Tuesday, January 29, 2013
B1G ADs: Geography could drive divisions
By Adam Rittenberg
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."