As I mentioned in yesterday's headlines post, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez reopened expansion discussion with these comments:
Speaking to Wisconsin's athletic board on Friday, Alvarez, the former longtime Badgers football coach, said the conference already has investigated possibilities for expansion "from all over the country." And though he places no timetable on the search, Alvarez thinks conference commissioner Jim Delany will respond to a group of athletic directors and coaches who want expansion. "I have a sense he is going to take this year to really be more aggressive about it," Alvarez told the board. "I just think everybody feels [expansion] is the direction to go, coaches and administrators."
Expansion is not something that the Big Ten undertakes lightly. Penn State joined in 1990. Michigan State joined in 1950. Before that, the last new members to join were Indiana and Iowa in 1899. The University of Chicago is the only school to leave the Big Ten permanently (per Wikipedia, Michigan left the conference from 1907-1916, but was a charter member when the conference was formed in 1896). All current and former members of the Big Ten are major research institutions ranked in the top 100 by US News & World Report and are members of the Association of American Universities. The Big Ten cares about its brand, academically and athletically.
Certainly, expansion isn't a new topic around here. In this post, nearly two and a half years ago, after comments by Jim Delany about expanding the geographic borders of the conference, I discussed the various possible members in states that border the current Big Ten footprint (but not schools within the footprint. Last May, I mentioned Joe Paterno's East Coast expansion dreams. So, here's a rundown of the candidates.
One issue that I don't think matters to the discussion is the Notre Dame issue. While it's an interesting issue, it doesn't add much to the expansion discussion because 1) Notre Dame is extremely unlikely to join the Big Ten; and 2) if #1 ceases to be true, then Notre Dame is an obvious fit as the 12th school and no further discussion is required. This post will focus on the other schools both inside and outside the footprint that might be plausible candidates. My inclusion of any school in this list should not be considered any sort of an endorsement. I will list every school in or adjacent to Big Ten territory that has anything approaching a big time athletic program.
INSIDE THE FOOTPRINT (from east to west)
University of Pittsburgh
Football: The Panthers have a strong history and have won multiple national championships, but most recently in 1976. The Panthers' fan support pales in comparison to that of Penn State, but in recent years have been reasonably respectable. It has been a generation since Pitt could legitimately be considered a football power, but the Panthers certainly wouldn't be a stretch for Big Ten membership in this regard.
Basketball: Historically, Pitt has been an afterthought, but thanks to the accomplishments of former coach Ben Howland and current coach Jamie Dixon, the Panthers have transformed into one of the best programs in the country. In the late 1990s, Pitt tore down its football stadium, became a tenant of the Steelers at then-new Heinz Field, and built a state-of-the-art basketball arena where the football stadium once stood. Pitt seems to have staying power as a basketball power.
US News Ranking: 56 (five current Big Ten members are ranked lower).
AAU member?: Yes.
Fit/Big Ten interest: Pitt, as a large research university within the Big Ten footprint, has much in common with Big Ten schools, and would have been a good fit at any point over the last few decades. Still, the Panthers plow no new ground. The Big Ten, thanks to Penn State, already has a strong presence in Pittsburgh. The Panthers, even during an excellent 2009 season, averaged only 53,000 in attendance at a stadium with a capacity of over 65,000. Would Pitt, plus the addition of a championship game, result in a net revenue gain for the conference? I have my doubts.
Likelihood of interest:I suspect that from a financial perspective, membership would be tough to decline for Pitt. The Big East, however competitive, provides a fraction of the football revenue. In 2007-08, Pitt ranked #61 in Division I-A with $39 million in revenue. Northwestern was last in the Big Ten with $41 million in revenue that year, and Indiana was next-to-last with $56 million, nearly 20 million more than one of the most prominent programs in the Big East. Also, it would be an academic boon for Pitt. The interesting question would be to what degree Jamie Dixon and his East Coast recruiting would play a role. My guess is that Dixon would be opposed, but my further guess is that his opposition wouldn't be enough.
University of Cincinnati
Football: Barely more than a decade ago, Cincinnati was on IU's schedule as a MAC-style warmup game. In 2009, the Bearcats were a missed Texas field goal away from playing for the national championship. Still, Cincy plays in a 35,000 seat stadium, and Brian Kelly's decision to head to Notre Dame seems to confirm that the Bearcats have nowhere to go but down.
Basketball: Cincinnati is a legitimate historical power. The Bearcats won two NCAA titles in the 1960s and were excellent under Bob Huggins in the 1990s and 2000s.
US News Ranking: Tier 3 (all Big Ten schools are Tier 1)
AAU member?: No.
Fit: It's really pointless to debate Cincinnati's athletic merits, whether Ohio State would oppose it, or anything else. A tier 3 commuter school like Cincinnati never will garner the support the Big Ten's presidents.
Likelihood of interest: Cincinnati is a Big East school with no long history in the conference and located in the heart of Big Ten territory. I presume Cincinnati would jump at the chance in the unlikely event it were offered.
Iowa State University
Football: Other than some recent wins over dramatically more talented Iowa teams, not much to write home about. Iowa State ranks #103 in all-time winning percentage among current Division I-A members. Only Northwestern and IU rank lower. Unlike even Northwestern and IU, Iowa State has never played in one of the current BCS bowls.
Basketball: A bit better than football, but not much. Iowa State hasn't been to the Final Four since 1944 and has only 13 NCAA Tournament appearances.
US News Ranking: 88, below all Big Ten schools, but Tier 1.
AAU member?: Yes.
Fit/Big Ten interest: This is a school that is often mentioned in discussions on Big Ten expansion, and the appeal is completely lost on me. The Cyclones have a lackluster history in both sports, the Big Ten already has representation in Iowa, which is a fairly small state with no major media markets. Unless the creation of a championship game is some sort of cure-all, I can't imagine how anyone could argue that adding Iowa State would make the Big Ten a better conference.
Likelihood of interest: I sincerely have no idea. I have no read on Iowa State fans. I don't know if they prefer to be in a different conference from their rival Hawkeyes or if they would rather go toe-to-toe with Iowa in the Big Ten. I presume, perhaps unfairly, that most Big East teams would make the leap. It's a tougher read when the prospective team has a generations-long connection to a prominent conference. Iowa State ranked #63 in football revenue in 2007-08, and the Big 12 has inbalanced revenue distribution.
OUTSIDE THE FOOTPRINT
Football: The Scarlet Knights played in the first-ever college football game but haven't done much to distinguish themselves since then. Rutgers has parlayed some success under Greg Schiano into strong attendance, stadium expansion, and the like, but would it be appealing for Rutgers to leave an eastern conference that it theoretically can dominate to join a conference where it must compete with Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State? Rutgers has won 50 percent of its games (#78 in I-A) and has never played in a New Year's Day bowl or in one of the current BCS bowls.
Basketball: The Scarlet Knights have been to the NCAA Tournament six times in school history, most recently in 1991. Rutgers plays its home games in the RAC, and 8,000 bandbox.
US News Ranking: 66, within the range of Big Ten schools.
AAU member?: Yes.
Fit: Academically, fine. Athletically, the Scarlet Knights are well below average in the two sports that matter. Rutgers is a popular hobby horse for Joe Paterno and others, usually based on Rutgers's presence in the greater New York metro area/media market. This strikes me as overblown. If being in such an area matters, then why does Rutgers play in a 8,000 seat basketball arena? Why was the football stadium only recently expanded from 41,000? This would be a nice addition for Big Ten alumni who live in New York, but letting Rutgers in wouldn't turn NYC into a Big Ten town.
Likelihood of interest: Rutgers is one of the more profitable Big East football programs with 2007-08 revenue of $50 million. I presume the academic pull would be strong, but I can imagine some reticence about the idea of New Jersey's state university joining such a distinctly midwestern institution.
Football: The Orange have been down for several years, but they are a traditional football power. Historically, if not recently, the football program would be a reasonable addition to the Big Ten.
Basketball: Under the leadership of Jim Boeheim, Syracuse has been one of the most successful programs of the last 25 years, winning the 2003 NCAA title and finishing second twice (wouldn't the "Keith Smart, Keith Smart!" chant be fun?). Of course, Syracuse was a charter member of the Big East and is highly identified with that conference.
US News Ranking: 58, pretty average for the Big Ten.
AAU member?: Yes.
Fit: Syracuse would constitute an expansion far northeast of ithe current footprint. While one can argue whether western New york and western Pennsylvania have more in common with the midwest or the east coast, my less-than-knowledgeable impression is that as a university, Syracuse is very tied in to New York City and draws much of its student body from metro New York despite the geographic distance. Syracuse is as far east as Baltimore. Still, Penn State was an eastern power before joining the Big Ten, so Syracuse doesn't seem like much of a departure. Academically, although a private school and a bit smaller than most Big Ten schools, SU would fit just fine.
Likelihood of interest: I really don't know. In terms of revenue, it would seem to be a solid move for Syracuse. On the other hand, Syracuse is one of the more tradition-rich football programs in the Big East. It's possible to picture Syracuse dominating the Big East in football. The Big Ten? Not so much. Basketball, it seems to me, would be the major stumbling block. My guess is that Jim Boeheim wields a lot of influence at Syracuse, and my further guess is that he wouldn't be interested in such a major idenity shift for his program.
University of Maryland
Football: A solid but not overwhelming history in the ACC. Maryland has had a BCS appearance in the last ten years.
Basketball: Maryland is a basketball school in a basketball conference, and has won the NCAA Tournament in the last ten years.
US News Ranking: 53, solidly in the middle of the Big Ten.
AAU member?: Yes.
Fit: Certainly, Maryland's academics and athletics are up to snuff. Of course, like Syracuse, adding Maryland would be a major move eastward. On the other hand, Maryland is located in the suburbs of the major media market of Washington DC, and as far as I can tell as an outsider, seems to be more a part of the region's consciousness than Rutgers is in New York City. If Maryland were interested, I would think they would be a reasonably strong candidate.
Likelihood of interest: It strikes me as unlikely that Maryland would be interested. Despite recent strides in football, Maryland is a basketball school, and currently is one of the better programs in college basketball's most prestigious conference. My guess is that fan and alumni resistance would be strong.
West Virginia University
Football: The Mountaineers are an above average football program with a nearly .600 winning percentage and five top ten finishes in the last 22 seasons. WVU would be a worthy addition in football.
Basketball: The alma mater of Jerry West has a long and decent NCAA Tournament history and has qualified for the Sweet 16 three times in the last five years. WVU is no powerhouse, but has a solid basketball program.
US News Ranking: Tier 3. That's pretty bad for a state's flagship public university (all Big Ten schools are in Tier 1, roughly the top 100).
AAU member?: No.
Fit: I suspect that for Big Ten presidents, academics might be the dealbreaker. In academic prestige, WVU has more in common with Cincinnati and Louisville than with Big Ten schools. Also, WVU adds no major media markets. It's a shame, because I don't think WVU would be a bad fit athletically.
Likelihood of interest: I presume, with no real knowledge of the institution, that there would be interest. Obviously, part of that interest would be based on revenue and prestige, but as a state, West Virginia strikes me as something of a region of its own. It's not really southern, eastern, or midwestern, and certainly isn't tied to the east coast the way Rutgers and Syracuse are. I presume WVU would be game if the Big Ten were.
University of Kentucky
Football: UK has a solid program, but the Wildcats are an afterthought in the extremely competitive SEC East. As IU fans will recall from the longtime football series between IU and UK, the Wildcats have impressive fan support for a team with a below average record.
Basketball: Obviously, the Wildcats are one of the most accomplished programs in the history of college basketball. This addition would dramatically increase the prestige of the Big Ten. Imagine: IU-UK, MSU-UK, Purdue-UK, Ohio State-UK, Illinois-UK, every year, usually twice a year.
US News Ranking: 128. Lower than all current Big Ten schools, but not dramatically so.
AAU member?: No.
Fit: Obviously, basketball would be awesome. Football? Well, Kentucky has good fan support, but generally is considered a have-not. I'm not sure how the revenue picture would look. Kentucky would add the Lexington market and would enhance the Big Ten's presence in the Louisville and Cincinnati markets.
Likelihood of interest: I really don't know. Kentucky strikes me as a state that despite its central geography really treasures its southern identity. Leaving a southern conference to join a midwestern conference might clash with that. Academically, it seems to me it would be a great move for a school that is not currently Big Ten caliber but is within striking distance. In football, UK would be leaving a long history in the SEC, but might be convinced that it has a better chance of competing in the Big Ten. In basketball, UK has owned the SEC, but of its three biggest rivals (Louisville, Indiana, and Tennessee) two are non-conference. It's an intriguing question.
University of Louisville
Football: The Cardinals had a brief moment in the spotlight earlier this decade, but aren't a traditional football power by any stretch.
Basketball: The Cardinals have won two NCAA titles and are a top 10 basketball program historically, or top 15 at least.
US News Ranking: Tier 3 (all current Big Ten schools are Tier 1).
AAU member?: No.
Fit: Louisville would be a decent fit athletically and geographically, but my guess is that academics would be a dealbreaker.
Likelihood of interest: I presume that the opportunity to move into a more lucrative conference, particularly for football, would be attractive. Louisville's history in the Big East is relatively short, and the Metro/Great Midwest/Conference USA were constantly adding and losing members. This wouldn't be like Kentucky leaving the SEC after generations of membership, for instance. My guess is that UL would move, but it's academic.
University of Missouri
Football: An average program historically but currently on the upswing.
Basketball: Thanks to Maryland's recent tournament success, Missouri probably now owns the dubious distinction of "best basketball program without a Final Four appearance." Still, Mizzou has a solid basketball program.
US News Ranking: 102. Below all Big Ten schools but not dramatically so.
AAU member?: Yes.
Fit: Missouri would be an expansion of the conference's borders but into a midwestern portion of the country. bordered by Illinois and Iowa Missouri has good programs in both major sports, is the flagship university in its state, and would add the Kansas City media market and would solidify the Big Ten's presence in the St. Louis market. Again, I don't have a good enough handle on the numbers to know how they would work.
Likelihood of interest: Well, check out this thread on Rock M Nation. Some Mizzou fans are in favor, others are adamantly against the move. Mizzou has a long history in the Big 12 and its predecessors, but also some discontent with the current (in their view) Texas-dominated Big 12. The Big 12 has a less even revenue distribution formula than the Big Ten. I suspect that academics might carry the day if Mizzou were invited.
University of Nebraska
Football: While the last few years haven't been kind to the Huskers, they are an elite program.
Basketball: Nothing special, but neither was Penn State basketball.
US News Ranking: 96, slightly below the tail end of the Big Ten.
AAU member?: Yes.
Fit: Nebraska borders the Big Ten by virtue of a short border with Iowa, and would be quite a western expansion. Nebraska adds no major media markets, but particularly in football, the Huskers are the only show in town. Academically, NU is good enough.
Likelihood of interest: I really have no idea. Given the significance of Nebraska football, the long history in the Big 8/Big 12, and the fact that a Nebraska program playing to its potentional should own the Big Ten North, my guess is that there would be little interest.
Well, those are the candidates, both within and adjacent to the footprint. What do you think? Who do you prefer? Did I miss anyone? I welcome all comments.