The Big Four is Dead

By Patrick Vint on June 15, 2018 at 9:28 am
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Gary Barta killed the tradition of Iowa Big Four basketball Thursday.  In a press release hilariously titled "Increase in B1G Required Games Impacts Future Hy-Vee Classic," Iowa announced it would no longer participate in the Big Four Classic in Des Moines after the 2019 season:

"In our last agreement we added language that provided each institution an opportunity to opt out of the remainder of the contract if they reached 22 required games by the conference," said Gary Barta, University of Iowa Henry B. and Patricia B. Tippie Director of Athletics chair. "The addition of two conference games is good for our fans, the Big Ten Conference and our strength of schedule, but unfortunately it created some scheduling challenges that impacts this event."

This comes one day after Iowa announced it is scheduling Bryant for 2018-19.  Not Kris Bryant.  Not Bryant "Big Country" Reeves.  Just Bryant.

The announcement virtually assures that 2019-20 will be the first season where Iowa does not face either Drake or Northern Iowa on the basketball court since 1984-85, and the first season in which neither Iowa nor Iowa State faces one of its mid-major brethren since at least 1979-80.

Five years, one month and four days earlier, Barta was singing a far different tune.  The Big Ten had announced a nine-game conference schedule and the elimination of FCS opponents from future scheduling.  That meant that Iowa would no longer be able to schedule Northern Iowa in football, and Gary was having none of it.  He went on ESPN to make his case for keeping UNI on the schedule:

Barta pointed out that UNI is a power in Sagarin Ratings, a computer measure of national rankings.

"With those future schedules, taking a look the possibility of an exception [for UNI] because they are an in-state school and because they've perennially been in the top 10 in the country at that level," Barta said.

Are FCS schools just easy wins for FBS schools? What's the benefit, Saunders asked.

"I don't look at it as an FCS school, I look at it as what does our overall non-conference schedule look like?" Barta said. "Northern Iowa has historically -- I used to work there many, many years ago -- they've beaten many Big Ten programs and other programs, as has North Dakota State.

"We look at it as what's the best schedule, what's best for the fans, what's going to be best for preparing us for the Big Ten schedule?"

The whole thing was a poorly-constructed lie.  At the time, Northern Iowa had beaten exactly one Big Ten program: Iowa, in 1898, when it was the "State Normal School."  And his advocacy for UNI had nothing to do with "what's best for the fans" or what is best for preparing Iowa for Big Ten play.  It had everything to do with scheduling math.  Iowa wants seven home games in a twelve-game football season.  With five Big Ten games and Iowa State locked in, Barta's allotment of five road games is used up before he's made a phone call.  So either Iowa concedes that it doesn't need seven home games in a given year in order to get home-and-home series with Power Five opponents or it pays gargantuan money to a mid-major opponent.  UNI football doesn't get Iowa ready for Big Ten play.  It takes its pre-scheduled whoopin' for a lower price than a MAC school.

The great irony, as we pointed out at the time, is that those arguments actually applied to UNI basketball, which had been taken off of Iowa's schedule in favor of the Big Four Classic because Barta wanted "greater scheduling flexibility" after the Big Ten had expanded to 18 conference games.

So yes, Barta's interview was a big smelly pile of crap on its face. But it is even dumber in the context of the legitimate rivalry between Iowa and UNI: Men's basketball. When Iowa lost 80-60 at UNI in 2011 before a raucous crowd, it marked the sixth time in eleven seasons that the Hawkeyes had been defeated by the Panthers. Six of those games had been decided by 10 points or less. Northern Iowa basketball, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, had been to the NCAA Tournament five times since 2004 and famously defeated No. 1 seed Kansas en route to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010. A win over UNI in most seasons is a feather in Iowa's RPI cap on par with Iowa State or the middle tier of the Big Ten. And while fans of both teams fully expect an Iowa win in football and adjust accordingly, the Iowa-UNI basketball game brought out the best in fans; games in Cedar Falls were occasionally brutal. The arguments made by Barta Thursday in favor of the football series continuing actually apply to the basketball series.

So what did Barta do when the conference expanded its schedule from 16 to 18 games and Iowa's contract with UNI came to an end? He pulled the plug in favor of "greater schedule flexibility" that came in the form of the Big Four Classic and cupcake home games against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and South Carolina State. There were too many conference games and an Iowa State commitment, and more in-state games against challenging opponents were not required. His arguments for UNI applied, but the financial windfall of a cut of Big Four proceeds and an additional home game won out over his impeccable logic.

On Thursday, Barta reprised his old argument again, this time to put a dagger through the entire enterprise.  Turns out that there wasn't that much financial upside in a cut of the Big Four proceeds. 

The Big Four Classic will not be lamented.  The event had long since lost its novelty, falling under sellout levels last year and bleeding the four-way deathmatch atmospherics that marked the first couple of editions.  Tickets were wildly overpriced, on the theory that a ticket bought access to two games (and school payouts had to be made to four programs), when the vast majority of fans only wanted to see one.  It was a bad television event, as half the seats would sit empty during each game.  If Big Four basketball was going to continue in that format, it might be best that it was put to sleep.

The original sin in this story isn't the termination of the Big Four Classic.  The original sin is its creation.  The home-and-home series with Drake and UNI were terminated after Fran McCaffery was humiliated, expelled and taunted on his way out the door of UNI's McLeod Center in 2011.  I mean, they called a cop to escort him out.

But the mere fact that Iowa went to Cedar Falls and had its head coach escorted out of the arena by a cop proves the point: These were some of the best basketball games on the Iowa calendar.  These were not cupcakes, and even when they were, they were played in an atmosphere that conveyed significance.  Does Gary Barta expect that level of competition when he uses his newfound scheduling flexibility to give us Missouri-Kansas City again?  Does he expect that level of fan engagement for South Carolina Upstate?  Does he expect to reap the political goodwill from the state writ large, and his bosses in the legislature, when Iowa is pummeling Bryant?

Iowa's tradition of Big Four basketball isn't as old as time -- it's as old as most of our readers, but not as old as the administration -- and it's not entirely unique.  Indiana, Notre Dame, Purdue and Butler get together in Indianapolis every year for the Crossroads Classic, though those four teams are now all part of more established leagues than the Missouri Valley.  Five Philadelphia universities famously play the "Big Five" round robin for the city championship every year.  But Big Four hoops made Iowa somewhat unique, and provided a level playing field for the erstwhile overmatched programs from the state's mid-majors.  It was good for the state, and Iowa athletics is quick to say we are in favor of sports events dating to the 1970s that cripple our "scheduling flexibility" but are "good for the state," except when we aren't.

The Big Four died Thursday, and a bit of the quirkiness of college basketball in the state of Iowa died with it.  We can only hope that, at some point, sanity reigns and it rises again.  Until then, the only Bulldogs and Panthers you'll see are from Bryant and High Point.

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