After months of negotiations, discussions and public posturing, the highly publicized all-sports collaboration between the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences officially fell apart Friday.
The leagues announced in a joint statement that the scheduling pact, which was scheduled to begin in 2017, was suspended. It’s really not surprising, but it deals a blow to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.
“We are disappointed to announce today that the Big Ten Pac-12 strategic collaboration announced jointly in December 2011 unfortunately will not be consummated,” Delany said in a statement released Friday. “We recently learned from Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott that the complications associated with coordinating a non-conference football schedule for 24 teams across two conferences proved to be too difficult. Those complications, among other things, included the Pac-12’s nine-game conference schedule and previous non-conference commitments.”
Officials from both conferences were leery of the collaboration for several reasons. One official told me, “the first thing that came to my mind was cost,” when discussing the collaboration. The pact would send schools thousands of miles for every sport, not just football. Travel arrangements would prove difficult and costly. Iowa, for instance, played a 2010 regular-season football game in Tucson, Ariz. The game kicked off about 9:30 p.m on Iowa time, and the team charter didn’t return until nearly 8 a.m. the following morning.
Every other sport usually takes commercial flights to games, which could lead to more time on the road. Those sports also compete throughout the week, which could lead to more missed class time.
Football was the reason for the collaboration so that the leagues could enjoy “the benefits of expansion without expanding,” according to Delany in May. But with only four non-conference games and each school wanting to host seven games every fall, non-conference rivalries and potential high-profile match-ups were in jeopardy. Pac-12 football teams already play nine league games and some, like USC, face multiple high-caliber schools every year. Adding another major opponent to the annual schedule made the collaboration unworkable for many Pac-12 schools.
“After extensive deliberation and consultation with member institutions, television partners and others, the Pac-12 and Big Ten have decided not to pursue the previously announced plans for enhanced scheduling collaboration across all sports at this time,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said. “While we continue to value our close relationship, particularly our partnership in the Rose Bowl, the Pac-12 came to the conclusion that it’s in our best interests to maintain our nine-game conference schedule and maximum flexibility in out-of-conference scheduling. Thus, the Pac-12 decided not to lock into the proposed mandatory 12-game schedule in football.”
This is the second time the Big Ten’s post-expansion, football-scheduling plans were shelved in the last 11 months. Last August, the league planned to incorporate a nine-game league schedule beginning with the 2017 season. Most coaches were against it because it meant playing five league games on the road every-other year. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, for instance, said two weeks ago, “To me it ought to be balanced if conference play counts. I don’t think you’d want an uneven field that way.”
That plan was designed to allow the Big Ten’s non-divisional, non-permanent opponents to play six times over a 10-year period. Currently, non-divisional, non-permanent opponents will meet just four times over 10 years. The nine-game plan was dismissed in December after the collaboration was announced.
Delany, who strongly advocated for a nine-game league schedule, told reporters in May the league could revert to that plan if the collaboration failed.
“I think that if you could create a situation where you improve your schedules, you improve the fan experience, you improve the games that are going on in television without affecting the home-and-away segment inside your conference was the preferred method of proceeding,” Delany said. “If we hadn’t done the collaboration we’d do nine. If we do the collaboration we’ll do eight.”
To me, there are two ways for the Big Ten to proceed from this setback. One, set up an annual challenge with the Southeastern Conference. The regional rivalry has lasted about 170 years and even low-profile football clashes (Minnesota vs. Ole Miss, Indiana vs. Kentucky) would stoke unprecedented passions. However, this seems unlikely.
Two, go to a nine-game league schedule with each school landing a second permanent cross-divisional opponent. This would help re-establish a few rivalries discarded by divisional realignment and correct the imbalance in the league’s cross-divisional permanent rivalries.
The league used data from 1993-2009 in order to establish its football divisions based on competitive equality. But the cross-divisional opponents give some teams obvious advantages, which could translate into division titles. Michigan State’s permanent opponent is Indiana, which had the most losses over the 17-year period. Michigan’s permanent opponent is Ohio State, which had the most wins over the 17-year period. Wisconsin’s cross-divisional rival (Minnesota) hasn’t even tied for a Big Ten championship since 1967, while Penn State’s cross-divisional rival (Nebraska) has won three national titles since 1994.
Iowa faces six Big Ten schools every year: Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern in Legends play and Purdue as its permanent cross-divisional rival. If long-time rival Wisconsin was tabbed as Iowa’s second permanent cross-divisional rival, the Hawkeyes would play a traditional upper division foe (1 as listed below) and lower division foe (2) ever year. Then among Iowa’s four non-divisional, non-permanent opponents, the schedule should be grouped as Ohio State-Illinois for two years, then Penn State-Indiana for two years. That would achieve almost perfect balance between playing traditional and non-traditional powers annually.
Additionally, a second permanent rivalry restores Iowa-Wisconsin and Michigan State-Penn State on an annual basis. Both games were highly anticipated trophy games among the fan bases. Ohio State-Northwestern dates 99 years, and Michigan-Illinois has been played 93 times. Minnesota-Purdue and Nebraska-Indiana are no more silly than the current permanent rivalry between Iowa and Purdue.
The league has a chance to restore its rivalries and balance its schedule. Here’s how the Big Ten’s scheduling could look if the league implements a second permanent rivalry if it goes to nine annual games: