Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany pulled a financial coup by snagging Maryland and Rutgers as the league’s 13th and 14th members.
They’re not home run additions, which is how Delany referenced the tape-measure calculation when the league added Nebraska in 2010. But the new schools could amount to a bases-loaded walk, scoring plenty of runs to the bank during the next round of Big Ten media negotiations.
The positives are immeasurable. Adding Maryland and Rutgers provides the league with an instant foothold into the Baltimore and Washington D.C. markets. It solidifies Philadelphia as true Big Ten country. It also gives Rutgers relevance in New York City. Nobody cared in New York or even New Brunswick cared when Rutgers played South Florida or Cincinnati. But when Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State comes to town, it’s now an event.
Big Ten coaches can mine those areas for top student-athletes with assurances that they will return to play in front of friends and family. Athletes that previously would have left Maryland, New Jersey or New York might stay home now that there’s a larger platform and more exposure of their talents.
Delany said adding Maryland and Rutgers is with an eye toward the future. Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez and Ohio State’s Gene Smith reiterated the same points. But the negatives of addition also could subtract from what has made the Big Ten so special in the last century.
Traditional rivalries are the bedrock of any major college sports program. Most are built through decades of familiarity, purpose and, sometimes, contempt. The Big Ten has traveling trophies featuring bronze pigs, axes, buckets and spittoons, each embedded with their own back story and regional history. The only thing worse than losing a traveling trophy is not playing for it. Just ask Iowa and Wisconsin.
That’s why the league has a chance to build for the future and give a nod to its past in how it revamps its football divisions. Maryland President Wallace Loh, who served as Iowa’s provost only a few years ago, told Maryland’s Board of Regents that his school and Rutgers would join the Big Ten’s Leaders Division and Illinois would shift to the Legends Division. That’s a good start, but there needs to be one more move to make the move complete: flip-flop Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Both schools would be outliers in whatever non-geographic setup the Big Ten decides for its football programs. But putting Wisconsin with Ohio State, Penn State, Indiana, Purdue, Maryland and Rutgers severs any regional ties in Badger football history. While Wisconsin still would play Minnesota annually as part of a cross-divisional game, it forever loses its rivalry with Iowa. Any non-protected crossover games are played twice over a 12-year period in an eight-game schedule. Iowa-Wisconsin would have the same meaning as Iowa-Missouri from now to eternity despite their 42-42-2 series record.
Wisconsin would skip Northwestern, its closest opponent in proximity. The Badgers also wouldn’t play either Michigan school with any frequency. For those of you who have seen any Wisconsin-Michigan State games the last three years, you know that’s a shame.
Nebraska was and still is welcomed to Big Ten country with open arms. But Nebraska doesn’t have the regional familiarity with the Big Ten’s western schools like Wisconsin. Although the Cornhuskers’ historical football prowess dwarfs Wisconsin’s modest past, the Badgers won 11 more games than Nebraska from 2002-2011.
At this juncture, football programs at Wisconsin and Nebraska are considered similar in today’s world. Smith told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he wants to explore a modest change to the divisional makeup because of Penn State’s likely decline. Four games of Maryland, Rutgers, Purdue and Indiana every year could make the Buckeyes perennial champions without the right contender. While Wisconsin and Nebraska are both equally competitive, Nebraska brings a bit more cache at the national level. Perception is the key to keeping the divisions relevant and cable systems buying the BTN.
The Big Ten then could offer Nebraska a chance to play Iowa every year as protected rivals. Big Red could take over Indiana and Purdue the way it once turned Lawrence and Manhattan into Lincoln logs. Nebraska could really open a recruiting pipeline from New Jersey and Maryland to the plains and offer a counterweight to Ohio State until Penn State gets back on its feet.
Ohio State vs. Nebraska every year. That could become a less bitter version of Nebraska vs. Texas in the old Big 12. They’ve already had two high-profile battles, but now their games cycle out for at least the next year. In a Legends vs. Leaders non-protected world, that could span a player’s full scholarship.
Is it an ideal situation for either Wisconsin or Nebraska to skip playing its neighbors every year? No. But flipping Nebraska and Wisconsin is the best alignment the Big Ten could manage under the circumstances … or at least until the next expansion. As Delany told me and other reporters this summer, “The larger you are, the less you play each other. The less you play each other, the less tradition you have.”
Delany and the Big Ten brass need to keep that statement in mind before cutting ties with the past during their January realignment meetings. All the money in the world can’t buy the feeling of rushing across the field to grab a traveling trophy.
MY PROPOSED DIVISIONS
LEGENDS — Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa
LEADERS — Nebraska, Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Maryland, Rutgers
PROTECTED CROSSOVERS — Michigan-Ohio State, Iowa-Nebraska, Wisconsin-Penn State, Northwestern-Purdue, Illinois-Indiana, Minnesota-Maryland, Michigan State-Rutgers