Just over two decades ago, the Big Ten conference really did consist of 10 teams.
They had only one long-term bowl contract, had only a spattering of non-Ohio State or Michigan football games on television (let alone national television), and saw OSU and Michigan win or share 17 of the last 20 Big Ten football titles.
While the league had a long history of tradition and was a force to be reckoned with both on and off the field, it was still a regional entity, and one that was dominated by the haves (OSU and Michigan) at the expense of most have-nots (at the time, Northwestern, amongst others).
Fast forward two decades.
We see a conference that truly has a national reach (no thanks to a solid TV deal and its own TV network, allowing every football game to be available nationwide). It's a competitive league that has seen nine different champions or co-champions (including three for Northwestern). It's a conference that has eight bowl tie-ins, and two new solid members that have helped expand the Big Ten's reach in terms of both footprint and national attention.
Oh, and a nice revenue sharing payout to all members that has allowed significant renovations of every football stadium and one wholly new stadium at Minnesota.
All of this thanks to a North Carolina Tarheel (he played basketball there as well as attending law school).
Probably the biggest drive of money in college football over the past 20 years has been television, and Jim Delany has put the Big Ten in pole position on that front during that span.
After the Oklahoma/Georgia court decision that shifted control of television from the NCAA to member institutions and conferences, he saw large value in packaging the conference and equally distributing revenue, something that has kept the league above every other in terms of national attention and financial viability.
He kept the Big Ten visible both regionally and nationally with an ABC Sports contract that put the highest-profile games on television across a vast region or the entire nation. Once cable TV emerged and ESPN became king of sports on cable, he inked an excellent deal that put the Big Ten in the first time slot of the day (Noon Eastern Time) with either one or two national broadcasts.
And in 2007, he took a big gamble by launching the Big Ten Network (BTN), which was a huge success and propelled the conference into a highly coveted position nationally.
All of this has helped the conference by garnering national exposure to football (as well as other sports, including many non-revenue sports now shown on the BTN), which in turn helps recruiting and exposure of the academic sides of Big Ten institutions. And it has brought in large sums of money which have been used to fund the schools' athletic departments, including major renovations of every football stadium and improvements to facilities that benefit other athletic programs and the schools as a whole.
Academics and Equality
A major tenet of the Big Ten has been academics, headlined by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC, or the "academic Big Ten"), which has helped maintain member institutions' (as well as former member University of Chicago's) high national academic standing.
All members are also members of the Association of American Universities, a group of high-standing research based institutions. The conference has always made academic standing a high priority, and this has been exemplified in the US News and World Report annual collegiate rankings as well as the academic influence wielded by member institutions.
Even during expansion, academic expectations have been a priority and were maintained with the additions of Penn State in 1990 and Nebraska in 2010.
Another key point for the conference is equality, something that has helped bind the conference together and keep a sense of fairness.
While other leagues have seemingly fallen apart at the seams (especially over recent weeks) thanks to inequality, the Big Ten is essentially stronger now thanks to an equal revenue sharing agreement and the ability to work on consensus (its most recent addition, Nebraska, was approved unanimously by member schools' presidents and chancellors).
Despite having member schools from now nine different states, ranging in student population from around 10,000 to over 50,000 and encompassing both private and public schools, the league has made things work for all members both academically and athletically.
After adding Penn State in 1990 to reach 11 teams and seeing conferences such as the SEC, and later the Big 12 and ACC, expand to 12 teams each and add conference football championship games, it was assumed that the Big Ten would expand to 12 and add such a game.
But it took 20 years for the conference to do that, and it didn't include the school that everyone expected (Notre Dame).
In 1999, the conference extended an invitation for ND to join, and while the ND faculty overwhelmingly supported such a move, the trustees said no, instead clinging to their school's independence in football and their exclusive TV contract with NBC. While may have and continue to talk-up the conference trying to add Notre Dame, the conference itself has moved on and put in the time and research to find other suitable institutions that truly fit the Big Ten mold.
The conference found that in Nebraska, a solid academic institution with an excellent athletic program, particularly in football, where they are fourth all-time in wins.
The conference added to its footprint and added a nationally recognizable name that has a strong following. And, of course, the Big Ten put itself in a position to stage a highly lucrative football conference championship game that will be an opportunity to put itself squarely in the spotlight and to generate additional revenue.
Fans of Big Ten schools can thank Commissioner Delany for the leadership and vision to take the conference to this point, and can rest assured that his legacy is now intact no matter what happens from now on regarding conference re-alignments both here and around the nation.
While the conference may seem backward or slow-moving at times, both on the field and off, it has proven to be extremely deliberate and well-thought-out, resulting in solid decisions that will benefit the Big Ten for years to come.