IOWA CITY — Long-standing Big Ten football rivalries are at stake when league officials meet Aug. 2 in Chicago to discuss — and potentially decide — the league’s future divisional structure.
Nebraska joins the league in 2011 as its 12th member and it seems likely the league will divide into two, six-team football divisions. Commissioner Jim Delany told reporters in June that competitive balance, rivalries and geography — in order — are the principles he will apply when dividing the league.
The Big Ten’s competitive balance — based on historical prowess — likely would split traditional powers Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska equally into two divisions. Rivalries and geography then would play a primary role in reshaping the league.
“I think one thing that all of us have said consistently is we’ll all have to give a little bit to make this work,” Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi said. “The reality of it is there’s now 12 institutions in the Big Ten, and we want to look at competitive equity, we want to look at traditional rivalries, we want to look at geography. There’s some decisions to be made here, but we also want to do what’s best in the long-term interest of the Big Ten.”
What’s best for the league might leave tradition-rich rivalries vulnerable to progress. The Iowa-Wisconsin series ranks among the nation’s tightest, long-enduring rivalries with Iowa holding a 42-41-2 series lead all-time. It also slipped off the conference radar in the 1990s.
When Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, the league rotated Iowa-Wisconsin off the schedule for the first time since 1936. After heavy discussion, each school preserved two annual rivalry opponents on its schedule and agreed to play the other league schools six times over an eight-year period.
“We thought it was important to maintain two natural rivals on our schedule,” Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez said. “We protected Minnesota and Iowa, and Iowa protected us and Minnesota. Then right down the line we made sure those two were protected. They were never eliminated from the schedule. I hope we continue to do that.
“I think in sitting down and discussing our priorities and the things that were important as we move forward, maintaining rivalries was one of the important things. I would be surprised if we don’t do that. I’d like to think that we’d be able to preserve at least two.”
Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin have competed against one another 307 times. Minnesota and Wisconsin enjoy the oldest, most continuously played rivalry in Division I football with 119 meetings. Both Maturi and Alvarez recognize the rivalry’s roots as integral to college football. The schools play for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, perhaps the most recognizable traveling trophy in college sports.
“We’ve played each other more consecutively than any two college institutions in America,” Maturi said, “so I would hope that that continues.”
If Paul Bunyan’s Axe isn’t the most famous traveling trophy, perhaps Floyd of Rosedale is. Iowa and Minnesota have played for the 98-pound bronze pig every year since 1935. The schools have met 103 times and every year since 1930.
Nebraska’s arrival adds another element to the discussion. Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema — a former Iowa team captain — posted a Twitter update that he wants to conclude the regular season against Nebraska for an annual trophy. Nebraska-Penn State games have national appeal, and Iowa and Nebraska share a border with passionate fan bases.
“I’ve said many times in the past I think rivalries are an exciting part of college athletics,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta wrote in an e-mailed response. “We have an in-state rival in Iowa State, and we have long-time border state rivals with Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. There’s no doubt in my mind, that the tradition, geography, and strong fan base support of Nebraska will immediately add to our rivalry list. Again, I can’t yet speculate how that will translate in scheduling moving forward. I do think it will be exciting regardless of how it shakes out.”
Nebraska dealt with divisional realignment when its former conference, the Big Eight, joined four Southwest Conference schools to form the Big 12 in 1996. Two Big Eight schools — Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — merged with Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech to form the league’s South Division. Nebraska’s annual historic rivalry with Oklahoma was shelved, causing lingering bitterness.
“We haven’t even talked about how it’s being divided,” Alvarez said. “All of us have an idea, but the one thing our commissioner has talked about is being competitively balanced. I think if you take a look at the Big 12, I know (Nebraska Athletics Director and former football coach) Tom Osborne was adamant about not making it a North-South division. It would sway things in favor of Texas in recruiting and everything else. I think Tom would tell you that’s exactly what’s happened.
“I don’t think (the Big Ten divide) would be a straight-up split. I’d be shocked if it was a geographical split.”
There are plenty of other questions related to realignment, such as future scheduling, the location and date for a likely championship game and the potential for adding a ninth league game. Right now, the 2011 schedule is “void” Alvarez said.
“There’s a lot of things,” Maturi said. “Are those two permanent divisions? Are they divisions that are evaluated every five, 10 years and then you switch? I don’t know, there’s a lot of things that have to have to be finalized, and I’m sure will be.
“My guess in the end it will be a consensus. I don’t know what the process is; that’s up to Commissioner (Jim) Delany obviously. My guess is there will be some recommended conference alignments. I don’t think we’ll come out and say ‘This is it, let’s vote on it.’ My guess is it may be A, B, C and D.”
Maturi and Alvarez said they hope to continue their annual rivalries with Iowa, but there are no guarantees.
“I know Minnesota’s rivalries and challenges,” Maturi said. “Whether it can work, whether we all get ours the way we want it remains to be seen. I do know all of us would like us to continue our rivalry games. Whether that’s going to be able to be done remains to be seen.”