As another football season approaches, times have never been better for the Big Ten in many ways.
Cash from media rights and the Big Ten Network has pumped up payrolls and supported capital expenditures throughout the conference. The Big Ten, in particular Commissioner Jim Delany, had a leading role in fashioning the next iteration of a postseason championship in football.
The Big Ten kicked off the latest round of conference expansion by wisely adding the University of Nebraska and its tradition-laden football program a year ago.
Of course, the addition of Nebraska allowed the Big Ten to split into divisions (and unless I look it up, I still can’t tell you who composes the “Leaders” and “Legends”) and implement its first-ever conference championship football game. Game No. 2 (of five set for Indy) will be at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 1.
And, yes, Indianapolis thanks you very much.
So, big times indeed for the B10.
Except for the fact that three of its glamour football programs—Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University and Nebraska—are under NCAA probation.
Penn State, as we all know, has brought nationwide condemnation in the horrific fallout following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Ohio State is facing another year of post-season ineligibility in the wake of the Tattoogate transgressions that cost Jim Tressell his job.
Nebraska is serving a two-year probation (but no post-season ban) as the result of improperly distributing $28,000 in books and supplies to a variety of student-athletes.
Asked at the recent Big Ten media day in Chicago whether the conference’s reputation had taken a hit, Delany was quick to submit that the Penn State case rose (or sank) to an entirely different level than those at Ohio State and Nebraska. In fact, Delany pointed out, it’s been common for the Big Ten to have any number of programs on probation over a five-year period, and the league’s record in that regard is consistent with other major conferences.
That does not mean it is acceptable, however.
“What we’ve been intent on since December is really looking hard to the issues of institutional control, concentration and power,” Delany said.
Yet, good luck with that at a time the rewards for and demands on winning are ever greater, pushing coaches to the edge of the rule book and sometimes beyond.
I’m willing to wager that Big Ten fans collectively are less concerned with a smattering of rules-breaking (excluding the egregious acts at Penn State) than they are that no Big Ten team has won a national title since Ohio State in 2002.
Perhaps more illustrative: The Big Ten’s overall bowl record in that span is 25-42. The league is 1-7 in its last eight Rose Bowls.
Then again, why fret over the league’s losing ways if the stadiums remain mostly full and TV ratings are robust? Saturday afternoons and nights remain both the place to be and must-see TV on most conference campuses.
Two of the exceptions, unfortunately, are Indiana and Purdue. The Hoosiers have averaged 41,000-plus fans a game in each of the last three seasons. That includes tickets purchased by students who generally arrive late and leave early, if they choose to come at all. A 1-11 record fails to inspire.
Purdue, despite an overall record of 7-6 in 2011, saw its average attendance slide to 45,225. It was the fourth straight year of decline and the lowest at Ross-Ade Stadium since 1992.
But here’s the good news. With Ohio State and Penn State both ineligible to represent the (I’m looking it up) Leaders Division, Indiana or Purdue need only to finish ahead of Illinois and Wisconsin to play in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 1.
Now wouldn’t that be something?•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.