(NOTE: This is the ninth chapter in a multi-part series on how the Big Ten Conference divided into two football divisions)
CHICAGO — The Big Ten wrapped up its football realignment process on Friday, Aug. 13, 2010 over a conference call.
The league’s 12 athletic directors and Big Ten officials organized the divisions that day in “heavy dark pencil,” according to Mark Rudner, the league’s senior associate commissioner for television administration. The athletic directors agreed to meet 10 days later in Chicago to put the divisions in ink.
There were other tasks to complete beyond ratifying divisions. The league had to shredded its 2011 football slate to accommodate Nebraska. Scheduling games then became the focal point and that issue was an emotional mine field.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany wanted the league’s athletic directors to consider the final two weeks for division-only games to build into the championship game. But that would force Michigan-Ohio State from its traditional season-ending spot.
“One idea was to take the rivalry games and to take the trophy games and play them in the first seven weeks of the season. In particular I think we had the Ohio State and Penn State game, if we were trying to do it that way, around Nov. 12,” Delany said. ” Then we were going to play the last two weeks of the season in a purely divisional context,”
Those ideas had traction. Playing division-only games the final two weeks — such as Michigan-Michigan State — would keep the schedule clear of a week-to-week rematches. But a massive — and negative — fan reaction to moving the Michigan-Ohio State game, forced the league to backtrack. That irritated other athletic directors.
“The bigger issue, I think, that hasn’t been discussed a whole lot that was on our table for many years is you’re also protecting (Ohio State-Michigan) as your last game,” retired Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther said. “Every time you tweak a schedule to put certain games, you are then attacking a little of the fairness of the schedule.”
The Ohio State-Michigan outcry was too loud to ignore. The league shifted from a division-only ending to a powerful season finale featuring the strongest six programs playing one another. The trophy games were placed throughout the season rather than concentrated earlier in October and early November.
There were other provincial thoughts by the administrators. Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke wanted to ensure his student-athletes that they would play at least once at every Big Ten campus. Wisconsin Athletic Director took one more run at preserving Iowa-Wisconsin as a second protected rivalry. That idea was explored, but rejected.
“I think we talked about a second protected rivalry at one point, but the map just doesn’t really work with everybody else,” said Michael McComiskey, the Big Ten’s assistant commissioner for technology. “If they’re protecting the game there, it just throws off the future rotation for the other schools. It’s very complicated to keep everyone on a similar rotation. You might have a school not facing another school for eight years or something like that because you have somebody with a dual rotation.”
Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne had his concerns as well. Along with entering a new league and playing unfamiliar teams, Osborne was concerned with how the schedule would impact the Cornhuskers on the field.
“Commissioner Delany said there are four schools that we think belong in a certain echelon — Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and there’s Nebraska,” Osborne said. “So these schools are going to play each other a lot. Of course, we’re interested in competitive balance, but we didn’t necessarily want to play Ohio State any more than we played Indiana or anybody else.”
Alvarez lost his request for annual games with Iowa and a division with Nebraska. He did ask for — and received — the Big Ten’s blessing to host Nebraska in the season opener. With two upper-echelon powers in Wisconsin and Penn State marked on the schedule, Osborne recoiled when the league unveiled Ohio State as Nebraska’s other non-divisional opponent.
“We felt that given the divisions as they were — we probably drew as tough a schedule as we possibly could,” Osborne said. “We had the options of playing Purdue, Indiana, Illinois or Ohio State and Wisconsin. We drew Ohio State and Wisconsin. Looking at past performance over last two, three four years, you’d have to say that’s as tough a draw you could make. Of course you never know, because sometimes a team hasn’t had success lately all the sudden jumps up and wins 11 or 12 games.”
Delany answered diplomatically when asked if the league dealt Nebraska a tough hand as a Big Ten initiation.
“I think it’s a very challenging schedule but they wanted to be in the league in 2011, and we did back flips to make it happen,” Delany said. “I think we have 13 games of the 48 where a team will either host in 2011 or be at in 2011, the same place where they were in 2010. This was not an easy logistical task. We welcome them in, there’s no message other than, we want you in and these are going to be some fantastic games for Big Ten fans and Nebraska fans, and I can’t wait for them to play out.”
Once the division-ending schedule was scrapped, the league focused on building solid television inventory. Trophy and rivalry games were positioned almost weekly, as were high-profile games. It was a challenge for Rudner to complete, approve and announce the schedule to coincide with the public launch.
“We were humping on that schedule,” Rudner said. “There are great games each week of the season, and we knew by adding Nebraska that would be the case. Just look at our schedule: you start out with Wisconsin-Nebraska, Ohio State-Nebraska, you have Michigan State-Michigan. Nebraska closes with Penn State, Michigan and Iowa. Coaches might disagree, but our athletic directors felt like having challenging games at the end of the schedule was good to have. Big-game, challenging games at the end of the schedule was something good. It drives positive awareness, brand awareness for the Big Ten. Our fans want it. It’s live theater. It’s great drama. You look at the schedule it’s amazing. We had a short period of time to do that.”
There were casualties in the process. Many of the non-divisional games were selected at random. Several series — Ohio State-Northwestern, Minnesota-Indiana — we’re off for four consecutive seasons. Iowa and Illinois, which straddle the Mississippi River for around 220 miles, won’t play for at least six years.
“I think every school could come back and say they had two or three rivalries that had to make sure they were played,” Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips said. “Not all of them were met. Some of them were. I think we did the very best that we could.”
COMING THURSDAY: Chapter 10: What’s in a Name? In the series conclusion, what does the future hold for the divisions and how did the league select Legends and Leaders for division names, anyway?