The Big Ten Needs to Contract

By Patrick Vint on September 18, 2018 at 10:00 am
Big Ten Heavyweights going toe to...well, heel.
© Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time, not that long ago when The Big Ten was actually a big ten.  From 1952 to 1992, the league was made up of core schools in a basic footprint.  Ohio State in the east, Iowa in the west, eight other schools in between.  And while it might not have been the most interesting football conference -- two schools in particular had a tendency to win all the time -- it certainly wasn't totally embarrassing (1970s Iowa and pretty-much-the-entire-timeframe Northwestern notwithstanding).

But Ohio State/Michigan/Hayden-era Iowa/occasionally interesting Mike White-era Illinois weren't enough for the league, especially once the NCAA stranglehold on televised football came to an end.  And so the conference added some star power: Joe Paterno's Penn State, which was the first post-ten Big Ten team in 1993.  The Nittany Lions spent the rest of the 90s running the show, going 70-16 overall and 41-15 in the conference.  And then Paterno finally slipped for a while on the field, and then Paterno's mistakes off the field ended his tenure.

Penn State was a decent fit.  It was in a state further east than any other Big Ten school, but the school was still largely Midwestern.  It's west of the Appalachians.  It has a dairy.  It's in the middle of nowhere, and it was a traditional football powerhouse that was still relevant at the time it was added.  Furthermore, Penn State didn't lose its recruiting territory when it came to the Big Ten; many of its players were drawn from within the Big Ten footprint or neighboring states, where Penn State Football was still Penn State Football.  If you take away the horrible crimes committed within its program and the stigma that came from those crimes, there would be little reason to dispute Penn State's inclusion in the conference.

But that's a big 'if'.

We were told that business mandated expansion to include Nebraska in 2011.  The Big Ten Network, the biggest gamble ever taken by the league, was a gigantic success, a money tree that somehow didn't grow so large that it harmed the conference's top-tier broadcast rights. 

But the Big Ten Network/broadcast television revenue model bastardized the league's goals.  Now the league wanted big names -- and the big national broadcast dollars their games could command -- and cable-connected local television sets with cable companies willing to pay absurd carriage fees for BTN.

Jim Delany first used all of his television money to destabilize the Big 12, correctly sensing that the conference was quickly falling into a black hole centered in Austin and that its lack of history and geography made divisions natural and inevitable.  He waved a bunch of cash at Nebraska and promoted the Big Ten's all-for-one mentality, and suddenly Nebraska was a Big Ten team.

But the Nebraska that Delany landed was a decade removed from relevance.  They had jettisoned not just their coach and staff, but their entire philosophy, in 2004.  The result had been a disaster, at least compared to the previous decade's standard, and a second coaching change had peaked with the Cornhuskers as a solid also-ran in the Big 12.

Nebraska's move to the Big Ten didn't do anything to help bolster the Huskers.  Quite to the contrary, it added a modicum of academic standards missing in those mid-90s teams.  And to the extent that Nebraska had a post-Osborne recruiting philosophy -- Texas, California, Florida, sometimes all at once -- it certainly wasn't inside the Big Ten footprint.  Nebraska's previous mistakes had made it less relevant on the national stage; Nebraska's move to the Big Ten only accelerated the slide.

In 2014, Delany shocked the world by adding Maryland and Rutgers to the conference.  It was a blatant play for cable-connected televisions in Washington D.C. and New York City, and nothing more.  Maryland athletics was saddled with crippling debt that Big Ten lucre could fix; Rutgers was essentially a mid-major program.  Neither had a football program with any sort of history; Maryland had won a single ACC championship since 1985, and Rutgers had long since lost program savior Greg Schiano to the NFL, quickly falling back into the lower tiers of mediocrity.

All three of the most recent Big Ten expansion teams lost this weekend.  Nebraska, which is on its third coach and third athletic director since joining the league and constantly flailing at the next fad as a cure-all to the program's fundamental problems, lost to Troy at home in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated.  Those problems -- a total lack of recruiting base, flagging national relevance from its brand, and a fan base too impatient to accept lower expectations or wait for the program to recover organically -- remain, and have remained since they joined the Big Ten eight seasons ago.  The Huskers have played in one Big Ten title game, back in 2012, and gave up 70 to Wisconsin.  From 2013 through present, Nebraska is 22-20 in the conference, and has lost games to Northern Illinois, Colorado and Troy in the last two seasons.

Rutgers, which is on its second football coach and second athletic director in less than five years since joining the Big Ten, lost by 41 to Kansas.

Let's try that again.


Kansas is garbage

After posting a respectable 7-5 record in their first season in the Big Ten (albeit with a 3-5 in-conference record), Rutgers has failed to win more than four games in the last three seasons and looks dead-set on making it four in a row.  The Scarlet Knights are now 7-28 in Big Ten games, after getting obliterated by Ohio State in the season's second week.  Their previous coach was fired for trying to coerce better grades for his players from university professors, and the prior athletic director was fired for that and a couple of other scandals.  Rutgers hasn't really been competitive in any sport since joining the conference.

Maryland lost by 21 points to Temple, a team that had previously been defeated by Villanova and Buffalo.  The Terps are 10-24 in Big Ten games, and peaked with one seven-win season in their first campaign.  Maryland fired one coach in 2015 and might well fire another, mostly because the second coach was supposed to be in charge when a player died this summer.  But, hey, they have beaten Texas twice!

In fifteen combined seasons, the Jim Delany expansion teams have lost fewer than three conference games exactly once (the 2012 Nebraska season).  The Delany expansion teams have played in one Big Ten title game (again, the 2012 Nebraska season).  They have not played in a January bowl game since the 2013 season (Nebraska played Georgia in the Gator Bowl).  They are now a combined 3-5 on this season, with losses to Kansas, Troy, Temple and Colorado.  In other words, it's not likely that any of those streaks are getting broken in 2018.  Maryland is mired in scandal.  Rutgers is recently emerging from its own.

And even if the three programs weren't complete mediocrities on the football field, the rationale for their admission has been exposed as short-sighted.  Carriage fee models are being ripped apart by cord-cutting, and BTN's demands for basic cable space (and basic cable fees) are being challenged anew by cable providers who no longer want to pay premium fees for a niche network.  While BTN can transition to streaming -- it's already available through Hulu -- moving toward a post-cable model means throwing out the very business strategy that made the Big Ten the nation's most profitable conference just a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Nebraska's role as a western counterweight to the Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State/Michigan State eastern oligopoly has been ceded to Wisconsin.  The conference -- not its rivals, but the conference itself -- moved the Cornhuskers out of their traditional Black Friday national showcase so that the Big Ten's network partners could get the Badgers against Iowa.  And Nebraska's mediocrity has harmed competitive balance in the conference, to the point where an undefeated Big Ten West champion would possibly be left out of the playoff due to schedule weakness.

The Big Ten has not been a boon for the Delany expansion teams, either.  Sure, the finances have been fine.  Maryland is working its way out of debt, and Rutgers and Nebraska have enough money to fire coaches and athletic directors as often as they like.  But Nebraska's football recruiting has failed to find its footing in the Big Ten; removed from its already-tenuous connection to Texas, the Cornhuskers have focused on Ohio, then Florida, then California, and now Florida again.  Maryland and Rutgers remain eastern outliers in a Midwestern conference, interlopers that are here as part of a cynical business arrangement, and generally uncompetitive in the only sport providing that money so desperately needed.

So let's get divorced.

Nebraska would still be a prime property for the Big 12, especially now that the conference's finances have stabilized and Texas's control of everything has been moderated by the Longhorn Network's limited success.  The Cornhuskers would have access to Texas recruits again, the games against Oklahoma their fans so desperately want, and improvement in the sports (baseball in particular) where they used to excel and have now collapsed.

Like Nebraska, Maryland could likely return to the ACC as part of the sixteen-team league that they have repeatedly suggested as their endgame.  The Big Ten can buy out the Terps with enough money to pay off that pesky debt and operate in the black going forward, in exchange for the privilege of never having the Big Ten basketball tournament set foot in Washington D.C. again.

Rutgers would be hurt, not only because they got such a gargantuan upgrade from the AAC when they were picked, but because they don't really have a landing area.  Perhaps the Big 12 would take them as a partner to West Virginia, or the ACC as the sixteenth team (although, frankly, UConn makes more sense for a conference that already has Syracuse and Boston College).  Maybe Rutgers just accepts its fate and stops playing sports altogether.  They never should have been B1G to begin with, and I don't much care what happens to them going forward.

And as for the Big Ten, the conference finally has a chance to do what it really wants to do: A ten-game round robin in football that guarantees schedule dominance and playoff participation for its champion.  Revenues will remain at a level high enough to run eleven of the biggest, most lucrative sports programs in the nation.  Broadcast rights, now free of expansion dead weight and loaded with 10 weeks of conference games to televise, including more consistent run-ins between the conference's best programs, could well increase in value.  BTN would be less tied to carriage fees and more able to transition into a streaming service.  And, more than anything else, nobody would be tasked with explaining how Iowa and Rutgers are now supposed to be hated rivals.

Sometimes, it's best to admit the truth: That a mistake has been made, that a relationship is over.  For the value of the brand and the health of its decades-long membership, that time is now.  Contract the Big Ten.

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