Commentary

Not your father's Big Ten

Originally Published: August 22, 2011
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

The new guy in the room quickly discovered that the Big Ten still operated in the old ways.

[+] EnlargeWoody Hayes and Bo Schembechler
AP PhotoWould legendary Big Ten coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler recognize the league if they saw it today?

The year was 2005, and Ron Zook had traveled to Chicago to attend his first Big Ten coaches meeting. Hired the previous December as Illinois' coach, Zook gathered with his new colleagues to discuss key issues and to propose possible changes.

But some Big Ten coaches greeted the prospect of change with hesitation.

"People would say, 'Bo didn't do that and Woody didn't do that,'" Zook recalled. "Well, you know what? Those guys have been gone for a long time, and the game has changed."

In the six years since the meeting, the Big Ten began to change, too. Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes might have a tough time recognizing the league these days.

If those iconic coaches, who shaped the Big Ten brand during decades at Michigan and Ohio State, were still alive, they'd see a very different conference.

They'd wonder if Nebraska had gotten lost. They'd be shocked to see their teams, archrivals Michigan and Ohio State, placed in different six-team divisions. While they probably would enjoy the division names, Legends and Leaders, more than most folks, they might struggle to figure out which teams go where.

They'd have to get used to a Big Ten championship game, the first in the league's 116 years of football. Playing the title game indoors might irk Bo and Woody, but probably not as much as playing the Ohio State-Michigan game after Thanksgiving.

People would say, 'Bo didn't do that and Woody didn't do that. Well, you know what? Those guys have been gone for a long time, and the game has changed.

--Illinois coach Ron Zook

Bo and Woody would see a thriving television network devoted exclusively to the Big Ten that has brought league members unprecedented revenue. Bo would be shocked to see permanent lights being installed at Stadium and Main -- in preparation for the first night game at Michigan Stadium in September. Woody might be equally surprised to see Ohio State open a season with a Thursday night game, as it did in 2010.

The two also would be disappointed to learn about Michigan's and Ohio State's recent troubles with the NCAA. Michigan in 2010 admitted to committing major NCAA rules violations in football for the first time. Ohio State dominated the headlines this offseason as memorabilia sales violations involving players and coach Jim Tressel's cover-up led to the departures of both Tressel and starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Ohio State is waiting on a ruling from the NCAA's Committee on Infractions after an Aug. 12 hearing.

The Big Ten brand isn't what it used to be, for both positive and negative reasons. Some would say the Big Ten now looks a lot more like the other power conferences, including the rival SEC, both with its football structure and with its high-profile NCAA infractions cases.

"I don't know about closer or not," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "We do everything that we do because it seems right for us. One thing that we've done about our brand is add an openness to make intelligent change where necessary. Whether it's expansion, whether it's [instant] replay, whether it's a television network, all of those things are the result of people making intelligent choices, sometimes in advance of the curve, sometimes in conjunction with others.

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
Jerry Lai/US PresswireBig Ten commissioner Jim Delany felt the league needed to make changes in order to remain competitive and grow its brand.

"You need to have tradition, but you need to be able to pivot toward innovation where it's appropriate. Hopefully, that's part of our brand. I think it is."

The Big Ten might be pivoting toward change, but for years the league stood its ground.

"There was probably some rigidity," Delany said.

When Wisconsin's Bret Bielema attended his first Big Ten coaches meeting in 2006, he recalled Delany polling the coaches about whether they would favor a league championship game in the future.

"The only two guys who raised their hands were me and Ron Zook," Bielema said.

That was no coincidence. Bielema, the former Kansas State defensive coordinator, and Zook, the former Florida coach, had come to the Big Ten from leagues (Big 12, SEC) that had divisions and successful championship games. The other Big Ten coaches were used to the existing structure.

Only after the Big Ten struggled in BCS bowls, including back-to-back losses by Ohio State in the national title game, did the push for change accelerate. Some of the loudest calls came from Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who advocated expansion, a later regular season and a championship game.

"We were falling behind," said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, the Badgers' football coach from 1990 to 2005. "The year Ohio State played Florida in the national title game, having 50-something days off … I thought that really hurt. When Ohio State played Michigan that year, they were 1-2 in the country. We [the Big Ten] don't play and Michigan drops out of the action, everybody else is on TV playing in their championship games.

"So yeah, we weren't relevant."

The Big Ten moved its regular season back a week, but to stand on level footing with other power conferences, it needed to expand and add a championship game. The league put the college sports world on notice in December 2009 by beginning a serious exploration of expansion. Six months later, the Big Ten approved Nebraska as its 12th member.

[+] EnlargeMike Hart
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIn the past, some in the Big Ten felt marquee games -- such as when No. 1 Ohio State played No. 2 Michigan in 2006 -- were forgotten once other conferences played their league championship games after the completion of the regular season.

Most view the Nebraska addition as a boost for the Big Ten brand, and a smooth transition to the league suggests the Huskers are a strong fit. But seeing Big Red in the Big Ten still comes as a bit of a shock.

"This league?" Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "Who would have thought back in the '60s that Nebraska would be moving into the Big Ten Conference?"

Surely not Woody or Bo.

The past year has brought the formation of divisions, based primarily on competitive balance with a nod to brand enhancement. It brought division names, still a sore subject for many fans, and a new set of logos, one of which, "B1G," seems to be catching on.

The Big Ten's November schedule features several marquee matchups involving Nebraska (Penn State, Michigan, Iowa), along with traditional showcase games like Ohio State-Michigan. It leads up to the inaugural championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.

"The actual championship game and late-season games are going to tend to build the brand," Delany said, "make more people aware of it, keep our games more relevant, probably put us on a more level field with those that are playing late in the season. There will be more build."

The Big Ten might have leveled the field in terms of competition with other conferences, but the league wanted to remain on a higher plane when it came to NCAA rules. High-profile cases at Ohio State and Michigan have bumped the Big Ten off its perch.

Delany, who called both situations embarrassing, addressed NCAA rules compliance with Big Ten coaches last month in Chicago.

"Neither one of those institutions have a history of being in that situation," Delany said. "It not only has reflected poorly on them, it's reflected poorly on us. I explained to each of those coaches that going forward we do not want two more such cases and that they are the CEOs of their programs."

The coaches heard their commissioner loud and clear.

"It was toward all of us," Michigan's Brady Hoke said, "about how important the Big Ten brand is and how we want to respect our brand and how we want to operate and do business. … It was something we needed to hear."

Delany doesn't think the Big Ten brand has changed dramatically, noting that the league's name has endured despite two expansions that make it mathematically incorrect. The Big Ten also has preserved its treasured relationship with the Rose Bowl.

The brand, Delany says, has been extended by initiatives that make the Big Ten better.

"We, on one hand, value tradition maybe at as high a level or higher because we have more of it," he said. "We've got 115 football seasons, 220 people in the College Football Hall of Fame, we've got iconic stadiums, iconic brands. At the same time, we have developed a very healthy amount of openness to change.

"But it's really change that works for us."

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com