The Big Ten commissioner has gone mad with power, and because of that the conference is about to get watered down significantly in a vain attempt to lure more eyes.
Since this whole conference expansion thing was originally Jim Delany's doing, its damn well appropriate that he is about to execute its swan song: a foolish, misguided attempt to better an athletic conference by considering everything but athletics.
A couple years ago when Delany first started looking to push the Big Ten to 12, there was solid reasoning. His conference was a team away from being able to create divisions, and thus a lucrative conference championship game. Not only has history shown that those conference championship games bring in a good deal of profit, but playing in the first week of December is a much better way to keep the conference's premiere teams at the forefront of the national discussion and better set them up for bowl placements. It was a savvy move: add a team to the Big Ten, add a big game at the end of the season, and steal back some of the press from other conferences.
Consider the fact that at the time college football had been largely stagnant on the major conference level since the backbone of the Big East's power structure (and BC) bolted to the ACC to make it the football super conference it never ended up becoming. There were teams to consider. The Big East was just waiting to implode as it struggled to hang on to relevancy; the Big XII was at that point made up of Texas, Oklahoma, and teams pissed off at Texas and Oklahoma; and to top it all off, the Big Ten had the first and most lucrative TV network as a big ol' carrot to hang out in front of anyone that wasn't sure a move would be a good idea.
The options weren't endless -- teams like Texas and Notre Dame weren't interested in splitting their revenue pie with 12 other schools -- but they were good enough that when people floated names like Rutgers and UConn we all laughed at how damn stupid that would be.
Even Missouri, a fine school with a solid athletic department and close to the Big Ten footprint, didn't make the cut. For good reason too. Jim Delany found a school that almost perfectly embodied the Big Ten. Nebraska was a rich football powerhouse with a strong television draw, a similar culture, and was still tangentially part of the Big Ten's existing footprint.
It was a great move that provided everyone involved with something. Big Ten teams got a new opponent that was equal parts exciting and relevant, Big Ten athletic directors got the added revenue that adding a storied program like Nebraska is capable of infusing, and Jim Delany got his conference championship game, conference stability as that became a very prized asset, and the upper hand on everyone else by virtue of making the first move.
Fast forward to now and the tables have almost certainly turned.
The first rumors of Big Ten expansion were announced on Saturday. I was hungover and spent most of the afternoon dozing in and out of an uncomfortable sleep. I didn't even think to investigate these strange mentions of Maryland, Rutgers, and the Big Ten that kept popping up on twitter for at least an hour because it all seemed so crazy. Maryland and Rutgers? Why?
But these rumors kept persisting and pretty soon it became clear that it wasn't a horrific prank. This could actually happen, and it looks like it will.
So goes one of the strangest, most ill-conceived moves in all of this ridiculous conference realignment mess. The Big Ten might actually take on these two schools. One of which has been largely irrelevant on a national scale for well over the past century. The other has an athletic department currently in the midst of a financial crisis that has stripped the school of varsity sports it can't even afford to field anymore.
And to what end? What does adding Maryland and Rutgers possibly present in terms of advantages?
Jim Delany has gone mad with power. He has thrown aside a stable, well rounded conference for the sake of chasing down the mythical dream of the New York TV market. He is Lope de Aguirre, and the promise of New York is his El Dorado
Don't get me wrong, adding New York to the footprint of the Big Ten would be an incredible boon to the conference as a whole. That is, if it were really possible. The city of New York, and much of the east coast, is a professional sports mecca where college sports -- not to mention college sports firmly rooted in the Midwest -- are at best a tertiary option. The Big Ten already has New York as much as any college football conference can. It has alumni all across the city, who have real roots in Big Ten sports and follow the conference genuinely.
But this is about bargaining power, about Delany being able to sell the Big Ten to cable companies and media conglomerates. This move ultimately might sweeten the pot a bit when the next round of TV negotiations come to pass in a few years.
That is all well and good when one overlooks the costs.
- Maryland's athletic department is a mess. It is hemorrhaging money and programs in an effort to get back into the black. Rutgers is unabashedly losing money hand over fist in an effort to keep its sports teams afloat.
- Maryland's last football conference championship came in 2001, and since then the program has been on a steady decline. Before that the Terps hadn't been worth a damn in football since the mid 80s.
- Rutgers has been pretty terrible at college football since creating it back in 1869. Between 1900 and 2011, Rutgers had all of four coaches with career records better than .600. The most recent last coached there in 1983.
- Maryland faces a buyout of 50 million dollars to leave the ACC. Raise your hand if you think Maryland has any chance in hell of paying that off itself given its current financial state.
- Even if all of this works out and the addition of Maryland and Rutgers don't water down the conference's already questionable level of competitiveness and national relevancy, and those two schools end up giving the Big Ten a boost in its TV earning potential, that is just two more mouths to feed when it comes to splitting up the pie. And this time there is no guaranteed infusion of money by adding a lucrative conference championship game.
- And let's say this move does net a better profit for Big Ten schools. Does anyone really expect either of these two potential additions to do anything but piss away even more money? At what point can we look at the problem as being systemic in both athletic departments? Does the Big Ten really need to add two bumbling athletic departments?
The worst part of it all, at least in my mind, is that the Big Ten is pretty much giving up on what makes it so great.
This hasn't been the best year for Big Ten football. Michigan embarrassed the conference on a national stage, Michigan State imploded, two of the biggest names in the conference are totally ineligible for anything of value after the regular season, and the bottom half of the conference looks as doormat-y as ever. Still, even when Michigan lines up to play a bad Iowa team or a bad Purdue team, it means something to fans of both schools. Despite Iowa being an abject failure this year, I still cared about Michigan winning that game because of the last three years of losses and the 2003 game which will forever haunt me. That isn't born overnight. It is the product of years and years of history. It is the kind of history that Big Ten fans speak so warmly of. The real tradition that matters.
Now, instead of getting yearly trips to Camp Randall and Happy Valley, Michigan could be even farther away from those classic Big Ten match ups. All so Jim Delany can add a few million to the next TV deal and pat himself on the back.
Go ahead, Jim. Take one last desperate grasp at conference expansion years after you decided to stand pat with what you had (and wisely I might add). Throw out considerations of culture, competitiveness, and financial stability so that you can add a flimsy bargaining chip for the next time you head into a conference room in Bristol, CT. Ignore the rich tradition which you speak about at every turn in favor of the same rash and pathetic moves that have been employed by conferences like Big East. Overreact because your white whale has been swallowed up by the ACC.
Do it because you know that in the end it won't matter, because the same loyalty that makes us curse this shortsighted move will keep us watching even after you water down the league to 14 or 16 teams.
But it won't stop us from asking: why do you have to ruin such a good thing?
Testudo Times, SBN's Maryland blog, talks about things from the Terps' side.
On the Banks, SBN's Rutgers blog does the same.