Gameday: Better by the dozen?

Danny Daly

Joe Paterno was understandably frustrated after his Penn State team lost to Southern California in the 2009 Rose Bowl. The Trojans were in control from the start and led 38-14 midway through the fourth quarter, though Paterno’s Nittany Lions made the final score more respectable by closing out the game with 10 straight points. Penn State wasn’t the first Big Ten team to disappoint when the stakes were high – it was just the latest in a disturbing trend. Paterno finally spoke out in May, arguing that the solution to avoiding future flops is expanding the conference to include a 12th team.

And when Paterno speaks, people listen.

“We go into hiding for six weeks,” the 82-year-old coach said. “Everyone else is playing playoffs on television. You never see a Big Ten team mentioned, so I think that’s a handicap.”

He expanded on those thoughts in July at Big Ten Media Day. Paterno said the Big Ten is at a disadvantage by being idle for so much more time than other conferences are before the bowl season. Once January rolls around, he said, “there’s not that intensity …that kind of edge that you’re going to need.”

Other coaches agreed with Paterno’s sentiments.

“I look forward to the day when we add a team and we split the divisions and we play for a championship on national TV on a Saturday night in December,” Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. “I mean, how good would that be for the exposure of this conference? I think we’re missing a little something there by not having that.”

Pasadena problems

For the better part of this decade, the Big Ten has served as a punching bag for top teams on the national stage.

The conference has not finished with a winning postseason record in seven years, and the last time a Big Ten team won the Rose Bowl was when Wisconsin bested Stanford in 2000. Since then, the league’s representatives have come up short in six straight trips to Pasadena, losing by an average of two touchdowns while often looking overmatched. And many of those games weren’t even as close as the final score.

Ohio State played in the first two BCS National Championship games, and both times the Buckeyes were blown out by foes from the Southeastern Conference. As a result, the Big Ten’s national perception took a major hit. The conference’s recent performances – a 1-6 bowl record last year and a six-game losing streak in BCS bowls – haven’t done anything to help its reputation.

Expansion ramifications

In addition to being the oldest Division-I athletic conference in the country, the Big Ten has had the most stable membership. The only changes in the past 90 years were the additions of Michigan State and Penn State in 1953 and 1993, respectively, and the departure of the University of Chicago after 1939.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is in his 13th year as a player or coach in the Big Ten. Because of his appreciation for the league’s rich history, Fitzgerald only favors expansion if the new school is more than a quick fix.

“It needs to be someone significant and a team that’s going to make our league stronger – not just for four years or five years, but for the lifetime of our league,” he said. “With some of the names I’ve been given (as possible 12th teams), in my humble opinion, that doesn’t make our league one that is looked up upon.”

The conference previously tried to persuade Notre Dame to become a member, though those talks always came to a standstill. The Irish are better able to take advantage of their popularity as an independent, since they get to negotiate their own television contract for football and don’t have to share the wealth.

Rutgers, Syracuse and Pittsburgh are some of the other speculated teams, and it’s not hard to see why that trio would not get anybody excited. In the last 25 years, those schools have combined to notch just one win in the four major bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta).

One of Paterno’s main concerns was that championship games give other conferences an edge in visibility, not to mention revenue. But Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany insists those considerations alone aren’t enough to warrant expansion.

“The reality is you would not expand just so you could fill that (marketing and publicity) vacuum,” he said. “I understand that we’re out of the mainstream for that week to 10 days, and I don’t think it’s good. But I don’t think it by itself is the reason why you would go forward.”

Most Big Ten teams are done with their schedules by Thanksgiving, resulting in an extra two weeks off before any potential postseason play. That can mean a lot of time off for teams playing in the higher-profile bowls. Ohio State went 50 days between its final regular season contest and the BCS Championship game two years ago, when it lost to LSU.

It was a similar story last year for the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions.

“The speed of the game when you first start playing again is different,” senior Penn State linebacker Sean Lee said. “It’s like the first game of the season. A lot of us would have liked to have played longer because it would have kept us fresher, it would have kept us in better shape when it came to game time.”

This is not the first time the Big Ten has been slow to warm up to the idea of a league championship game. It was the last major conference to implement a postseason men’s basketball tournament, finally relenting in 1998.

Easy as A-C-C

If the Big Ten needs a blueprint for expansion, it doesn’t have to look any farther the Atlantic Cost Conference. Hoping to become a greater football power, the ACC offered Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami the chance to join the conference six years ago. All three accepted – the Hokies and Hurricanes became members in 2004, while the Eagles followed suit a year later.

According to Wake Forest’s Ron Wellman, the longest-tenured athletic director in the ACC, expansion had been a standing agenda item at league meetings long before the three teams were added.

“We probably talked about it 15 years ago,” said Wellman, who coached baseball at NU from 1981-1986. “Not that we were serious all the time, but it’s something that was on our radar screen.”

The athletic directors became serious about expansion about three years before it occurred. And no one favored the idea more than Wellman did.

“We felt, in looking five to 10 years down the road, that the ACC needed to expand to be in a position of strength,” he said. “People were surprised that Wake Forest was very, very supportive of expansion, but we wanted to be in what we considered the best conference in the country. The only way we were going to be able to maintain that level of competitiveness was to expand our membership.”

As a small private school in a conference with mostly large public universities, Wake Forest is like NU in a lot of ways. But the invitations to three more powerhouses didn’t have a negative effect on Wake Forest. In fact, the Demon Deacons won the ACC football title in 2006.

The biggest downside of expansion for the ACC has been the unbalanced scheduling, though the Big Ten is already in a situation in which every team doesn’t play all the others.

True to the roots

Is expansion really the answer to the Big Ten’s problems? Some challenge the notion that the Big Ten even has anything to worry about.

“(Criticizing the Big Ten) is in vogue,” Fitzgerald said. “One guy in the media jumps on it, and then everyone else jumps on it.”

There’s no denying that Big Ten teams have left a lot to be desired with their play in big games as of late. But in the last 10 years, no conference has sent more teams to major bowl games than the Big Ten. The league has won six of those games, as many victories as the Big East has and three times as many as the ACC has in the same time span.

There does not seem to be a correlation between leagues with 12 teams and bowl wins. While the SEC enjoyed the most succ
ess in the past decade and captured the most titles, the Big 12 compiled a losing record in its BCS games. The Pac-10, which does not have a league championship but plays into December, owns the highest winning percentage.

“The conference championship game is not the key to being successful,” said Illinois coach Ron Zook, who also coached in the SEC at Florida. “I suppose it could be good, but it didn’t help Alabama (against Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl). Playing later in the year is the thing that I want to do.”

Zook’s squad is one of two Big Ten teams trying that strategy this year. Illinois and Wisconsin have scheduled non-conference games for the first weekend of December, when other conferences’ championship games will be contested. The Big Ten will also instate a league-wide bye week to extend the season starting in 2010.

A conference championship game ensures that the top two teams will always play each other. But it also gives one of the best teams an extra loss, hurting its chances for an at-large BCS bid.

Even though the Big Ten’s extra time off may cause some teams to be rusty for their bowl games, the longer break can have its benefits. NU senior safety Brad Phillips said having an extended layoff before the Alamo Bowl against Missouri was valuable because the Wildcats were more prepared and could watch more film, while senior defensive end Corey Wootton stressed the importance of more rest for players to recover from nagging injuries.

The Big Ten’s strength has been questioned before, and order has always been restored. Unless the economic benefits of expanding are too good to pass up or Notre Dame changes its mind, the Big Ten might be better off standing pat.

“I still go back to 2002, coming into (Big Ten Media Day) and the sky was clearly falling,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “At the end of the season, we had four teams in the top 13 with Ohio State winning the National Championship. The more we talk about things, the more we focus on things, the more pronounced they become. And I’m not sure they’re always factual.”

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