Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 10, 2015

A Conference Benefits While A University Pays

It was all about the money, as is too often the case. The promise of greater revenue from an expanded conference cable network along with the possibility of adding a lucrative conference championship football game led Big-10 commissioner Jim Delaney to announce in December 2009 that his conference was open to adding one or more members. Despite its historic name, the Big-10 had actually comprised eleven schools since Penn State joined in 1991. But NCAA rules require a conference to have twelve teams in order to stage a season-ending football championship game; and even with the addition of the Nittany Lions the Big-10 remained essentially a Midwestern league, with no local appeal in the big eastern television markets.

Delaney’s announcement opened the floodgates of conference realignment throughout all the power conferences that make up the Football Bowl Subdivision, the top rank of the NCAA. For football runs the athletic departments at most schools and especially those who compete for what used to be called the “mythical national championship.” The myth was made at least somewhat real with the introduction of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998. The replacement of the widely unloved BCS with a four team playoff series last year has given the top tier of NCAA football a method of crowning a national titleholder that is quickly gaining fan acceptance.

The football playoff that was won last season by Ohio State and that will be contested in the next several weeks by Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma came into being only after four years of frantic movement by colleges and universities from one conference to another. Presidents and athletic directors were swayed by promises of big paydays to fund new facilities and programs, even as desperate conference commissioners sought to increase mandatory exit fees to discourage schools from moving. Along the way traditional rivalries were brushed aside, and the best interests of a school’s teams other the one that plays on the local gridiron were largely ignored.

Realignment continues apace at lower levels with the NCAA’s structure, but the movement of FBS schools has finally settled down. The Big-12 has emerged as the biggest loser among the major conferences. Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri and Texas A&M all departed, losses that did more than put an end to the nearly century old rivalry between Nebraska and Oklahoma. With only TCU and West Virginia coming on board to replace the four schools that left, the Big-12 now has only ten teams and thus no conference championship game. The lack of such a contest was cited as a key reason why both TCU and Baylor were left out of last year’s playoff despite that fact that both finished 11-1. It may have affected the final playoff rankings this season as well. When Michigan State won the Big-10 title game the Spartans jumped over idle Oklahoma into the third spot when the playoff seeding was announced.

In contrast the conference that started the whirlwind looks to be the biggest winner of all the reshuffling. The Big-10 added that coveted twelfth member when Nebraska joined in 2011. Conference officials promptly announced that they had no further plans for expansion. But no sooner were those words uttered than the golden glitter of east coast television markets caught those same officials’ eyes. The following year Maryland and Rutgers entered into negotiations with the conference, and both became Big-10 members in 2014.

The now fourteen-member Big-10 stretches across half the national map, from New Jersey and Maryland on the Atlantic seaboard to Nebraska in the heartland. Its members include the premier public university in eleven states, as well as two additional land-grant institutions and one of the Midwest’s leading private schools. The addition of Maryland and Rutgers gave millions of cable subscribers in the mid-Atlantic and especially metropolitan New York reason to add the Big-10 network to their television packages. On the football field the Big-10 has thrived as well. After Ohio State emerged victorious from the first football playoff, the Buckeyes and the Iowa Hawkeyes, who narrowly lost to Michigan in the conference title tilt, gave the Big-10 three of the top seven teams in the final playoff rankings. Both Ohio State and Iowa will play in major bowl games, further enriching the conference’s treasury.

While conference realignment may have delivered its promise of greater riches for the Big-10, that doesn’t mean it has done so yet for all of the conference’s member schools. For the state university of New Jersey, membership in the Big-10 has so far been nothing but a big mistake.

Rutgers was lured by the promise of sharing in the league’s revenue stream, but new members don’t receive a full piece of the pie for six years. In the meantime, the pressure is on the school’s teams to compete on the field right away. That means spending now on improved facilities and expanded staff, along with the higher salary expectations that coaches and other support personnel have as part of a power conference. The president of Rutgers has envisioned spending as much as $300 million on physical improvements. The promise is that eventually fundraising and the school’s share of conference revenues will cover that, but right now half the athletic budget is subsidized by the university.

Meanwhile the demand to be immediately competitive surely contributed to the follies of head football coach Kyle Flood. Just before the team’s season opener he was forced to dismiss five players who had been arrested for a series of home invasions. Then Flood himself was suspended for three games and fined $50,000 for trying to get faculty members to change players’ grades. Just two years ago, after Rutgers had agreed to join the Big-10, head basketball coach Mike Rice was fired when video showed him assaulting players and using gay slurs during practice.

Flood has now been shown the door just like Rice, in part for his acknowledged misadventures and surely for his team’s 1-7 conference record this season, a sorry mark achieved while being outscored by just a touchdown less than two to one. Perhaps the ongoing investigation into whether the athletic department ignored its own rules mandating the dismissal of players who fail drug tests played a part. Not surprisingly, athletic director Julie Hermann, recruited in the wake of the Rice debacle, was also fired.

Perhaps a decade from now Rutgers officials, players and fans will toast the decision to join the Big-10. The promised revenue will be flowing and perhaps the team will even have figured out how to win the occasional game. But New Brunswick still sits less than thirty miles from Manhattan, which is a world away from Columbus or Iowa City or East Lansing. For now at least the benefits of the Big-10’s big move east are decidedly out there in the hinterland.

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