Big Ten Conference Officially Announces Expansion Moved to Front Burner

Michael MaxwellCorrespondent IDecember 15, 2009

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 20:  The Ohio State University Marching Band spells the word 'Ohio' during an intermission in the game between the Ohio State University Buckeyes and the University of Michigan Wolverines on November 20, 2004 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  Ohio State defeated Michigan 37-21. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Long considered a “back burner” issue, the Big Ten Conference released an official statement on Tuesday afternoon indicating that expansion would be informally explored by the commissioner over the next 12 to 18 months.

According to the Big Ten’s statement, “the timing is right for the conference to once again conduct a thorough evaluation of options for conference structure and expansion.”

The statement further indicates that preliminary options and recommendations would be obtained without engaging in formal discussions with the leadership of other institutions.  If more formal discussions become necessary, then the commissioner of the affected conference(s) would be notified before formal talks were initiated.

The intention is to proceed with collecting information in a manner that is respectful to the Big Ten’s peer conferences and their member institutions.

The Big Ten Conference has not added a new member since Penn State began conference play in 1993.  The addition of Penn St. has left the conference with an uneven number of 11 schools.  The Big Ten took a run at adding Notre Dame in 1999, but Notre Dame ultimately took a pass, continuing to embrace their independent status.

A trickle of support for Big Ten expansion has reappeared in recent days.  It appears to have initiated with former Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez, who advocated expansion in front of Wisconsin’s athletic board last Friday.

There are other high profile supporters of the concept.  Probably the highest profile coach in the conference, Joe Paterno of Penn St. has long supported adding a 12th school.  Paterno commented in May that “Everybody else is playing playoffs on television.  You never see a Big Ten team mentioned.  So I think that’s a handicap.” 

Take a look at the great games that were played on the final Saturday of this season:  Cincinnati/Pitt and the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 Championship games.  Meanwhile, the Big Ten offered up Illinois/Fresno St. and Wisconsin/Hawaii.

The primary reason for revisiting the issue again is obvious to everyone:  money.  A 12th team would allow the conference to break into two six-team divisions and stage a Conference Championship game in football at the end of the year. 

Is it a coincidence that this issue is being reconsidered with the Big Ten Network only in its second year of existence?  I think not.  The conference has a 51 percent stake ownership in the Big Ten Network and stands to make a killing in broadcast rights for a Conference Championship game. 

So, now that the league office has let the cat out of the bag officially, where does the conference turn for the 12th member?  Schools like Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Missouri, Iowa St., Cincinnati, and Louisville have all been mentioned.

While all of the above schools have their pluses and minuses, I would make Rutgers the early favorite.  They are a natural fit. 

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, is one of the largest state universities in the country with an enrollment of over 50,000 students.  This fits right in with the public state schools that dominate the Big Ten Conference. 

Equally as important, Rutgers would allow the Big Ten to break into the all-important New York City television market.  If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. This is something that none of the other schools on the above list can boast.  

While there are no guarantees that a twelfth member school will be added at the end of this process, the fact that the concept is being entertained by the league should stimulate some spirited debate among athletic directors, coaches, administrators, players, and fans alike.