Penn State accepted the Big Ten's invitation in 1989 and joined the conference in 1992 (1993 in football). Since then, fans and reporters have speculated about which school would become the inevitable 12th member. Now, nearly 20 years after Penn State began the transition to the Big Ten, everyone is reporting that the University of Nebraska will become the Big Ten's 12th member. When the expansion talk ramped up last December, I wrote this post, providing some insight on the schools in Big Ten state or adjoining states. Here's what I said about 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.
Bad predictions are nothing new around here, but I think I underestimated the resentment that existed among the old Big 8 schools, particularly those in the Big 12 North. A good friend of mine is a graduate of Kansas, and when we were in law school together shortly after the formation of the Big 12, I recall him grumbling about the move of the conference headquarters from Kansas City to Dallas, and about the Big 12 conceiving itself as a "new" conference rather than a continuation of the Big 8. I didn't realize the degree to which that resentment continued today. Certainly, that resentment probably isn't the main reason that Nebraska is leaving the Big 12. I'm sure that the good athletic fit and the academic benefits, and the dollars must make sense (although financially, Nebraska was one of the "haves" in the Big 12). While the discontent in the Big 12 allowed the Big Ten to expand, it's a cautionary tale as well: tradition matters, and Big Ten leaders should consider that when they decide whether to expand beyond 12. In the last 100 years, the Big Ten has lost Chicago, and added Michigan State, Penn State, and apparently Nebraska. That's it. Adding another four members would result in a conference in which nearly a third of the membership simply isn't a part of the history of the conference. Now, the Big Ten has its conference championship game and added a school that is an academic fit and a top 10 traditional football power. Does the conference need more? Does expanding too far, too fast create the risk that the Big Ten someday will be in the unfrotunate position faced by today's Big 12?
What does all of this mean for IU? For basketball, the impact will be minimal. Nebraska's athletic program is similar to that of Penn State. The Huskers are among the royalty of college football but have one of the worst basketball programs among the current BCS conferences. Nebraska has never won an NCAA Tournament game. The main question as it relates to basketball is whether the schools will be divided into divisions for basketball. For football, IU stands at the opposite end of the hierarchy, and it will depend on how the divisions are sorted. IU will have to improve significantly to have any sort of impact in football. Nevertheless, a six team division is by definition easier to win than an 11 team conference. Of course, we have no idea if a 12-team Big Ten will ever exist. Expansion could continue.
The next few days and weeks will be fascinating. How will the other conferences sort out? Will the Big Ten keep growing? When will Nebraska join? The answers should begin to roll in soon.