Let me preface this blog post by stating that I am not an “insider” regarding Big Ten expansion nor have ever claimed to be. However, as this blog has received more attention from across the country, I’ve been sent a good amount of information from people that actually do have relevant contacts. Parsing through it all has been interesting since there has been a fair amount of conflicting stories by people who swear to be in the know (which has occurred in many places throughout the blogosphere and message board world). So, I don’t blame anyone for taking this particular blog post with a grain of salt. There’s a fairly good chance that all of this will be debunked by next week just like many other Big Ten expansion rumors. I will say that the ultimate sources of this information would be privy to what was stated last week at the Big Ten meetings with Jim Delany. Frankly, I couldn’t make this list up as it flies in the face of a lot of arguments and assumptions that I’ve set forth in this blog.
It appears that the Big Ten has been heavily discussing the following five schools: Texas, Texas A&M, Maryland, Virginia and Vanderbilt. I’m not saying that these are the only five schools being discussed, none of the “usual suspects” such as Nebraska and Rutgers will end up being included, or the Big Ten has forgotten about Notre Dame, but these are apparently all targets that the conference is focusing on.
Now, let’s not completely get tunnel vision with the names of the 5 particular schools that I listed above for the moment. (I’ll give my personal opinion at the end.) Instead, this is an opportunity to take a step back and re-evaluate and possibly re-calibrate what a lot of us have been assuming the Big Ten wants to do. Here are my main takeaways:
1. Texas is the Ultimate Goal – I know a lot of people believe that I’m a shining example of a Texas-to-the-Big Ten fanboy, yet there are multiple accounts from both the Big Ten and Texas that getting UT is the ultimate goal for the conference regardless of what anyone else is saying publicly. So, this isn’t something to be passed off as, “Well of course the Big Ten wants Texas, but they’re never going to get them, so let’s move on.” It is becoming clearer that the reason why the Big Ten is taking so long with its expansion plans is NOT because Texas and/or Notre Dame have rejected the conference outright, as many bloggers and message board posters seem to want to believe, but rather the exact opposite where at the very least Texas is returning Jim Delany’s phone calls. There’s a whole lot of public posturing going on here.
2. “Shifting Population” Comment is Literal – When Jim Delany made his comment that “shifting population” to the South and demographic changes was right alongside the Big Ten Network as the top factors for examining expansion, I initially was in agreement with Adam Rittenberg, who believed that the Big Ten really wasn’t looking South outside of Texas and wanted to shore up more population bases in the North. However, there are two things that all of the 5 schools listed have in common: they are all located south of the Mason-Dixon line (yes, even Maryland) and in areas that are projected to grow rapidly in population over the next 20 years. Just as importantly, those population changes are based more upon solid economic underpinnings (energy in Texas, federal government in Maryland and Virginia, health care in Nashville) than, as uber commenter Richard has argued, “Ponzi scheme” real estate aimed at investors and retirees in places like Florida, Arizona and Nevada. Considering the slow-to-no growth population trends in the home states of the Big Ten’s marquee schools of Michigan and Ohio State, getting into higher growth areas, not just new markets, may be key for the conference to maintain its current demographic advantages for the long-term.
3. Academics with a Capital “A” – Looking at this list of 5 schools, AAU membership in and of itself may not be enough for the Big Ten’s academic requirements. The Big Ten appears to be looking to raise its “academic brand” as much or even more than its athletic brand. Adding Vandy (top ranked BCS school after Stanford, Duke and Northwestern) and Virginia (in the discussion as the nation’s top public university) doesn’t just upgrade the academic reputation among the wonks that look at ARWU rankings and research funding numbers, but also for the average Joe upper middle class suburban high school student looking for colleges. In the academic world, there is an image associated with being a “Big Ten school” in a manner that doesn’t exist for any other conference outside of the Ivy League, so the university presidents are going to be fiercely protective of that. There would be no dilution of the Big Ten’s academic standing whatsoever, whether looking at the populist US News rankings or graduate research-focused metrics.
4. No Mass Annexation from One Conference – This particular mix consists of 2 schools from the Big XII, 2 from the ACC and 1 from the SEC. Whether this is ultimately the exact composition of expansion schools for the Big Ten (or even anywhere close to it), my general feeling is that we’re not going to see, say, 4 or 5 schools added from a single conference. Part of the reason that the Big Ten is so strong is that it operates as a cohesive unit more than 11 separate bodies. Therefore, in the event of a multi-school expansion, it would make sense that the conference would avoid adding too many schools from a particular source in order to prevent those schools from forming a “bloc” that never really integrates with the rest of the members.
5. The American Pastime – Baseball is likely reason number 1,587 on the priority list for Big Ten expansion, yet it’s hard not to notice that the conference would have a kick-ass baseball league with these 5 schools. As of the date of this blog post, Virginia and Texas are the top 2 ranked baseball teams in the nation while Vandy and Texas A&M are traditionally strong programs. Come to think of it, one of the most prominent criticisms of the Big Ten from Texas fans is the poor baseball league, so if adding some great baseball teams makes a potential move a little bit easier, then all the better.
6. Vanderbilt? – When Andy Katz said that a Big Ten source suggested Vandy as a potential expansion candidate a couple of weeks ago, I put about as much stock in it as the conference adding USC and UCLA. It seemed to be almost a lose-lose situation – a school that would be incredibly difficult to pull away from the extremely stable SEC and a clear #2 in its own home market to Tennessee. As much as I tell people to think like a university president instead of a sports fan, that doesn’t mean being sports ignorant. Out of all of the conference realignment scenarios, the one thing that I consistently assumed is that the SEC wouldn’t lose any members. Heck, I’ve continuously been skeptical about any schools bolting from the ACC.
Digging deeper, there is shockingly a lot of smoke around Vandy. One key fact to note is that there is an extremely important personal connection: Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee, who is in the midst of his second stint in that position in Columbus and was the chancellor at Vanderbilt from 2000-2007. As far as university presidents go, Gee is about as high profile as you can get. Time named him the best college president in the country back in November and I recall when I was an upper middle class suburban high school student flipping through the US News rankings 15 years ago or so (ugh – it doesn’t feel that long ago) reading a day-in-the-life account of him in his first stint at tOSU. By all accounts, Gee was incredibly popular at Vandy. The main hiccup during his tenure was a report in the Wall Street Journal that his wife at the time was using medicinal marijuana in the chancellor’s residence along with hoarding the university’s supply of Doritos while listening to The Dark Side of the Moon and watching The Wizard of Oz at the same time.
Regardless, Gee is extremely influential in the academic world overall, not just the Big Ten. He left Vandy on a high note and took the very un-SEC-like step of eliminating Vandy’s separate athletic department and consolidating its activities under the Division of Student Life. If Vandy somehow ends up joining the Big Ten down the road, this connection may prove to have been a key factor. I go back-and-forth as to whether this is a good idea (I don’t know if Vandy could get the Big Ten Network on basic cable in Nashville), but the main point is that Andy Katz’s original report has some legs.
So, if the Big Ten were to hypothetically add the 5 schools that I listed, I’d consider it on par with the LOST finale: pretty good overall and definitely can’t complain because it hit the main target, yet there’s a lingering feeling that there could’ve been a little more. Replacing one of the schools other than Texas with Notre Dame or Nebraska would still seem to make it a blockbuster sports move as well as still having an overall improvement to the academic standing of the league. In fact, one of the cited reasons that Vandy might be a consideration is that its academic strength would balance out adding a school like Nebraska in the minds of the university presidents.
As for the usual suspects, I still think Nebraska and Rutgers are in good positions to eventually get Big Ten invites if Texas doesn’t ultimately want to join, while Syracuse continues to hang around. The schools that need to worry appear to be Pitt (logical deduction based on such a heavy focus on shifting population while its academic fit argument could be trumped by demographically-friendly schools like Vandy and UVA) and Missouri (multiple separate rumblings that it wouldn’t receive a Big Ten invite in any scenario – please don’t kill the messenger on that one).
So, that’s the latest scuttlebutt on Big Ten expansion. Apologies to Twitter follower Cory Stinebrink for starting a rumor.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from Inside Vandy)