The Big Ten Conference is a bastion of traditionalism. Joe Paterno, who came to Penn State football straight off the Mayflower, is as old school as it gets. Yet the 82-year-old Paterno, still coaching at Penn State, where he’s been since the Truman administration, is politicking for Big Ten expansion to 12 teams and adding a conference championship game.
Paterno’s reasoning is purely provincial. “Everybody else is playing playoffs on television,” Paterno said of the first Saturday in December. “You never see a Big Ten team mentioned, so I think that’s a handicap.”
Big Ten teams traditionally finish their seasons the Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year, nine of the 11 schools will not play between Thanksgiving and the bowl season. And even though commissioner Jim Delany said the Big 10 is adding some bye weeks into future schedules, it seems unlikely that the two marquee schools, Michigan and Ohio State, will play after Thanksgiving, since they traditionally play the Saturday before Thanksgiving in one of the sport’s great rivalries.
Delany says expansion is not on the radar for the Big Ten and said the league would have to have better reasons than just playing a conference title game. NCAA rules prohibit leagues from playing a title game unless they have at least 12 members, split into two divisions.
Paterno went so far as to suggest potential schools to add to the conference: Syracuse, Rutgers and Pittsburgh. Delany declined to comment on any particular school but said they would have to be a good fit for the Big 10′s vision. Read that to mean they would have to be high-brow academically and be good in basketball. I can’t imagine any of the three schools dragging down the Big Ten academically, and Syracuse and Pitt are basketball powers.
The Big Ten twice has courted Notre Dame to be its 12th member, the most recent in 1999. The Irish refuse all such endeavors, though if Notre Dame doesn’t start winning soon, you never know how priorities will change. The Irish already has softened its schedule considerably.
Critics wonder how you could split up the Big Ten into divisions geographically and competitively, but if the ACC can do it, the Big Ten can do it. Heck, I’ll do it for them, just off the top of my head.
Put Michigan and Ohio State together, which would mean Michigan State’s got to go in there, too. That’s a robust start for a division. So let’s balance it out a little and stick in two other schools that must stay together, Indiana and Purdue.
That means other in-state opponents — Illinois and Northwestern — must go in the other. And Penn State, of course, with Pitt.
Now comes the hard part. Wisconsin needs to go in with Penn State to make that division more competitive, so Iowa and Minnesota must be split. Ouch. Iowa and Minnesota are old natural rivals — though most everyone in the Big Ten is old natural rivals. But so are Minnesota and Wisconsin. And Minnesota and Michigan play for the Little Brown Jug.
But the Big Ten always could adopt the SEC model, which allows one interdivision rivalry to remain annual. So throw in Minnesota with Wisconsin and let the Gophers play Iowa every year anyway.
So you have Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue and Iowa in one division. In the other is Penn State, Pitt, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Northwestern.
The Michigan/Ohio State division is tougher. Welcome to the Big 12 South. Welcome to the real world.
Then you play a conference title game in Indianapolis or Chicago, and all of America watches. And 82-year-old Joe Paterno is a little more content.
Probably won’t happen. But remember this. The Big Ten also used to take a stand against a conference basketball tournament, until it realized all of America was buzzing about college hoops the second weekend of March, and the Big Ten soon enough got on board.