How the Big Ten got back to 10

This week’s blockbuster announcements that Maryland and Rutgers are joining the Big Ten and leaving the ACC and Big East, respectively, to fend for themselves, has reopened college athletic realignment machinations once again, and they figure to go on for a while.

Just weeks after Notre Dame announced it was leaving the Big East and joining the ACC in everything but football, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany conducted a rapid stealth campaign to get his league to 14 teams — just like the SEC — and, more importantly, move into major East Coast television markets.

This breathtaking action — coming on the heels of massive financial mismanagement within the athletics departments at both schools, and that Yahoo!’s Pat Forde rightly savaged Monday — is a stunner, even for sharp sports media types accustomed to the realignment carousel.

At ESPN.com, Dana O’Neill tore into the moves on Monday, fingering the men running the leagues for failing to be proper “caretakers” of college athletics:

“The NCAA will have you believe that runners and agents are the most insidious cancer in the game today, that the notion that athletes are on the take has disenchanted the fan base to the point of no return.

“The NCAA is wrong.

“The commissioners are the ones on the proverbial take and everyone knows it.”

What she said.

While that’s strong stuff, and the media furor figures to grow with a fresh new game of musical chairs afoot, these hardly stack up on the audacity meter with major conference moves of the past.

Including the Big Ten in a time long before lucrative television contracts and multi-million dollar coaching salaries.

Picture 1Earlier this year, East Lansing, Michigan native David Young published his book “Arrogance and Scheming in the Big Ten,” which recounts Michigan State’s battle to join the Big Ten in the years after World War II.

In 1946, the Big Ten was down to nine schools, with the departure of the University of Chicago, a charter member that produced the very first Heisman Trophy winner — Jay Berwanger in 1935 — but that wrestled mightily with the balance between academics and athletics.

Four years later, Chicago dropped football, and seven years after that, de-emphasized athletics altogether.

Among the candidates to become the new 10th team of the Big Ten — commonly known as the Western Conference — included Pittsburgh and Nebraska before Michigan State was added in 1950.

But as Young, a Notre Dame graduate and physician in Holland, Mich., unfurls the story, the Spartans’ in-state archrival did everything it could to prevent the move. Thus, his book subtitle: “Michigan State’s Quest for Membership and Michigan’s Powerful Opposition.”

It was an ugly battle, according to Young, as bitter and nasty as the present-day poaching of BCS schools. While the money stakes weren’t as high, intra-state animosity and institutional status was at the heart of this dispute.

Michigan State Agricultural College wanted to upgrade not only its competitive sports opportunities, but also sought Big Ten inclusion for greater academic prestige. As a land-grant university, it had much in common with Big Ten members Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin.

Ultimately, those affinities helped Michigan State overcome Michigan’s strident opposition. As Logan Young wrote at The Classical in an October review of Young’s book — just ahead of this season’s UM-MSU game — what we’re witnessing now shouldn’t be all that shocking:

“The misplaced priorities, epic arrogance and constant scheming on display in today‚Äôs Big Ten are more or less the same ones that were roiling, loudly, during its prehistory. How this makes you feel will depend a lot on how you feel about those particular priorities, but their evolution (or proud, high-handed and repeated refusal of it) makes for fascinating reading.”

Once Michigan State began competing athletically in 1953, the Big Ten was as stable as any conference in the land, remaining at 10 schools until the inclusion of Penn State in 1990.

That’s when the realignment ruptures that continue today were initially triggered. But the intervening 37 years of “peace” in the Big Ten wouldn’t have occurred without individuals like University of Minnesota president James Lewis Morrill acting beyond the immediate self-interest of his institution.

While it’s easy to bemoan the lack of those qualities today, the behavior that Michigan demonstrated more than 60 years ago has never been in short supply.

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 21, 2012 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    Dear Wendy:

    As I mention in my epilogue for Arrogance and Scheming in the Big Ten, intercollegiate athletics “is all about the money.” It was true back in 1920 and it is even more so today. Realignment clearly exemplifies this sad truth. With declining revenue streams, academic leaders are being forced to find alternative means to sustain their institutions. The Big Ten Network grew out of a strategic plan to grab more cash for eleven (soon to be twelve, and now fourteen) major universities. It remains to be seen whether that strategy will be successful.

    A major question argued between academicians and administrators back in the 1920s was whether entertaining the mass public was part of the mission for a center of higher education and research. That debate was resolved long ago with the advent of ABCs “Game of the Week.” The sale of tickets at massive stadia was no longer sufficient to sustain an athletic program or finance other non-athletic projects. University balance sheets would soon include television revenue. It was only a matter of time before the Big Ten, owner of a contract with ABC TV, realized the value of expanding market share eastward while taking on Penn State in 1989. Its contract was favorably renewed a few years later.

    But not every school can participate in conference realignment. Football programs are costly and most are losing ventures for an institution. Many colleges are now turning to basketball, a far more affordable option, to gain added revenue. Gonzaga, Butler, and George Mason are three programs exemplifying this phenomenon. March Madness has greatly benefited the bottom line at each school. Applications and enrollment are up–direly needed tuition dollars have followed. It’s not just about the money, it’s also about survivability in a very competitive market for students.

    In 1929, Howard Pritchett, president of the Carnegie Foundation, penned the prologue for Howard Savage’s classic survey American College Athletics. The academician noted that the obsession with winning at any cost on campuses about the country, pervasive even at that time, was challenging the integrity of institutions being asked to train future leaders in government, business, and society at large. Pritchett argued for a return to intramural and club sports. Sanity in athletics could only be obtained by de-emphasizing intercollegiate competition. (American College Athletics. Boston: D.B. Updike-The Merrymount Press,1929)

    Pritchett words were overlooked; the stock market crash consumed the headlines at same time the book was published. But 80-years later, his observations still remain pertinent. Conference realignment, yet another means to generate money for an institution, is further compromising the integrity of our educational system. It truly is all about the money.

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