Why the Big Ten Is in a Really Tough Spot for Expansion

Zachary OstermanCorrespondent IDecember 16, 2009

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 05: Bill Stull #11 of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers celebrates after a successful field goal against the Cincinnati Bearcats on December 5, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

One of the worst kept secrets in all college football was made official Tuesday when the Big Ten finally admitted what coaches had been gleefully insinuating for years: The conference is looking to increase its number by one more team.

This has been rumored for months, if not years, and even the above release admits it was being examined at various times in the last two decades.

The problem is though, not a question of who, but a question of how?

Considering its sales pitch (questionable) and its options (limited), Jim Delany and the Big Ten really have their work cut out for them. Assuming Delany, the Big Ten's commissioner, wants to take a school from another BCS conference, it's going to take more than a little spread option-esque misdirection to add member No. 12.

When the last major conference expansion—courtesy of the ACC in 2004-05—went down, things were relatively cut and dry.

Miami and Virginia Tech, relatively speaking, didn't need large amounts of convincing to leave the football-weak Big East for the treasures of being more locally-based in the pigskin-rich Southeast and closer to their natural rivals. Boston College came too, but the first two were the lynchpin behind the entire operation, and because the ACC could make a strong case for the betterment of their football programs, it was a quick sell.

The second thing to understand about that move is that the ACC did not have to make a strong case for its new members' basketball programs because none of the three schools had a rich tradition to protect.

The problem for the Big Ten is that the most likely candidates—Missouri, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pitt—would all require significantly more convincing on both sides of the moneymaking sport spectrum.

Each of those schools would essentially need to be sold on the idea that leaving their current conference would be in the financial and competitive interests of their basketball and football programs, or at least make the case that the impact on one would be so much more compelling as to outweigh any cost to the other.

Missouri would need convincing to leave a conference its more regionally tied to that has more natural rivals. Louisville, Pitt, and Cincinnati would need hand-holding to get them out of the Big East, where an above average football program and a great basketball program will make you conference elite.

The Big Ten would also have to convince these four teams—or a wildcard—that the last few years, which have been substandard by the conference's expectations, are an aberration that will soon pass.

Moreover, especially in the case of the three Big East schools, the Big Ten will have to convince its target that their football program would thrive, not whither. Pitt, Louisville, and Cincinnati have all won the Big East in the last decade, but none have established themselves as yearly top 10 contenders yet.

Leaving the Big East for what, on paper, looks like a tougher football conference could do more harm than good.

There are positives for each of the four teams. Missouri would get a greater share of eastern media markets, Louisville could play more regionally, Pitt would have a natural rival in Penn State, and Cincinnati would already find itself in the heart of Big Ten country, perhaps enhancing recruiting.

The most likely candidate, at least in the eyes of one columnist, would be the Bearcats.

Cincinnati surely feels jaded after going 12-0 this year and not even sniffing the BCS Championship, something that would be less likely to happen in the Big Ten. And the last two football coaches to serve the Queen City's namesake university have both left for greener pastures, viewing Cincinnati as a stepping-stone job even after consecutive BCS appearances. That perception would likely change in the Big Ten.

Basketball is on its way back there too, which would probably be a coup for the Big Ten. But the conference, which takes pride in the academic reputations of many of its member institutions, would need to be convinced I think, of Cincinnati's credentials as well.

Pitt also remains a viable option, but convincing the Panthers to step away from a very good thing in the basketball-heavy Big East would not be easy.

Whomever the target is, Delany is going to have to pull out all the stops to convince any of these schools to switch allegiances any time soon.

And please forget about Notre Dame (or as Fortune, the wise groundskeeper might say, it ain't gonna never happen). The Big Ten needs Notre Dame; Notre Dame does not need the Big Ten, at least not until the bottom falls out of the bottom line.