likely require winning – Maryland's hoops program for instance doesn't lack for fans. A Big Ten membership isn't likely to bring a lot of success, though.
Still, the money from potentially being able to jam the Big Ten Network into the home of every cable subscriber in each state (combined population: 14.6 million), is significant. It also allows the league to extend some reach into major Eastern media markets such as Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and even New York City. That said, the Big Ten added the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights, not the Giants, Jets, Eagles, Ravens and Redskins. College football just isn't that big of a deal.
Competitively, the eastward push could help the recruiting fortunes of the current Big Ten teams, who are suffering from the demographic challenge of the Midwest growing at a far slower rate than the Southeast and West Coast. Michigan, for instance, was the only state in the union to lose population from 2000-10.
While Nebraska brought a national brand name, great tradition and typical Big Ten pageantry, it didn't offer a vibrant region for high school talent or many TV viewers (population 1.7 million). Instead, the Cornhuskers are now working the same recruiting grounds of Ohio, Michigan and Chicago — land that the rest of the league was already picking through.
The Jersey/Mid-Atlantic area is a pretty good one. In the Class of 2013 there are two five-star and 17 four-star recruits according to Rivals.com in Maryland, New Jersey and D.C. Recruiting in Northern Virginia and New York City could also be aided.
For a league desperate for talent, it's something.
Of course, is that really enough? Big Ten teams (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska) already had verbal commitments from five of those 17 highly regarded recruits.
The league would also add a tremendous basketball program at Maryland, a growing one at Rutgers and recruiting access to what is arguably the most talent-rich corridor in the country from New York to D.C. But when did basketball matter on this scale? And since when did the Big Ten, which currently boasts five ranked teams, including three of the top five, need help in hoops?
And while there are also terrific academics and a major population of regular students who may be more inclined to head to the Midwest, this will be seen through a football prism.
In flat-out terms, the Big Ten would be weaker than it currently is. Potential growth is still all about potential. Much of which never is realized.
And sure, Big Ten Network money is nice, but at what is a lightly watched, if highly profitable, cable channel determining the direction of the Big Ten itself? This seems like the tail wagging the dog. It's not like Big Ten programs were hurting for revenue or resources. When is enough money enough? Does it really matter to students and fans if the athletic director's already opulent oversized office gets remodeled … again?
Is that worth not having Ohio State come to town very often?
That's the most troubling part because expansion of any kind almost automatically dilutes traditional rivalries as the new guys bump out an old opponent or two. While the big series such as Ohio State-Michigan will always be protected, there are plenty of alums who appreciate games against other Midwest schools, where neighbors, coworkers, spouses and siblings may have attended or grew up rooting for. It's called tradition. Iowa-Michigan State matters to some people.
There isn't a single Big Ten fan base that is excited by the prospect of these schools on their home schedule, especially at the expense of a bigger-name team. If you're playing Maryland that means you're not playing Michigan (or some other name program). At least Nebraska created some excitement.
This is a dramatic change in not just how the league will operate, but how it will feel. East Coast cities are East Coast cities, not the traditional rural roots of the Big Ten.
As for the two schools in question, this should be a no-brainer for Rutgers, which has been looking for a proper home for decades and has long coveted a shot at the mighty – and stable – Big Ten. The school will gladly cough up a $10 million exit fee to leave the Big East, which has cobbled together a football membership that extends all the way to San Diego and will offer a weakened basketball product in the years to come. The Rutgers athletic department was already operating at a $26 million-plus deficit; the long-term ability to maybe break even in the Big Ten is worth the initial loss.
At Maryland it's not as simple. The school owes the ACC $50 million for leaving the conference, an exit fee that was upped earlier this year when there was speculation that the Big 12 could come after Florida State and Clemson. Perhaps not coincidentally, Maryland and FSU were the only two schools to vote against raising the exit fee.
Moreover, while the Big Ten offers academic might, being aligned with Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, Boston College, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and so on also wasn't so bad. The ACC offered generations of rivalries, was rooted in basketball – the sport that matters most with alums – and provided tremendous exposure to potential students up and down the East Coast.
Northwestern at Michigan
Michigan entered its November 10 home game against Northwestern looking to stay tied with Nebraska for first place in the Big Ten's Legends Division. Down 31-28 with 18 seconds left, the Wolverines' chances didn't look so good.
Thankfully for Michigan, a wild play helped the Wolverines tie the game and eventually win in overtime.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner needed only one play to get his team in position for the tying field goal. From his own 38-yard line, he stepped up in the pocket to heave the ball to wide receiver Roy Roundtree, who had Wildcats defensive back Daniel Jones on his back and leaped to tap the ball up. As Roundtree fell to the ground, the ball landed in his arms for a 53-yard gain to the Northwestern 9.
The clutch catch set up a 26-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. MIchigan prevailed 38-31 on Gardner's 1-yard TD run.
– Mike Patton
In the end, though, the Big Ten brand might be too much to turn down. Even at $50 million, which will take years to recoup.
For the rest of college athletics, Maryland's and Rutgers' potential entrance into the Big Ten could trigger more moves in this never-ending headache.
The Big Ten's possible expansion caught the entire country off guard. Athletic directors in the ACC and Big East both claimed they had heard nothing about it as recently as Saturday afternoon. Now, they might need to pick up the pieces.
The ACC would now have 13 football members after Syracuse and Pitt arrive from the Big East in the fall of 2013, but 14 schools in other sports because of the inclusion of Notre Dame in everything but football. The Irish will play five ACC programs a year in football but will not be a full football member.
Sitting at 13 in football and 14 in everything else is a real possibility, according to ACC athletic directors who were trying to sort through Maryland's possible defection.
If the league were to attempt to replace Maryland, the most obvious and, perhaps only, expansion target would be the University of Connecticut. It is by far the most attractive candidate left on the East Coast. About the only other schools that could be on the radar are Central Florida and South Florida, and neither is realistic, according to at least one ACC source.
If the Huskies are it, then the Big East, which is already a mess of full members, football-only members and basketball-only members could find the need to expand itself. Or it could continue to sit tight. There's almost no way to know at this point.
BYU and Air Force both remain potential additions either for football only or even full membership. Army could be a possibility – Navy is already coming in 2015. A western school such as Nevada, UNLV or Fresno State could be a football-only candidate to balance things geographically.
Or maybe in an effort to replace UConn's presence in New England, the league goes after the University of Massachusetts or attempts to bolster its basketball by adding Xavier or Virginia Commonwealth or, well, at that point just about anyone and anything and anywhere is on the table.
This is the lunacy of conference realignment, one that college athletics hoped was over for the time being.
Then Jim Delany decided to enter discussions about one more – one last – power play and potentially gamble that a bunch of East Coast TV sets are worth the risk to everything Big Ten football once held dear.
At first glance, it could be one pretty price to pay.
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