Saturday, August 21, 2010

Big Ten Divisions: The mistake the Big Ten shouldn't make

Back in June, great excitement surrounded Nebraska’s agreement to join the Big Ten Conference. The Big Ten got one of the “blue bloods” in college football, within the Big Ten’s traditional Midwestern footprint, with one of the best, most knowledgeable fan bases in the country. It was consistent with the Big Ten’s “we do things different here” mentality: while much of the country expected the Big Ten to poach Texas or possibly add Rutgers. Chasing after Texan population growth or Rutgers as an entrĂ©e into the New York media market (and Big Ten Network carriage fees) was considered a given. The Big Ten’s decision to take Nebraska instead was seemingly consistent with a league that holds out for only academically elite schools and has staunchly opposed a college football playoff, preferring instead the Rose Bowl and the relationship with the Pacific-10 Conference.

One of the givens when Nebraska joined was that, with 12 members, the Big Ten would hold a conference championship game. The NCAA generally requires that member schools schedule no more than 12 Football contests per season. However, there are series of so-called “exempt” games, which don’t count against the 12-game limit. The most famous, of course, is a bowl game, but for our purposes we’re more interested in the “Conference Championship Game.” The rule allows leagues consisting of at least 12 members to split into 2 divisions of at least 6 members each, and play “round robin” competition within each division (although leagues usually also schedule a few games across the divisions). If a league complies with these rules, then the 2 Division Champions may play in a Conference Championship Game that does not count against the 12-game limit. Ever since Roy Kramer discovered this rule in the early 90s and his Southeastern Conference’s title game became a smash hit, it has been an on-again, off-again (but mostly on-again) trend in college football for leagues to get to 12 members and hold a nationally televised title game.

Almost from the day that Nebraska announced that they had joined, there was speculation about how the divisions would be drawn up. Some factions have said from the beginning that the easiest and most logical arrangement for the Big Ten would be a simple East/West split, with the following divisions:

East: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue

West: Northwestern, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska

Immediately after Nebraska joined, Commissioner Jim Delany said that the league would have 3 “priorities,” in the following order: (a) “competitive fairness” (b) “maintenance of rivalries” and (c) “geography.” The emphasis on competitive fairness was thought by many to be a reference to splitting the so-called “Big Four” of Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan, and Penn State evenly into the 2 divisions (2 and 2) – obviously a deviation from a simple East/West geographic model. This sense was generally thought to have been confirmed when Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez was quoted as making statements along these same lines (although the careful reader will note some ambiguity). Although Alvarez was later quoted as reframing the analysis from splitting a “Big 4” to splitting a “Big 6” (including Wisconsin and Iowa), Commissioner Delany later poured further cold water on the possibility of a geographic alignment.

In recent days, further specifics have come out that make it clearer and clearer that the Big Ten has lost its way in drawing up the divisions. Most proposals for divisions have placed Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, on the theory that the best way for their traditional season-ending game to be emulated in the new era of a divisional league format is for them to be placed in the same division, with (assuming Michigan’s program rebounds) the division title and an appearance in the Conference Championship Game on the line in many seasons. However, news recently broke that OSU Athletic Director Gene Smith had suggested that they might actually be split; shortly thereafter, Michigan AD Dave Brandon stated much more specifically that it was likely to happen, and as of this writing it is considered all but a certainty.

Why does this matter to Michigan State? My position is that, whatever our feelings about Michigan, the tradition of the Michigan/Ohio State rivalry is a treasure that belongs to the entire Big Ten. What differentiates the Big Ten from much of the rest of the country is the way our league cherishes traditions – particularly traditions that matter. If we stand idly by and watch the Big Ten sell its soul in a misguided pursuit of a few extra TV nickels, it might be something that affects Michigan State next time. Besides that, there is every reason to believe that this effort will fail: an enormous part of the Big Ten’s brand identity is tied up in the notion that we aren’t the kind of place where we kowtow to TV demands. The Big Ten sat on 11 members for nearly 20 years, when going to 12 would have produced a lucrative championship game. The league has staunchly opposed a playoff, which would be more profitable than the bowl system, because it prefers the tradition of the relationship with the Rose Bowl and Pac-10. (Note: I prefer a playoff, but not because it would be more profitable, and I respect the Big Ten’s willingness to elevate tradition above money.) The Big Ten has refused to play on weeknights and places fairly strict limits on playing Saturday night games in the cold weeks of late Fall, even though making concessions on either point would likely be profitable and certainly would provide for more nationally televised games and greater exposure. The league currently utilizes an “unbalanced” schedule which protects traditional rivalry games over balance; thus Ohio State never loses two of the very good teams (Michigan and Penn State), Penn State never misses one very good team and one middle class team (Ohio State and Michigan State), but Wisconsin never misses only a pretty good team and a crummy team (Iowa and Minnesota). And that’s a good thing, I say: better to preserve those traditions and tolerate a little scheduling imbalance than eviscerate what makes college football special. Thus I am all the more shocked and saddened by the Big Ten’s apparent direction here.

It is worthwhile to take an aside here and address the point that was raised by President Graham Spanier of Penn State. He seems to feel that, so long as 2 rivals play annually, that is enough. But what makes a rivalry sizzle in most cases is jockeying for position in the standings against each other. The only way to do that is if the teams are both in the same division. That way, only one can finish in 1st place, and there’s more on the line when the game is played than mere bragging rights. I find it absurd and baffling that so many of the powers that be seem to think that, just because two teams play annually, that’s an adequate compromise. Unless they’re both in the same division, playing for the same title, and jockeying for position in the same standings, I fail to see what makes the rivalry really sizzle. I would argue that the Michigan/Ohio State rivalry became what it did because of the “Big 2, Little 8” Bo & Woody era, when so often their season-ending game had the league title on the line. Is there any doubt that it would not have become the same phenomenon if that hadn’t been such a routine situation?

What the Big Ten should do is use the geographic divisions. There are many reasons why. Some believe that geography per se is a sufficient reason to group the teams – a position I sympathize with. Ultimately, I think the Big Ten should use geographic divisions, although for non-geographic reasons (but referring to the alignment as the “geographic model” is a convenient shorthand). I reach that outcome by applying the following 4 rules:

1. Ohio State and Nebraska should not be in the same division. They’re the two most successful programs in the league (now that Nebraska is joining).

2. Ohio State and Michigan must be in the same division, for the reasons stated above.

3. Michigan and Michigan State must be in the same division, again for the reasons stated above.

4. Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota must be in a division together. The Big Ten has always been a league that depends on collegiality and treating the membership as fundamentally equal, even if this is not the practical reality; I consider it an important test of the Big Ten’s commitment to this principle that Minnesota’s traditional rivalries with Iowa and Wisconsin be honored, even if Minnesota’s program has not enjoyed the success of the league’s elites.

This produces two pairs of 3 teams each:

A: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State

B: Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota

Because of the first rule, there are only two options for what to do with Nebraska. The first is to combine these two groups of 3 teams, and then have the other 6 teams form a division. Thus:

A: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota

B: Nebraska, Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue

I consider this alignment laughably unbalanced; even if we cannot measure balance precisely, we can ask that it at least pass a smell test. As a result, we have to take the only other option for Nebraska, which is to put it with the triad of Plains States teams to form a quartet. Thus:

A: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State

B: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota

The next central question is what to do with Penn State. It’s been suggested that putting Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan in the same division would be “unbalanced” or “stacked.” So let’s assume that we separate Penn State from those other 2.

A′′: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, [Purdue], [Illinois], [Northwestern]

B′′: Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, [Indiana]

The teams in brackets can be moved around interchangeably within these rules. I selected Indiana because it is pretty clearly the weakest team in the Big Ten. Yet even with Indiana in the B′′ group, it seems (once again) not to pass the balance smell test. Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa all in the same group seems like an unfair slugfest to me – particularly given the clouds surrounding Michigan’s program. At least in the near-term, this alignment might as well be a bye for Ohio State into the championship game. As a result, it strikes me that the only logical thing to do is to put Penn State with Michigan State et al. Thus:

A: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State

B: Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin

Once you have arrived at this alignment, all of the controversial decisions have been made. At this point, we’re left with 4 teams: Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue. These 4 teams logically can (and should) be split into 2 pairs of in-state rivals. Although the Illinois pair could be put with the “East” teams and the Indiana pair with the “West” teams consistent with these rules, what would be the point? Does anybody seriously believe that this would substantially affect the league’s competitive “balance”? I doubt it, and at this point (given the results of the process outlined here for making the controversial decisions) the only reason to deviate from assigning these 2 pairs east/west geographically would be to somehow assert our independence from geography (or as I like to say, change for change’s sake).

But we can talk about this all day. I, for one, intend to do what little I can about this situation, which I consider an unmitigated disaster for the Big Ten. We should be writing to the powers that be in the Big Ten. Consider dropping a letter or e-mail to some of the following individuals if you agree with me and want to express your displeasure:

Mr. James E. Delany

Commissioner, Big Ten Conference

1500 Higgins Road

Park Ridge, IL 60068-6300

Dr. Michael A. McRobbie, Chair

Council of Presidents/Chancellors, Big Ten Conference

200 Bryan Hall

107 S. Indiana Avenue

Bloomington, IN 47405-7000

Dr. Lou Anna K. Simon

President, Michigan State University

450 Administration Building

East Lansing, MI 48824-1046

Mr. Mark J. Hollis, Director

Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, Michigan State University

218 Jenison Fieldhouse

East Lansing, MI 48824-1025

Mr. Joel I. Ferguson, Chair

Board of Trustees, Michigan State University

1223 Turner Street, Ste. 300

Lansing, MI 48906-4363

Ms. Julia D. Darlow, Chair

Board of Regents, University of Michigan

P.O. Box 130047

Ann Arbor, MI 48113-0047

As near as I can tell, these are the people who answer to us, as Spartan students, alumni, and fans, who are in a position to do something about this mess. (Although Ms. Darlow is the Chair of the Michigan Regents, she’s elected, so if you’re a Michigan resident, she actually answers to you whether or not you’re associated with the University.) If we speak out, who knows – they might even listen to us. What’s more, they might actually do something about it.