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Monday, November 19, 2012
Is the Big Ten done adding?

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

Now that the adoption papers are all but finalized, the Big Ten is the proud father of two more bouncing baby programs. Say hello to the runts of the family: Maryland and Rutgers. The Terapins arrived Monday, the Scarlet Knights are expecting to join Tuesday.

Surprising? Sure. But anybody who thinks this is a total stunner needs a refresher course in geography. And TV rights economics. And recruiting.

You actually could see this coming. If nothing else, you could see why the Big Ten might order something a la carte off the expansion dinner menu.

Eight months ago, I wrote that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany would never allow his conference to be geographically outflanked by the ACC. "I could see him sending in a Big Ten Special Forces unit to extract Rutgers from the ACC's possible grasp and Maryland from the ACC altogether. Rutgers hasn't made much of a secret of its fondness for the Big Ten. And who knows -- maybe Maryland is ready for a change too. ... That would give the Big Ten 14 members and a strong presence in Pennsylvania, the mid-Atlantic states and the New York/New Jersey areas."

And then just for fun, I added: "But if 16 is the number that counts, why stop there?"

Jim Delany
Jim Delany landed the latest realignment move, adding Maryland on Monday.

Anyway, if I could look at a map and see the Big Ten's vulnerability, so could Delany. He knows his league's strengths. More important, he knows his league's weaknesses.

Would this have happened had the Pac-12 not backed out of its "collaboration" with the Big Ten earlier this year? Remember? The two conferences were going to form a super-alliance of sorts, which would have featured increased Big Ten versus Pac-12 scheduling in all sports, including football.

In short, it was a way to avoid actual expansion, conference realignment and, as Delany put it at the time, "collateral damage." It was also a way to add "value" to both leagues (translation: $).

But even in December 2011, when the soon-to-be-doomed partnership was announced, Delany said: "It doesn't mean you can't expand one day."

The collapse of the collaboration and the ACC's aggressive expansion plan made this an easier decision than you think. The Big Ten couldn't afford to watch Penn State become an island in a sea of ACC schools (Syracuse to the north, Pittsburgh to the west, Boston College to the east (and maybe UConn too). That's simply too much valuable TV and recruiting real estate.

So Delany secured Rutgers and Maryland to give his conference that East Coast/mid-Atlantic market presence. In return, Rutgers gets instant league stability and Maryland receives a football upgrade.

Now the question becomes: Is the Big Ten done adopting?

I don't think expansion was ever Delany's first choice. That's why the Pac-12 alliance had so much appeal to him and the Big Ten presidents.

But when it fell apart, and the ACC formed its own alliance with Notre Dame, and geography began to work against the Big Ten, Delany decided he couldn't sit on his hands. In essence, it had become a zero-sum game.

Rutgers and Maryland are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities -- almost always a prerequisite for Big Ten admittance. And just for fun, I'll throw out two other programs that are AAU members: Kansas and North Carolina. So is Georgia Tech.

I'm just saying.

There are all sorts of possible trickle-down effects of today's announcement:

• The Big Ten could stop at 14 teams or go all-in and expand to 16.

• The ACC could hit the expansion gas pedal.

• The Big East could suffer another cluster migraine.

• Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who is a registered expansionist, could start kicking the tires on two to four programs.

Whatever happens, this isn't the end of realignment and expansion. These days, you're either in or you're out.

The Big Ten is in.

Who's next?