If Jim Delany had his way 12 years ago, the Big Ten and Pac-12 would have consummated a partnership and eliminated any potential for one league to devour the other.
The former Big Ten commissioner orchestrated a strategic partnership with then-Pac-12 honcho Larry Scott that would have added an annual regular-season football game and other sporting contests between the historic allies.
“We wanted to get to the West Coast and grow our TV and work with them,” Delany told The Athletic. “We agreed. We had a release on it. We wanted to expand without expanding.
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“We were going to match Ohio State and USC and UCLA and Michigan — basketball, baseball, football, everything. But they could not do that because they were at nine (football games). We were at eight.”
The leagues’ deal was announced on Dec. 28, 2011. The Pac-12 publicly backtracked on July 13, 2012, much to Delany’s aggravation. Four months later, the Big Ten invited Rutgers and Maryland to begin play in 2014. Last year, USC and UCLA agreed to join the Big Ten in 2024. Any day, anywhere from two to four Pac-12 rivals could follow.
(Scott Dochterman / The Athletic)
It’s a seismic development to watch a power conference disintegrate in real time. When retrospectives are written about the Pac-12’s demise, the series of missteps in its collapse will mirror the fall of Europe’s crowned heads. Turning down the Big Ten’s partnership was one preventable step, and the ensuing hubris ushered the Pac-12’s tumble downward. But that’s for another day. This story is about what happens next for the Big Ten in union with another set of Pac-12 newcomers. Surprisingly, it might actually work, and the current membership has a responsibility to make it work.
Unless Notre Dame is involved, Big Ten expansion is widely unpopular for all the right reasons. At first blush, an 18- or 20-school Big Ten defies logic. As Delany told The Athletic, “There’s a point at which an association of colleges is no longer a conference, and my guess is it’s at 16.”
Should Purdue play a soccer match at Washington, it removes a 90-mile bus ride to Champaign, Ill., or a three-hour trip northwest to Evanston, Ill. Perhaps the historic rivalries in football remain intact, but in men’s basketball or women’s volleyball, some evaporate. Iowa and Indiana were the Big Ten’s first expansion schools, in 1899, and they’d rather compete against each other in most sports than fly midweek to Eugene, Ore.
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But once you take three steps back to evaluate an 18- or 20-school Big Ten from a wide lens rather than from the myopic view, this is by far the best solution for the conundrum the league has faced since inviting USC and UCLA. It won’t be easy. It’s nontraditional, for sure. Expansion is about money, and none of the potential Pac-12 candidates provides a boost in that area. But for the Olympic sports, it’s a godsend.
Let me explain.
The Big Ten has staff members working around the clock to integrate USC and UCLA into the league while implementing scheduling formats. There is genuine concern for athletes at those schools who must travel east for most of their competitions. It goes without saying campus officials at current Big Ten schools feel the same about their athletes heading west.
“Each one has its own cadence, its own pressure points, looking at a regular-season format, looking at a postseason format,” Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said. “Each one has to be addressed on a very customized basis and at the same time trying to identify efficiencies that could exist from a scheduling perspective. How can we move student-athletes around in the most efficient way and the most cost-effective way that will minimize missed class time? All those elements are a part of the discussion, and so it’s an iterative process.”
In the past, the Big Ten handled scheduling with individual rather than holistic intent. The Northwestern men’s basketball team might travel to Maryland on a Thursday, then 10 days later play at Rutgers. The women’s basketball team might have the same trips six weeks later. That’s the same with volleyball and soccer, baseball and softball.
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With USC and UCLA entering the league, the thought process has shifted. It’s about efficiency based on time and cost. It’s a topic that should have been addressed 30 years ago — that it’s discussed now is a step forward all the same. Perhaps Northwestern could fly to Washington, D.C., and play Rutgers and Maryland on the same trip in a three-day period, instead of making two flights at different junctures.
“There are ideas that maybe Illinois soccer and volleyball would play in L.A. in the same weekend and we could share a plane out there,” Whitman said. “On a Thursday night, our volleyball team plays UCLA and our soccer team plays USC, and then they flip and play the opposite school on Sunday, and then they get on the plane and come back.
“We’ve never done travel partners officially in our Olympic sports. But if you look at the footprint geographically, whether we call them that or not, there are some easy pairings — Michigan-Michigan State, Purdue-Indiana, Illinois-Northwestern — that could make some sense in terms of the West Coast schools coming this direction.”
At this moment, there are stresses on Big Ten officials to make these pairings fair and economical. But if two or four more West Coast schools join the Big Ten, it limits that burden for USC and UCLA and thus the rest of the league. The goal always should be one trip, two games when teams on the West Coast are involved, either at home or on the road.
Geography should command a larger role in an 18-team league. In football, the West Coast schools should play one another annually to where there are only three trips east. Maybe in men’s basketball, the league should cut to an 18-game slate instead of 20, and former Pac-12 teams should play one another every year and play only six or seven road games against the eastern teams instead of nine. In Olympic sports like soccer, there should be more doubling-up competitions with multiple teams at one site in a round-robin format over three days.
Some of those ideas were discussed before the Big Ten considered adding Pac-12 schools beyond USC and UCLA. It makes even more sense now, whether the Big Ten stays at 16 or grows to 20.
“Could you have multiple teams traveling on a single charter?” Nebraska athletics director Trev Alberts asked. “We have to think differently. I think you’re going to have some creative scheduling.”
“I think everything’s on the table,” Whitman said. “We’re looking at every possibility.”
In hindsight, the Pac-12 could have strengthened itself back in 2011 with a Big Ten partnership. Instead, the Pac-12 has crumbled, and the Big Ten is picking up the pieces. When it added USC and UCLA, the Big Ten opted for a presence across four time zones. With that expansion, the Big Ten has a responsibility to treat those schools as equal members. The Big Ten’s price for a stronger West Coast presence is to make the league as equitable as it is prominent, and travel for all of its membership is a big component of that cost — including for USC and UCLA.
(Top photo of Bucky Irving: Brian Murphy / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)