Should the Big Ten expand? What does it all mean?

The Big Ten announced this week that it will explore adding a twelfth institution. Some thoughts . . .

Does it seem a little off-key that Joe Paterno is leading the charge for Big Ten expansion, so that the conference can have a championship game? If it weren’t for Penn State, there would still be ten teams, and re-aligning into divisions to set up a championship would be simple. I know times—and the competitive landscape—have changed, but I’m just saying.

I’ve also heard that, as a secondary motivation, Penn State wants an eastern rival located closer to State College, PA—thus the talk of Pitt and, to a lesser extent, Cincinnati and Syracuse. (And, really, this would have to be Pitt or Cincy because, let’s face it, Syracuse would be more of a punching bag than a football rival for Penn State. And yes, I also know that George Perles dreamed that Michigan State would become Penn State’s signature rivalry, and I’m also aware of the final scores in the MSU-PSU games over the last couple of years.) This one is harder to buy. It’s not like Penn State didn’t know the lay of the land when it signed on with the Big Ten 20 years ago—this includes Paterno, who has been coaching in Happy Valley since MSU was the Big Ten’s premier program in the ‘60s.

But the first point has merit—the Big Ten does disappear for several weeks during the climax of college football season, as all the other conferences have their championship games. Clearly there would be advantages to expansion for the Big Ten.

Two questions about potential expansion:

1) What happens to MSU? Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune laid out a potential division of the Big Ten into eastern and western divisions. The Spartans would play in the six-team east division with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. Yikes. (It would be payback for the Detroit Tigers escaping the American League East back when baseball realigned. And no wonder Barry Alvarez is excited about expansion—suddenly the Badgers just have to beat Iowa out in the western division and they’re in the league championship game every year.)

And 2) Who joins? The criteria for expansion seem (according to media speculation, which is all we have to go on) to be geography; access to media markets; and schools who match the Big Ten’s profile historically, academically and athletically.

Once you’ve filtered the search that way, it seems like the popular strategy for identifying candidates is to look at a map and pick out good programs either within or near the current Big Ten footprint. Looking west, you get Mizzou and ISU. (I like Mizzou much better than Iowa State as a potential addition. The main point I’ve seen in the Cyclones’ favor is that ISU is a land-grant university like Michigan State and Penn State. Is this really a driving consideration?)

It’s interesting to hear that Big 12 schools like Mizzou and Iowa State are candidates, at least according to the media, not to mention the Big East schools—Syracuse, Cincinnati, Pitt, et al. Is the Big Ten that much of a step up? It would surprise me, for instance, to hear that a mid-level Big 12 football or basketball coach would jump from one of those jobs to a mid-level Big Ten job.

So is the Big Ten greater than the sum of its parts? Maybe, and if so the key might be the conference’s dominance in key media markets—Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, etc. The Big 12’s only equivalent population centers are in Texas—not counting St. Louis and Kansas City. The fact that Mizzou’s addition would bring the latter two markets into Big Ten country (Columbia is halfway between St. Louis and KC) is a serious point in the Tigers’ favor as a Big Ten candidate.

(Also, a side note . . . Ok, so we’re potentially going to take Mizzou away from the Big 12, leaving that conference with eleven teams while we move to a dozen? But we’ll still be the Big Ten? Clearly the smart thing would be to trade conference names and logos as part of this process. I’m willing to add Shon Morris from the BTN if that sweetens the deal. And maybe we can get the Diamondbacks to throw in a prospect or two.)

Looking east you have the Big East teams. Syracuse is a long way away and not close enough to New York City to lay much claim on that market. Pitt and Cincinnati are closer but uninspiring. It’s no wonder this conversation often stalemates with Notre Dame, which is perfectly located in the heart of Big Ten country and has the perfect profile—academics, athletics, tradition, endowment, everything you could ask for in a Big Ten addition. And the Irish already fill out a large portion of their football schedule with Big Ten rivalries.

So who do you add? I say you beg ND—as utterly distasteful as that would be—followed by Missouri, followed by Pittsburgh. Followed by Baker College of Owosso.

One other point: This push to expand seems to be driven completely by football. And it seems to me that one of the Big Ten’s strengths is its balance between football and basketball. The SEC may be the country’s best football conference, but offers only Kentucky (and sometimes Florida) as major hoops powers. The ACC is usually the best basketball league, but since the decline of Florida State it hasn’t been dominant in football (with apologies to some good Va. Tech teams). The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 10 seem to be more balanced. So why aren’t we hearing from more basketball types as part of the expansion debate? (Some have weighed in.) Would an extra team help or hurt in hoops?

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