(NOTE: This is the first chapter in a multi-part series on how the Big Ten Conference divided into two football divisions)
CHICAGO — The Big 12 split North-South. The Southeastern Conference divided East-West. The Atlantic Coast Conference gerrymandered its divisions into a maze few people today outside of Tobacco Road can name with authority.
At a defining moment in the history of the nation’s oldest athletics conference, Big Ten Conference officials and the schools’ athletics directors last summer had options for slicing its 12-team football league into two parts.
Most college athletics conferences divided based on geography, and that legacy nationwide remains ambiguous. It works in the SEC where five different schools almost evenly distributed in the two divisions have won BCS football titles since 1998. It failed in the Big 12, where the southern schools — specifically Texas — commanded more power than its northern counterparts.
“We actually had models of other conferences we didn’t feel had done as good of job, and we were able to see the consequences there were as a result of that,” Michigan Athletics Director David Brandon said.
Big Ten officials studied how other leagues divided themselves and saw how geography often deterred competitive balance. It also spurred discontent among membership. Carving the league in half at the Illinois-Indiana border was the simple solution with six teams in the Eastern time zone, six teams in the Central time zone.
Instead, officials met five different days for meetings, conference calls and Power Point presentations. Some of college athletics’ most powerful administrators debated over divisional rivalries, competitive equity, trophy games and geography. In the end, Big Ten football was redefined into Legends and Leaders.
“From my perspective, you identify the right principles, you do the right research, you do your due diligence and you do it respectively and you bring people to the point of that kind of agreement, then I’ve done my job,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said.
Expansion rhetoric consumed college athletics in spring 2010. The Big Ten sent the Division I world ablaze in December 2009 when it announced it would consider expansion and begin an annual league football title game.
But other conferences were just as focused. In early June 2010, the Pac-10 Conference made overtures to Texas and five other Big 12 schools to become a 16-team league. Chaos ensued.
“I think the commissioner and our league were talking to a number of different schools,” Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez said. “I don’t think any of us knew exactly how many there were, how many we were going to end up with. I think there were a lot of schools looking around — Texas threatening to go west — and a lot of schools looking at different options. I don’t think any of us knew exactly what direction we were going to go.”
When the conference roulette wheel stopped, the Pac-10 plucked only Colorado from the Big 12, and Nebraska left for the Big Ten as its 12th member. The Big Ten — at that time — had no appetite for further expansion.
“Once we settled that we were going to 12, then we sat down and talked about going to divisions and playing a championship game,” Alvarez said.
But the Big Ten’s work began much earlier. Weeks before Nebraska joined the league, league officials examined how the league might realign. The work was unrelated to Nebraska or the other schools under Big Ten consideration. In many ways, those discussions provided the blueprint for realignment.
“In our May joint group meetings that year, we had done some exercises talking about expansion,” said Michael McComiskey, the Big Ten’s associate commissioner for technology. “How might you go about that business. How you would form divisions and what was important to people, geography and other elements.”
“It was more conceptual,” Big Ten Senior Associate Commissioner Mark Rudner said. “It wasn’t talking about specific institutions or what we might do. I think we wanted to get a sense, if we do this, what’s most important?”
Throughout the summer, speculation swirled about the divisional layout. Would the conference divide based on simple East-West geography? Would the latitudinal league that stretches from the Rocky Mountain foothills to the Eastern Seaboard try to revamp into an awkward North-South alignment? Would it cherry-pick a school, like Penn State, and kick it west?
Early on, league officials discussed geography as an option. It didn’t go very far.
“As I looked across the country and everybody that’s went into some kind of divisional play, they tried to come up with some kind of geographic configuration,” Illinois Athletics Director Ron Guenther said. “East-West, North-South. We just couldn’t make it work. We looked at four-team divisions; that was pretty unique.”
“I originally envisioned sort of an East-West conference, something like that,” Nebraska Athletics Director Tom Osborne said. “But they decided that geography would not be an overriding principle. If it had been, I’m sure we probably would have had Wisconsin instead of Penn State and something like that.”
Much of the league’s tradition and success reside in the east. Ohio State and Michigan were the league’s most successful programs over the Big Ten century. Penn State has won two national titles over the last 30 years. All three rank at the top among Big Ten schools in attendance, television ratings and revenue.
An East-West divide would tilt the league competitively toward the that trio. That’s something all wanted to avoid.
“If you’re in the stronger conference, stronger division, you’re going to be thinking I get screwed out of my chance of playing in the conference championship game,” Purdue Athletics Director Morgan Burke said. “My every-year games are tougher than the other guys’ (games). That would have been a horrible thing, just for the sake of geography.”
The geographical discussion fizzled before it really began. When the league’s athletics directors first met Aug. 1, they reached an easy agreement: geography ranked as the third tenet in realignment, not first.
“From the beginning we let competitive equality be our guide,” Rudner said. “We wanted to arrange the divisions in a way — both internally and across — to make as many rivalry games and trophy games happen as possible.
“We had the meeting and our athletics directors were unanimous; it’s competitive equality. Let’s create divisions using data that gets us to a point where we look at Division A or Division B and they’re really interchangeable.”
Thus began the most challenging and most important discussion regarding realignment: how to balance the divisions.
COMING WEDNESDAY: Chapter 2: Balance of Power. The painstaking process of dividing 12 schools based on competitive equality with special attention paid to rivalries and geography.