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Big Ten Expansion Eyeing Indiana Rivals?

November 12, 2011

Big Ten Expansion Eyeing Indiana Rivals?

June 9, 2010

Neil Netherton- Fast Touch Sports

NCAA football has looked more like a game of musical chairs than an athletic league over recent weeks.  Rumors have swirled that the Big Ten and Pac Ten conferences are looking to expand.  Ideas have ranged from simple shuffling of powerhouse schools all the way to adding new teams to the Division I level.  Even local schools Wabash College (Crawfordsville, IN) and Depauw University (Greencastle, IN) have been mentioned as potential Big Ten suitors in some scenarios.

The first volley in this exchange came weeks ago, as the Big Ten publicly announced interest in expansion.  Immediately, schools such as Texas, Notre Dame, Missouri, and Nebraska were tossed around as potential suitors.  Not to be outdone, the Pac Ten jumped into the fray by aggressively looking toward a sixteen-team mega-league, which would draw largely on Big Twelve schools from Texas and Oklahoma.

This pressure from the Pac Ten has the Big Ten scrambling to match the Pac Ten’s sixteen-team proposal.  Although the Big Ten could easily convince Big Twelve “leftovers” such as Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri to join its league, the key to matching the prestige of a sixteen-team Pac Ten is landing Notre Dame.  So far, Notre Dame looks like it’s happy to remain independent.  Head coach Brian Kelly recently commented, “There’s nothing better than being an independent football school.”  Indications from the athletic department point in the same direction, and Notre Dame’s exclusive TV contract with NBC runs through 2015, further complicating any potential switch.

Without Notre Dame, there are several scenarios the Big Ten could pursue to reach its goal of a sixteen-team league.  The most probable scenario involves plucking Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, and Kansas State from the Big Twelve, along with the Big East’s Pittsburgh, for a total of five new squads.  However, Kansas and Kansas State could be difficult to convince.  As Kansas State athletic director John Currie recently said, “With the recent emergence of powers from the Mountain West and WAC, along with their rapidly growing fan bases, we would carefully consider these and other options if the Big Twelve shrinks or disbands.”

If the Jayhawks and Wildcats decide to move their wagons west, two lucrative Big Ten spots are wide open.  Dozens of names have been thrown into the mix for these spots.  Among the most intriguing options are Wabash and Depauw.  As many fans know, these two storied schools are among the nation’s biggest football rivals, playing in each November’s Monon Bell Classic.  Although both school are tiny (combined enrollment of about 3,500 students) compared to Big Ten behemoths, the economics of inviting smaller schools to join the conference could work in their favor.  As Iowa athletic director Gary Barta explained, “The idea of a smaller school [joining the Big Ten] is not out-of-the-question.  The financials of this situation all hinge around television, so a smaller school with a smaller stadium could be appealing, as long as they bring eyeballs in big TV markets.”  Both schools have strong alumni bases in metro areas such as Chicago and Indianapolis, which could be appealing, especially considering the lackluster football histories of Northwester and Illinois (NCAA football programs with strong Chicago alumni ties).

More support for the small school option came from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney:  “Look at British soccer.  You’ve got Man U (Manchester United) playing in these tiny, 4,000 seat stadiums.  When they come to town, every pub is filled, and every TV is turned on. That balance of big-guy versus little-guy is great for soccer, so it could possibly work for us.”

Detractors of small school expansion point not only to the questionable economics of such a deal, but also to playing field inequity.  After all, how could a school with 1/20 the enrollment of an Ohio State or a Penn State compete?  This problem may not be as big of a roadblock as it seems.  In the 1970s, the SEC integrated Arkansas and South Carolina into its league when the schools had enrollments of just 3,000 and 2,700, respectively.  The SEC used a three-year “rolling” period during which the schools were able to recruit using Division I rules, but were not yet playing in the league.  A similar formula could bring Wabash and Depauw up to speed quickly, especially considering the high level of homegrown talent nearby.  As Illinois head coach Ron Zook said, “People talk about Florida, Texas, California as the big football states.  If you got every Ohio kid, every Chicago kid to stay in the Midwest and play ball, you could see the Big Ten as big, as fast, and as competitive as any conference in the country.”  Giving these Midwest players two more local, big-time options could be just the remedy for the recent outflow of Midwest talent to other regions.

Although the small school expansion scenario is unlikely, it has hopes flying high on smaller campuses around the Rust Belt and Grain Belt.  However, the reality is probably best summed up by Depauw president Brian Casey: “Depauw in the Big Ten?  I’m sure our alums would be thrilled to travel to the Horseshoe (Ohio State’s stadium), but hey, we’ve got to focus on our switch to the NCAC, so I’m trying to stay away from these rumors.”
Neil Netherton

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