The Big Ten Conference will actively explore the possibility of expansion in the next 12-18 months, according to a statement released Tuesday from the league's Council of Presidents/Chancellors.
At a Dec. 6 meeting at the Big Ten offices, the council (COP/C) asked league commissioner Jim Delany to begin the process of identifying and evaluating options for possible expansion from 11 to 12 teams. The Big Ten last expanded in 1989 with Penn State and hasn't seriously pursued the possibility since 1999, when it had discussions with Notre Dame.
"The COP/C believes that the timing is right for the conference to once again conduct a thorough evaluation of options for conference structure and expansion," the statement reads.
After the evaluation period, Delany and his staff, in conjunction with the league's athletic directors and presidents, will decide whether to make a recommendation for expansion. At that point, they will inform Michigan State president Lou Ann K. Simon, the chair of the Council of Presidents/Chancellors, as well as the commissioner of the affected conference before pursuing a specific school.
"Only after these notices have occurred will the Big Ten engage in formal expansion discussions with other institutions," the statement reads. "This process will allow the Big Ten to evaluate options, while respecting peer conferences and their member institutions."
The movement to expand the Big Ten has gained momentum in recent months.
Penn State head coach Joe Paterno repeatedly has stumped for expansion, which would give the league 12 teams, two divisions, a longer regular season and a championship game in football. Paterno and other coaches have questioned whether the Big Ten's long layoff before bowl games has contributed to the recent struggles in postseason play.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told Wisconsin's athletic board Friday that the time has come for the league to be more proactive with the expansion issue.
"Everybody feels [expansion] is the direction to go, coaches and administrators," Alvarez said.
League sources told ESPN.com that with the Big Ten working on the formation of its own television network the last few years, expansion was not a major focus.
"You don't want to be taking on expansion and taking on launching the network," the source said. "It doesn't work."
The Big Ten Network will be a factor in the league's expansion study, though other elements will be involved, including a school's demographics, academic profile, location, etc. The league wants a good overall fit, but there isn't a strict model that must be met, sources said.
"With the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics, now is a good time for the Big Ten to review its current structure and evaluate the potential for expansion," said Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis. "The Big Ten remains the nation's premier conference; however, it's always important to evaluate ways to make the conference even stronger.
"The addition of Penn State to the Big Ten in 1990 certainly proved to be a home run, so if the conference decides to expand, it is our hope that the move would bring similar prestige and success to the conference."
Alvarez told Wisconsin's athletic board that the Big Ten will explore schools "from all over the country," though it's more likely the league will look near its current footprint.
The league will first identify all realistic options for expansion and then determine which are preferred internally before reaching out to an institution to see if there's mutual interest. If there is, the institution ultimately would have to apply for admission to the Big Ten.
Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.