Column: Big Ten is Ruining a Perfect Setup with New Additions

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

There's no doubt that the Big Ten's expansion into College Park, Maryland, and New Brunswick, New Jersey, is a brilliant move. For Penn State that is — not the Big Ten.

Quite frankly, I'm not sure why the Big Ten is making this move. The Big Ten had the perfect setup. It remained a Midwestern conference at heart, giving it a clear identity. Nearly every match was meaningful, well engrained in history and importance. It's the type of conference where you know and keep up with your rivals. The type of conference where even as a Northwestern graduate, I wanted to know what happened between Minnesota and Iowa. The type of conference where I would frequently spend a night by the television watching a contest between Wisconsin and Ohio State, not because I cared about either team, but because I cared about the Big Ten, loved the Big Ten and embraced the Big Ten as if it were my own. I just can't see myself caring about a Maryland-Iowa game in that way. It will still feel like a non-conference game to me.

Because you see the Big Ten isn't my own. I wasn't born into the Big Ten. I was raised in New York City, in a region where professional sports have long dominated the landscape. We'll get back to that later. I occasionally tuned into a Coulmbia Lions football game, a Syracuse basketball game or a St. John's basketball game. Heck, there was a time when I was quite invested in the St. John's-Miami rivalry in the Big East. It was the closest thing I knew to a great college sports rivalry, until I arrived in Big Ten country, that is. What made me fall in love with the Big Ten was the passion it arouses in each of its communities, the centrality it holds in Iowa City, Madison and Minneapolis, the way people can recite former Golden Gophers the same way they can recite the alphabet. Of course, that's true of any sports team. That's the magic of sports. What makes the Big Ten even greater is the way fans can look decades and decades into the past and recall past matchups between Iowa and Northwestern (hello, Corey Wootton and Ricky Stanzi) or Michigan and Ohio State (Woody and Bo live forever). Nebraska fit beautifully into that tradition, since the Cornhuskers have been playing the Hawkeyes since the beginning of time. Omaha first welcomed the Hawkeyes in 1891. Iowa City entered the equation in 1903. Lincoln, soon after, in 1904. The way Big Ten fans know their league as well as their team is unparalleled.

I feel like the Big Ten is comparable to a school like North Carolina, where approximately 90 percent of the students hail from the Tar Heel State. Most of the Big Ten's followers, adherents and admirers hail from within. They grow up around the game. Any kid growing up in Iowa knows that the Hawkeyes are good, the Cornhuskers are bad and the Wildcats are sneaky, little pests who ruin perfectly good seasons in Iowa City. The rivalries, the hatred and the excitement come with a Midwestern rearing. It's quite simply part of one's Big Ten-soaked DNA. The regional nature of it is part and parcel of the magic. In Chicago, clusters of Big Ten alumnus meet, gather and debate. Cubicles throughout the Windy City light up with talk of Ohio State going undefeated, Minnesota reaching respectability, Kirk Ferentz nearing the chopping block and Northwestern at long last making the NCAA Tournament. As an adopted son of the Big Ten, I revere its tradition, its regional flavor and its passion, the likes of which I had never seen before. And I'm left to wonder why the Big Ten needs to dilute its magic with two new members that don't fit into the tradition and history of the Big Ten.

In adding Penn State, the Big Ten gained access to 100,000 screaming football fans and the legend of Joe Paterno, before his reputation took a nose dive. They got a fine academic school and a tremendous boost in several non-revenue sports. In women's basketball, women's soccer and volleyball, the Nittany Lions have long reigned supreme in the conference and have built the Big Ten's profile nationally. They draw more fans to their women's basketball games (13,849 fans came to their home finale last year), kind of like Purdue, than the Wildcats do to many of their men's non-conference games. They don't quite fit into the conference's Midwestern profile, but they don't entirely fall outside of it either. And anyone who has ever gotten to visit Happy Valley is happy that the Nittany Lions are in the Big Ten. In adding Nebraska, the Big Ten obviously gained access to a rich tradition in football. They gained access to a team with a legend in its past in Tom Osborne, a passionate fan base with 85,000-plus per game and a rich future in Ameer Abdullah.

With Maryland, I first of all feel bad for the Terrapins' fans and then for the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Maryland was an integral part of the ACC, providing that much-needed second tier to help challenge Duke and North Carolina for conference supremacy in basketball. North Carolina-Maryland and Duke-Maryland were games that I always had on upset alert and always enjoyed watching as a kid. Gone are those days. While Maryland certainly adds a competitive face to Big Ten basketball, and it will be intriguing to see how they fare, just as it was intriguing to see how Nebraska football fared in the Big Ten, the Terrapins will likely be another non-entity in the football world, joining the likes of Purdue and Minnesota. And their fans are lackadaisical at best, averaging just 42,000 per football game, and that's a very generous estimate at that. As it relates to recruiting, I really don't see how this helps. Chesapeake kids will still look south. New York City kids will still look toward the Big East. After all, they've never dreamed of playing in the Kohl Center. Only Madison Square Garden and the Carrier Dome.

With Rutgers, any thought that the Scarlet Knights will be the portal by which the Big Ten reaches New York City is absurd. John Shurna and Steve Novak playing with the Knicks probably did as much for the Big Ten in New York City as incorporating Rutgers will. There's no doubt that the Big Ten will now get play on New York's myriad of sports television and radio programs - behind the Knicks, Mets, Yankees. Jets, Rangers, Nets, Giants, Red Storm and Orange. All you need to do is take a look at the New York Post's website, which probably captures the city's pulse as well as anyone. They've got tabs for everyone from the Islanders to the Giants. There's no such tab for Rutgers. And news of Rutgers' potential inclusion in the Big Ten was far, far down in the paper's long, long list of headlines. In Iowa City, any rumors of a conference switch would be front and center. In Wisconsin, the Badgers get second billing behind the Packers. In Iowa, the Hawkeyes get first billing, ahead of Iowa State. In New York, the Scarlet Knights, and consequently the Big Ten, would be lucky to get sixth billing. If this gamble works, and the Big Ten gets a foothold in the Big Apple, then Commissioner Jim Delaney will long be regarded as a genius. I just can't see that happening. What I see happening is the Big Ten picks up an occasional Top 25 football program and a fairly trivial basketball program. With Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska already creating a powerful conference elite in football, I'm not sure the Big Ten needs Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights add another competitive name to the conference. That's it.

To be clear, this isn't a win-win situation. For one, there are simply more teams to share Big Ten Network revenue with now. On a non-financial level though, the continuing expansion of the Big Ten is beginning to disintegrate the true meaning of a conference. Any conference is built on the idiom that "Familiarity breeds contempt." Whether or not you agree with that adage, familiarity certainly breeds rivalry, excitement and history. There's something to be said for playing the same teams year in and year out and building a consistent rapport with each and every team in your conference. Northwestern has constructed a history of tight wins against Indiana and Minnesota, blowout losses against Ohio State, blown leads against Michigan, historic upsets against Iowa and ongoing struggles at Beaver Stadium. That's what happens when you allow two teams to tango year after year after year. The stories build, the excitement grows, a master narrative is formed that holds everything together. Each game becomes more than the sum of its parts. Nothing disrupts that momentum more than a stoppage in play. So, Northwestern comes into the Big House and stuns Michigan in 2008, and then the Wildcats don't return until 2012. They haven't played Ohio State in years. That's a shame. And the more teams that enter the Big Ten, the less they will all get to play each other. If the conference does eventually expand to 16 teams, like rumor has it the Big Ten will, then each team will likely only see its conference opponents every other year in football. Sure, they'll make sure Ohio State and Michigan play each and every year, but Ohio State might go six years without seeing Northwestern now, and I think there's something that gets lost in the process.

So that raises the question of who benefits from this move. There's no doubt that Penn State does. After years in which their closest road game was still six hours away in Columbus, and ventures to Minneapolis, Lincoln and Evanston could eat up a whole weekend, the Nittany Lions and their fans now have a few closer locales to travel to. A road schedule consisting of Maryland, Rutgers, Ohio State and Indiana would mean that not every Penn State athlete reaches frequent flier status by their sophomore year. Northwestern benefits in the slightest too. Suddenly, the Wildcats' meeting with the Terrapins in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge is a lot more interesting. Of course, the Terrapins also add another team to the middle of the pack, another team then that the Wildcats will have to vie with for a shot at March Madness. The current Big Ten is a brilliant regional mess. Every team in that conference brings something to the table, whether it's sterling academics (Northwestern and Michigan), history (Purdue), devoted fans (Iowa and Wisconsin) or overwhelming athletic success (Ohio State and Penn State). What do Maryland and Rutgers bring? I fear that this conference is turning from a brilliant regional mess into a simple, straightforward mess.

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How do Rutgers and Maryland fit in?

  US News National Ranking Football Record 2009-2012 Football Attendance 2011 Bowl Wins/

Appearances 2000 - 2011

Madness Berths 2000-2011  
Rutgers 68 31-17 43,761 5/6 0
Maryland 58 17-31 42,335 5/7 7
PSU 46 34-16 101,427 4/8 2
Nebraska 101 38-14 85,267 5/10 0
Minnesota 68 18-30 47,714 3/8 3
Wisconsin 41 39-12 79,813 5/11 12
Purdue 65 21-27 45,225 3/8 7
Indiana 83 14-33 41,380 0/1 7
Illinois 46 19-30 49,548 2/4 9
Northwestern 12 29-21 33,442 0/7 0
Michigan 29 31-18 112,179 4/10 3
MSU 72 33-18 74,078 2/7 12
OSU 56 40-10 105,231 6/12 8
Iowa 72 30-20 70,585 6/10 3
Statistically, Maryland and Rutgers are a decent fit for the Big Ten, in the way that their basketball and football teams have competed in recent years. They certainly don’t stand out though, and have made a lot of middling bowls, so given the inherent geographical disadvantages, one might question their introduction into the conference. Obviously, these statistics are an imperfect sampling. They’re more for your delight and perusal than for any serious scope of the situation.
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