Chicago Colleges: B1G ADs 12

More expansion looms over AD decisions

February, 1, 2013
2/01/13
8:00
AM CT
As we've written for the past several days, Big Ten athletic directors have a whole host of decisions to make over the next few months, including how many league games they should play, how to align the divisions, the next bowl lineup and even what to call the divisions.

"We've got some heavy lifting to do here for the next few months," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.

But what if all that huffing and puffing turns out to be a Sisyphean task? There's one thing that could send conference leaders scrambling back to the drawing board: more expansion.

The decisions the athletic directors will make for the 2014 season and beyond will be based on the new 14-team format with Maryland and Rutgers joining. Many people suspect the Big Ten is not done adding members and could soon grow to 16 or even to 20 members. Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee recently informed us that conference expansion talks are "ongoing."

The athletic directors are well aware of the possibility that more teams could be coming at just about any time.

“Based on the last three years I’ve been in this business, you’d be crazy not to think about it," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said. "But it’s hard to model anything because you don’t know what to model. The minute you get yourself convinced that you’re going to go from 14 to 16, for all you know you’re going to 18, and a lot of people think the ultimate landing place is 20. Who knows?"

For now, all the decisions they make will be based on a 14-team model only.

"You make your decision based on today," Iowa's Gary Barta said. "And today, we have that many teams. We can’t worry about something that’s not established yet. I don’t know if and when there will be more teams. Right now, we’re going to make decisions based on the additions of Rutgers and Maryland, and we’re going to make them with the information we have, consistent with our principles."

"It’s hard to predict the future," added Northwestern's Jim Phillips. "No one would have predicted we’d be at this place we’re at right now. I don’t think you can get polarized by the what-ifs or the potential of what might be and lose sight of where you’re at."

The league's ADs will do their best to come up with the best framework for a 14-team league. If future expansion arrives in time for the 2014 season or shortly after it, at least the conference has gained lots of recent experience in how to deal with it.

"When you get into the discussion of things like 10 [conference games], you say, 'Wow, if we had a couple more teams, it would be easier,'" Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "That's a natural. But it's not something that motivates you to say, 'We've got to position this in case we have another team, or two more teams.' We don't do that."

"What I've liked about our league is, when we added Nebraska, we felt like we needed to settle and watch the landscape. We thought the East Coast was important, and we got two good pickups relative to that principal. So I think we deal with what we have now, sit, monitor the landscape, and if something emerges down the road, we're positioned to be able to absorb."

B1G ADs: Geography could drive divisions

January, 29, 2013
1/29/13
6:31
PM CT
In September 2010, the Big Ten spelled out clearly that geography wouldn't be the driving force behind its new divisions.

How do we know? Two words. L-E-G-E-N-D-S. L-E-A-D-E-R-S.

The controversial division names spawned in part from a desire not to make geography the chief factor in alignment. Otherwise, the Big Ten likely would have used simple directional names (East-West, North-South) or regional ones (Great Lakes-Great Plains). The league aligned its initial divisions based on competitive balance, with a nod to preserving traditional rivalries. Although the Big Ten said it also considered geography, the end result showed it didn't matter much.

As the league prepares to realign its divisions to accommodate new members Rutgers and Maryland in 2014, its power brokers seem much more comfortable saying the G-word.

"Maybe it was competitive balance last time," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips told ESPN.com. "Maybe geography wins the day this time. … It wasn't the most important [factor in 2010], but we should look at it this time because we are spread farther than we ever have been."

The Big Ten athletic directors will meet several times in the coming months to discuss division alignment and plan to make a recommendation to the league's presidents in early June. Several ADs interviewed by ESPN.com in recent weeks mentioned that geography likely will be a bigger factor in the upcoming alignment than the initial one. It's not a surprise, as geography was a much bigger factor in the most recent expansion than it was with the Nebraska addition in 2010.

When the Big Ten expanded with Maryland and Rutgers in November, commissioner Jim Delany talked about becoming a bi-regional conference -- rooted in the Midwest but also having a real presence on the East Coast. He described the move as an "Eastern initiative with a Penn State bridge." It would be a major surprise if Penn State doesn’t find itself in the same division with the two new members.

"Maryland and Rutgers are about three-and-a-half hours away [driving], and Ohio State is about five hours," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "That's a nice, comfortable distance for us, and we've got huge alumni markets in those areas. From those standpoints, it's a really good thing. … No matter how the conference is aligned, you've got to believe that there are some efficiencies in travel that are going to come out of it."

Michigan and Ohio State are going to play every year no matter how the divisions are aligned, and if there's any push to move The Game away from the final regular-season Saturday, "the meeting will keep going on and on and on," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said with a laugh. But there also seems to be momentum to put Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, especially if there's a geographic split.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith favors being in the same division as Michigan, and Brandon has no objection.

"We will likely be a little bit more attentive to geographic alignment," Brandon said. "If Michigan and Ohio State being in the same division turns out to be what's in the best interest of the conference, that would be great. Obviously, it isn't the way it is now, and certainly that's worked. Certainly if we go to a geographic split situation and it's in the best interest of what we're trying to accomplish for Michigan and Ohio State to be in the same division, that would be just fine."

Despite being in opposite divisions, Michigan and Ohio State had their series preserved through a protected crossover. Other rivalries weren't so fortunate. Wisconsin and Iowa, for example, didn't play in 2011 or 2012.

Wisconsin was the most obvious example of the non-geographic focus of the initial alignment, as it moved away from longtime rivals Minnesota and Iowa into the Leaders Division.

"I do think we have a chance to have a little bit more of a geographic look to it, which I think is great," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said. "It's great for fans, it's great for student-athletes, it considers travel, rivalries. With us, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, Nebraska, those just make great sense.

"It would be terrific if it works out, but we have to make sure we maintain and achieve competitiveness as well."

The ADs understand the need to maintain balance. As Purdue's Morgan Burke put it, “You don't want somebody to come through an 'easy' division."

But as many fans have pointed out, the Big Ten still could maintain competitive balance with a more geographic split. Ohio State and Michigan could form an Eastern bloc of sorts, but Wisconsin has won three straight Big Ten titles, Nebraska played for one last year and other programs like Michigan State and Northwestern have emerged.

Can the Big Ten align based both on geography and balance?

"I believe we can," Brandon said. "And that will always be somewhat subjective because all you can look at is history, and how a program has performed in the previous 10 years isn't necessarily indicative of how it’s going to perform in the next 10. So there's some subjectivity to that, but the objective will be to create a circumstance where both divisions feel like they have equal opportunities to win and compete for the conference championship."

B1G ADs weigh number of league games

January, 28, 2013
1/28/13
8:31
PM CT
Big Ten athletic directors will meet several times over the next few months to hammer out some key decisions for the 2014 season and beyond. The most pressing, and arguably most important, issue will involve figuring out how many times to play each other during the season.

League officials chose to stay with eight conference games per season after Nebraska joined the league in 2011. But when Maryland and Rutgers come aboard next year, that could change. ESPN.com interviewed several conference athletic directors, who confirmed that a nine- and even a 10-game league schedule are on the table in the upcoming discussions.

"That’s something that we have to really resolve quickly, because the ramifications of that discussion are significant," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told ESPN.com. "It’s a high-agenda item."

The reason for the priority is obvious: More conference games means fewer nonconference opportunities. Some schools, like Nebraska and Minnesota, already have four out-of-league opponents lined up for the 2014 season and beyond, while others are waiting to see what the league decides before signing contracts with future opponents.

The Big Ten announced in August 2011 that it would go to a nine-game league schedule. That was scrapped a few months later when the Pac-12/Big Ten alliance was brokered, but then that agreement was canceled the following spring before it ever began. Athletic directors we talked to were at the very least interested in revisiting the nine-game schedule idea.

Commissioner Jim Delany has said he'd like to see more conference games. Brandon and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith both told ESPN.com that they favored that idea when the Big Ten balloons to 14 teams.

"As the conference expands, it would be unfortunate if a student-athlete came to the University of Michigan, played in the Big Ten Conference for four years and never even got to play or compete against one of the schools in the conference," Brandon said. "That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. As the number of institutions has grown, I believe we should take a look at at least moving to nine."

"I would like to go to nine or 10," Smith said.

Of the major conferences, only the Pac-12 and Big 12 currently play nine league games per season. No FBS conference plays 10 league games per year. The main advantage of adopting the latter, more radical idea would be balancing the conference schedule. Every team would then play five home and five road league contests, instead of having years with five road conference games and only four at home in a nine-game slate.

"Nine is challenging because of the statistical advantage for the home team over time," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "If you have some teams with five home games and others with only four, do you really have a true champion? To some people, that is a stumbling block."

But a 10-game schedule would bring its own share of obstacles. Such a plan leaves only two nonconference games and could make schools less inclined to play home-and-home intersectional matchups versus big-name opponents.

For example, Ohio State has already scheduled several high-profile series for the future, including home-and-home deals with Oregon, Texas and TCU. But with a 10-game conference schedule, the Buckeyes would have only six home games in years when it traveled to play opponents like the Ducks, Longhorns or Horned Frogs -- assuming it decided to keep those series.

"Most of us need seven home games in order to make our local budgets," Smith said. "Is there a way to overcome that? I don't know. We'll have to look at that. The conference is aware that it's an issue."

Would the extra inventory of conference games add enough value to the Big Ten's next TV contract to make up for the loss of home dates? Smith also points out that, with only two nonconference games, schools could potentially avoid paying huge guarantees to lower-level conference teams to fill out their schedule. Such teams are routinely getting $1 million or more to play sacrificial lamb against power programs in their giant stadiums.

Still, giving up home games is not a popular idea in a tough economic climate.

"Let’s face it, we have a stadium that we’re putting 112,000 people in every week," Brandon said. "It doesn’t make a lot of sense to be shutting that stadium down and not playing as many events, and going to places where you’re playing in front of crowds that are far less. We have to think about that financial consideration, and how do we leverage the assets we have in the most positive way for the conference and all the institutions?"

The forthcoming four-team playoff also complicates matters. Strength of schedule is expected to be a main component for the playoff selection committee. Would playing 10 games in the conference help or hurt Big Ten teams? In years when the league was viewed as down, like in 2012, it would most likely damage a league contender's chances, not to mention that 10 conference games means seven more guaranteed losses for Big Ten teams.

"I think [a 10-game schedule] could work if you're trying to schedule strong opponents in those other two games as well," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "The decision is, are you going to play two, three or four games outside of conference? I think a lot of it will depend on what the feeling is on how that would affect strength of schedule."

So a nine-game schedule appears to be a more likely option, but the thorny problem of an unbalanced number of home games remains. Could the league try to get creative, and perhaps add more neutral-site conference games to the mix? Anything and everything appears to be up for discussion.

"Maybe you could do it divisionally, where one division plays five home games one year, and then that division plays four home games [the next year]," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. "I don’t know. But it should be interesting.”

That last part is the only guarantee right now.

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