Forgive me a personal indulgence, but I want to get this down so I can forever remember where I was the moment that the Big Ten extended its clublike footprint all up into the Northeast corridor’s blue-state posterior: I was actually sitting in a press box at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, preparing to write a story about the epic football-related failures of the Big Ten conference. Adam Rittenberg, one of ESPN’s hardworking Big Ten bloggers, informed me of the rumors, and I did not believe them at first, because I could not imagine that even this tree sloth of a conference would engage in such a reflexively cynical exercise in eastward expansion.
By the third quarter, the story had broken: Maryland and Rutgers, a pair of athletic programs with questionable finances and perpetually bland football traditions, were barreling headlong toward membership in the conflagration once known, in its earliest days, as the Western Conference. It was all about television markets, we were told, about “expanding reach,” about every damned MBA concept you could think of except the actual product, because I guess the assumption in the Big Ten offices is that the product will eventually catch up to the money being thrown at it.
Not long after, the Snuffleupagus of a football game I was attending resumed. The host Wisconsin Badgers had already clinched the championship of what I am certain is either the Leaders or Legends Division — honestly, I’ve studied hard, but I still don’t know which is which — by virtue of locking up third place; the visiting Ohio State Buckeyes were undefeated at 10-0 and playing in the same division with no real shot at winning anything, largely because their ex-quarterback had procured discount tattoos. It was third-and-9 for the home team, on the visitors’ 24, and the Badgers trailed 14-7. It had been a wholly uninteresting contest. Wisconsin ran the ball straight up the gut, gaining virtually no ground; even with a prolific back like Montee Ball, this was a stunningly conservative playcall. In a moment, the Badgers would blow a field goal try, but first came the end of the quarter, and 80,000 people jumping around to House of Pain, shaking the demons out of the rafters and rattling the press box like a rickety carnival ride. It was fabulous, and exhilarating, a goose-bump–inducing display of youthful enthusiasm. It was better than anything I saw on the field that day. All these people seemed fully content just to be there — they came to get down, and the plodding product they’d paid to see would not soon stop them from flocking to Camp Randall in droves.
Which is why it doesn’t really matter what we think about anything. Legends? Leaders? What the hell’s the difference? All that matters is that we continue to show up.
Here’s the thing: They’ve got us, and they know they’ve got us. There are millions of Big Ten alumni — including me — fanned out across America, burdened with positive feeling toward our alma maters, loyal enough to vast state institutions that we show up a hundred thousand strong on Saturdays in Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania, and we bleed out an extra six dollars to the cable company in order to watch two or three football games a year and 18 hours a day of high-definition propaganda on the conference’s Riefenstahl-ian television network. The Big Ten’s only advantage over other conferences is its sheer scale, and now they’ve gotten even bigger, and the presumption, I suppose, is that we should somehow celebrate growth for growth’s sake. Even if the growth is entirely in the wrong direction.
This is what I mean:
This chart comes from a paper presented by Theodore Goudge, an associate professor in the department of geography at Northwest Missouri State University, at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. It pretty clearly shows what Goudge referred to as the “pigskin cult” of the south, to which the Big Ten footprint does not extend. With the glaring exception of Ohio, there is no dark red in Big Ten country; the map only gets paler and paler the further Northeast it extends, where there are more televisions but fewer prospects.
In case you’re not convinced, here’s another, isolating the prevalence of “blue-chip” talent:
Those of us who still bother to pay attention to Big Ten football1 have seen it coming for quite some time. The demographics are working against us. The population is shifting south, where high schools practice in the spring and construct $60 million stadiums; Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan have all shed electoral votes since 1980, while Florida and Texas have gained them. Only Ohio State (and perhaps Michigan, to a lesser extent) seem positioned to be nationally competitive by recruiting locally.
I am only addressing football here, because basketball is and always has been more elastic, due to smaller rosters and fewer expenses. But if you happen to believe the Big Ten is a basketball conference, you are probably reading this while listening to John Mellencamp’s Mr. Happy Go Lucky.
Meanwhile, maybe you’ve noticed that Big Ten games have gotten slower and slower, and less and less compelling. Do you know the last Big Ten quarterback to be chosen in the first round of the NFL draft? It was Kerry Collins, in 1995. The two best pros the Big Ten has produced in recent years, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, came from Texas and California, respectively. Russell Wilson, who transferred to Wisconsin for his senior season, went to high school in Virginia. And in case you missed it, all of this was hammered home by the high-profile oopsy-daisies of standard-bearing Ohio State in BCS bowl games throughout the ’00s.
” I’m not a demographer, nor am I a football coach,” said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, when Rittenberg questioned him about these issues a few months back. No, like most conference czars, Jim Delany is a lawyer, a Type A master of the universe who recently climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at age 64, and he has often presided over his fiefdom by limiting public information and defending the indefensible (i.e., the BCS) because he can get away with it.
In ways that matter to college administrators, Delany is a genius: The Big Ten Network is a money-making machine, and the conference actually made more money last year than even the SEC. Last fall, when I spent a day with the Indiana football program, they informed me that they’d been able to upgrade their facilities almost entirely with money procured from their Big Ten Network share. But that’s what makes this so frustrating for those of us who actually give a damn about the product: Speaking to Rittenberg, Delany appeared to characterize the conference’s football woes as a short-term concern, as something that could be attributed to an influx of new coaches and the consequences of immoral behavior at Penn State and Ohio State. He made no real acknowledgement of the long-term statistics, of the Big Ten’s 34-52 bowl record since 2000, of the fact that the Big Ten has won 37 percent of its nonconference games against nationally ranked teams since Ohio State won the national championship in 2002. The top of the conference is largely shaky, and the bottom has never been worse: I imagine Purdue and Minnesota and Illinois would struggle to finish .500 in the MAC.
But honestly, I don’t even know if competitiveness is a real priority anymore, as long as the money keeps flowing.
Back in Madison, a cold fish of a game swam upstream toward its death, Wisconsin still down 14-7 and embarking on a final desperate drive. With 38 seconds to play and no time outs, the Badgers handed off to Ball once again, draining half the remaining time away. It was yet another mind-bogglingly infuriating playcall straight out of 1967, and the crowd jeered, and yet somehow Wisconsin still managed to spike the ball, stop the clock, throw a pair of unsightly passes, and tie it up, and the crowd cheered. Then Ohio State scored quickly in overtime, and the Badgers could not move the ball, and just like that, it was over, and the crowd went back outside and drank. The Buckeyes were now 11-0, with only a game against Michigan standing between them and a perfect season. They will not play for a Big Ten championship or a national championship. Their only hope is that the Associated Press poll might deem them no. 1 and split the national title vote. “We’re certainly not a finished product on offense and it showed,” said Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes’ first-year coach. “I can’t stand watching — we just don’t have the vertical threats, and we’ve got to do that.”
Meyer’s pessimism is both wholly earned and utterly frightening. This is not one of the all-time great Ohio State teams, but they are far better than any of their conference brethren even now; it makes me think that, if Meyer does not once again burn out his psyche on a hotel-room carpet, the Buckeyes will dominate the Big Ten for at least the remainder of the decade. With the possible exception of an aberrant Michigan or Wisconsin squad here or there, I cannot see anyone consistently challenging them.
“It hurts sometimes when you think about it,” Ohio State defensive back Bradley Roby told me. “We believe we’re one of the best teams in the country, and we can’t prove it.”
At least, not now. Not in this Big Ten.
I am writing this on Monday afternoon, with the Big Ten Network muted in the background. There is a press conference taking place at the University of Maryland, and every time I turn up the sound someone is copping to a wholly cynical point of view. For both the Big Ten and a cash-strapped Maryland program, it is so completely about the money that no one can even lie effectively enough to cover it up. “It is not only about money,” says one Maryland official, and then he follows up immediately with: “Somebody has to pay the bills.”
And now Delany is talking about how he built up equity in the Rose Bowl, and about how Maryland provides “terrific demographics,” and I want nothing more than to turn the damned thing off and cancel my whole damned sports tier subscription. But this is my conference, this lumbering and fatuous and fabulously wealthy brontosaurus, and I have no choice but to keep paying in.