(NOTE: This is the 10th and final chapter in a multi-part series on how the Big Ten Conference divided into two football divisions)
CHICAGO — Three months after its football divisions were unveiled, the Big Ten had yet to roll out a new logo and its division names.
The division christening process was challenging at best and difficult at worst for the Big Ten staff. By eschewing geography, the league went outside the easier naming path for divisions but it still took at least one month longer than Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany expected.
Through the fall of 2010, the divisions had working titles of X and O. Ideas circulated through both traditional and new media and poured into the Big Ten office via email and letters. Chicago Tribune college sports columnist Teddy Greenstein vouched for Stars and Stripes. Others touted topographical choices like Lakes and Plains. Some suggested the league name the divisions for legendary coaches Woody Hayes of Ohio State and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler.
Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez wasn’t keen on naming divisions after people.
“Quite frankly I didn’t want the divisions named after a coach from another school,” Alvarez said. “That’s the only thing I was against. I felt that was an advantage for someone.”
Big Ten officials solicited ideas from the public, fans, media and alums.
“We sort of ruled out anything directional,” said Diane Dietz, the Big Ten’s chief communications officer. “We ruled out everything that was somebody’s name because if you picked two, you’re leaving out 10. We ruled out colors. Some people had some clever ideas like Black and Blue, it being the big, bruising Midwest football. But black is an Iowa color and a Purdue color, and blue is a Michigan and a Penn State color.
“By the time we were done, we were really down to two categories: one that sort of described our geography, Midwestern roots and one that described our characteristics and mission.”
The divisional names that centered on the Big Ten’s mission included Scholar/Athlete, Academics/Athletics and Legends/Leaders. The 115-year-old conference has a storied history of on-field success with 18 Heisman Trophy winners and more than 50 College Hall of Fame players. It also boasts former President Gerald Ford as an alum as well as thousands of political, business and civic leaders.
That’s why, on Dec. 13, the league chose Legends and Leaders as its division names.
“The mission for the conference was always to excel athletically without compromising the emphasis that our schools put on academics,” Dietz said. “For 115 years we’ve been balancing these academic and athletic standards and so with Legends and Leaders, we really believed that Legends was a nod to our past.
”The Leaders Division was a nod to our future, a belief within the conference and our member schools that intercollegiate athletic sports, that experience helps to develop characteristics that Big Ten student-athletes need to become leaders. Frankly for us, it was for the rest of their lives — at home, in their jobs, in their communities. It was really an emphasis on, not we are leaders — which some people think it sounds a little bit arrogant — it was about, ‘We’re here to build leaders.’”
Dietz, Delany and other Big Ten officials braced for negative feedback, which came in droves. The league office chose not to alert the school administrators of the names before the announcement. Dietz admits that might have been a mistake.
“In retrospect, I think it would have been OK if that leaked out or if we talked to people very openly about what we had, which direction we were going,” Dietz said.
“Frankly I think no matter what we picked at that point, people weren’t going to do cartwheels. Although I have to say when we put the press release out and when Jim Delany had the opportunity to talk about why we picked them, we did get a lot of support.”
The names are in place for a year and then subject to re-evaluation, Dietz said.
“We’re going to test market them for a year, just like we do for all of our brand components,” Dietz said. “Every single branding thing that we do we test very routinely. Our spots, our previously logos, our marketing campaigns, we test them all the time when we do research. We’ll do research on these, and we’ll see where we are at the end of the year.”
The reception was tepid among Big Ten administrators. In this series, most administrators gave neutral responses when asked about the division names.
“I think we all live in a world that’s not absolutely perfect,” Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke said. “This is where we start. Put the names on them, and run it out for a while.
“We’ve flip-flopped on stuff before. Now, we’re not going to flip-flop before we even try it. And you’re going to have to let us stay in place for a while to see what happens.”
Burke’s comments on the division names reflect a prevailing attitude among his fellow athletic directors that the Big Ten realignment process — and branding — was as thorough as possible. The divisions are competitively equal, most of the true rivalry games remain in place and there will be a championship game.
But what if competitive balance strays from the current norm? Over the last 10 years, three of the league’s four winningest programs hail from the west — Ohio State (106 wins) Wisconsin (88), Iowa (85) and Nebraska (84) — which is different from the data used from 1993 onward. Would the league revamp the divisions in eight, 10 years if there’s a competitive schism? That’s where the athletic directors and league officials differ.
“I don’t think there’s any question that if things don’t work out, if there happens to be competitive inequities, my guess is someday that would be looked at,” Minnesota Athletic Director Joel Maturi said. “I think that’s the great thing about the Big Ten. They’re going to give it some time to see what it happens and who knows about the future? I don’t think we’re going to go back, but if you’re talking about the super conferences and things, who knows what 10 years will bring?”
“I don’t think anything’s forever. Can it be re-addressed? Absolutely,” Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis said. “If we ever get to that point, so many things happen in a 10-year window. We may expand again, we may contract. You just don’t know what’s going to happen with leagues.”
“I don’t think anything is etched in stone,” Alvarez said.
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta considers the divisional alignment “long-term” but wouldn’t rule out any future changes.
“After several years something becomes apparent that it’s a pattern and not just coincidental, the leadership of the conference — whether it’s a combination of the commissioner, the ADs and the presidents — would be willing to take a look at it,” he said.
Mark Rudner, the league’s senior associate commissioner for television administration, said this divisional makeup is permanent.
“I think this something we’ve done for the long term,” Rudner said. “These divisions are in place. We’re not talking about when things change. Teams have ebbs and flows, ups and downs. You can’t react to an ebb or a flow with such changes.”