Big Ten from Eleven to Twelve? If There’s No Luck of the Irish, Bring in More Orange

A Big Ten Wonk post from a couple of weeks ago explored some views from conference fans about adding a 12th team to the Big Ten. The primary advantage to this is that a conference with 12 teams can split into two divisions and hold a football championship game at the end of the season. That was the main impetus of the ACC grabbing Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech from the Big East a couple of years ago.

The obvious twelfth team for the Big Ten would of course be Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have the one football program that consistently draws national attention every year regardless of whether they are good or bad and have long-standing rivalries with a number of Big Ten teams, including Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, and Penn State. The problem is that there's no program in the nation that has less of an incentive to join a conference than Notre Dame. The Irish recently renewed their TV contract with NBC and the new BCS rules essentially guarantee that the team will receive a major bowl berth if they can get through the regular season with only two losses.

I do believe that Notre Dame will eventually want to join a conference for football and when that time comes, there's no question that they would choose the Big Ten over the Big East. Paraphrasing Groucho Marx, Notre Dame doesn't want to be a member of any club that would have it as a member. That is, the Big Ten is already arguably the most powerful conference in the nation – it would be great if the Irish joined, but the conference is more than strong enough to stand on its own and doesn't need Notre Dame. The Big East, while having a monster basketball conference, is simply awful in football and is desperate to add any decent football program out there. Is Notre Dame, a school that is obsessed with its national profile, going to choose a conference where the best opposing programs are Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State or one with Pittsburgh and West Virginia as the dominant teams? When thinking along these lines, there's no way that Notre Dame is ever going to join the Big East for football. I wouldn't say the same for the Big Ten.

Still, if there was a 110% guarantee that Notre Dame will never, ever join any conference for football (the Irish rejected a formal invitation from the Big Ten in 1999), the Big Ten ought to move on and add a different 12th team. There's been banter about taking Missouri from the Big 12 or adding Pittsburgh or West Virginia. However, one of the emails printed in the aforementioned Big Ten Wonk post nailed exactly who I believe ought to be that 12th team if there's no shot at Notre Dame: the Syracuse Orange.

To me, Syracuse is the only school other than Notre Dame that would make sense for the Big Ten. The most predominant reason is that the ACC/Big East shakeup has essentially made the Northeastern portion of the United States up for grabs in college football. If the Big Ten has Syracuse paired with Penn State, the conference will have the two schools with the largest fan bases on the East Coast to go along with its dominance in the Midwest.

There are some Big Ten fans that have bemoaned the lack of geographic purity of the conference since we added Penn State. To put it nicely, I think those fans are inward looking people who have no concept whatsoever of the big picture. In this ESPN World where it's critical for college sports leagues to present matchups that have implications at a national level rather than a regional level, it's incredulous to me that we would want to limit the reach of the greatest conference in the country to the Midwestern states.

Let's look at the other candidates mentioned most often. Pittsburgh would be a natural rival for Penn State, but the problem with Pitt is that Penn State already covers the Pittsburgh media market itself better than the Panthers. West Virginia is an even worse choice: the Mountaineer fan base doesn't extend very far past Morgantown – and Morgantown or even the entire state of West Virginia is certainly not big enough in terms of population that the powers that be in the Big Ten would care to grab that market. Missouri is one of the biggest rivals for Illinois, but the Illini also already provide coverage for the Big Ten in St. Louis. The Tigers do open up Kansas City for the Big Ten, but even then, Mizzou has little reason to move when it's already in the financially and competitively strong Big 12 conference. Moving to the Big Ten would be a step up in academic prestige for them, yet that wouldn't be enough to pay for a messy and expensive divorce with the Big 12.

That leaves Syracuse. It's the team that the ACC originally wanted instead of Virginia Tech and for good reason. Syracuse, while down last year, has traditionally had a strong football program. At the same time, the Orange basketball program is consistently one of the best in the country. With Penn State already a member of the Big Ten, Syracuse would have a natural East Coast traveling partner and would not be physically isolated the way Boston College is with the other ACC teams. Since the Big East has been emaciated in football, Syracuse has a strong incentive to switch conferences. Last, and certainly not least, Syracuse has one of the biggest college fan bases in New York City and is considered one of the "home teams" there.

If the Big Ten is going to expand, it should expand its geographic footprint instead of looking within its present boundaries. It's pretty simple to me – New York City and the rest of New York State becoming Big Ten country is a whole lot more valuable than duplicating coverage in Pittsburgh and St. Louis or adding Morgantown. As I said before, Syracuse would make the Big Ten the top football conference on the East Coast as well as keeping its title as the predominant place for college sports in the Midwest. Other than the obvious choice of Notre Dame, I can't think of another school other than Syracuse that could add as much value to the Big Ten.


17 thoughts on “Big Ten from Eleven to Twelve? If There’s No Luck of the Irish, Bring in More Orange

  1. S. Eric Long

    Yo Frank the Tank,
    It may help to look back at the history of the Big 10 to understand why Syracuse may not be the best choice for a 12th member. Formerly known as the Western Conference, four of the eight teams at the Big 10’s founding in 1896 were Illinois colleges, with the remaining four from Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan.
    During this era, transportation of the visiting team was mostly by train unless it was a crosstown rival (as with the three Chicago area teams). Thus, regionalism for Collegiate Athletics made a lot of sense. Fast forward to the 1950s when air travel became the major mode of transportation. Conferences grew and spread out geographically. The Conference USA covers the eastern half of the states, but they are an exception to the regionalism concept in college sports.
    Because college football is heavily steeped in tradition, regionalism remains a major component of the game. Many rivalries exist within each conference, and these bring a lot of fan interest to the game.
    Major League Baseball recently bought into regionalism, by having division teams play mostly other teams within the same division. It was likely due more to economics, especially with the lost revenue of live games being three hours past local Eastern Time Zone when emanating from the West Coast. Most college football conferences are based in a half-dozen states.
    While Syracuse is not that much further east than Penn State, its addition would bring in the state of New York, which is more closely associated with the Eest Coast geographically.
    Since Illinois, Indiana and Michigan each have two teams, it makes sense for one of the other Big 10 football states to get a second team in the Conference. I’d like to see Ohio get a second team or perhaps Wisconsin or Iowa. Ohio has Cincinnati and any of several MAC teams, especially Toledo, Akron or Ohio. Okay, so Ohio University is a bit of a stretch, but they do have the former Nebraska coach. Notre Dame adds a third Indiana team to the Big 10, and that would result in an imbalance the one or two colleges per state in the conference.
    Something to think about–
    SE Long


  2. SE,

    Thanks for the great comment. I understand your line of thinking, but I believe that the future of the BCS conferences is to get away from the history of regionalism that you’ve indicated here and instead look to more national audiences. Certainly, with the advent of the Big Ten Channel on the horizon along with top shelf television deals with ABC, ESPN, and CBS, I believe that the Big Ten ought to look outside of its current footprint as opposed to within. National exposure is why the ACC added Boston College and attempted to add Syracuse a couple of years ago. While Notre Dame is physically located in Indiana, I see it as the one school out there where its location is irrelevant – it’s such a nationally recongized program that people don’t see it as just an Indiana college. I still think the Irish are a perfect match for the Big Ten, but if they continue to insist on being independent, I’m a strong advocate of the conference breaking out of the Midwestern regional mold, especially when it has a prime opportunity to become the dominant force in East with a Penn State – Syracuse combo in addition to its established stronghold in the Midwest. Think of it as a game of Risk as it applies to college sports – the conference that has the strongest footprint is the one that’s going to dominate on and off the field in the long-term.


  3. Good idea, but the timing is all off. After Notre Dame, the Big Ten has not been thrilled with the candidates. so timing will play everything. Syracuse is going through a down period in football and while basketball is solid, there will be a coaching change around the corner so anything can happen. The name that Big Ten officials continue to bring up is Rutgers. Even during the down years of Rutgers, they were still a name that came up. If they make a full upgrade for basketball and football in the coming years, they will be worthy of consideration.


  4. Quinn,

    I believe that Rutgers has potential, but it’s literally going to take at least a decade of success on the gridiron before they become a true candidate for Big Ten membership. There are a ton of factors that favor Rutgers, such as its location close to New York City and strong academic reputation as a state flagship university. However, the Big Ten is only going to take an additional member that’s guaranteed to pay overwhelming dividends over the long-term (mere potential is not going to cut it with this group). Perhaps Rutgers could become the preeminent alternative to Notre Dame to be the 12th Big Ten member, but I believe that Syracuse has the upper hand at this point in time (there’s a reason why the ACC originally wanted the Orange over Virginia Tech). Regardless, the Big Ten will only make a move when there’s such an obvious choice available that the general public wouldn’t even bother debating its merits (right now, Notre Dame would be the only one to fit that criteria). It took quite awhile to get Penn State accepted into the conference and they had an impeccable resume of success along with the ability to sell 100,000 tickets every week, so the standards are set incredibly high.


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  6. I would take Rutgers over Syracuse

    Syracuse football brings in NYC viewers?
    Rutgers will be more viable choice for that reason, at least from my experience most of NY proximity people doesn’t pay much attention to College football.
    I believe NBC conducted some kind of street survey to see if New Yorkers knew what Rutgers Scarlet Knights were, very few knew who they were despite Rutgers having successful season.
    I live in Long Island (NYC suburb), when I visit pubs on Saturdays, almost always they don’t turn college football on Big TVs with the exception of High Rank vs High Rank. I work at the City(manhattan), attend few happy hours no one will chat with you regards to College football except maybe few phrases like “hey rutgers in top 10 or what?” Maybe in ESPN zone, it might be different.
    Most of my friends won’t watch any college football except perhaps the BCS title game.
    I have hard time finding fellow college football fan on this side of USA, if your looking.

    Basketball fans? Unless they play on MSG, they won’t pay much attention to them either. You need to understand NYorker’s attitude before venturing out to even persuade them to a college sports fan.
    Alot of NYorkers have attitude of George Steinberner, either you win the championship or you’re just an another bystander. They might pay attention to you if you have chance of winning nat’ championship, or nothing.


  7. I would take Rutgers over Syracuse

    one more thing to add.
    Rutgers game NYC ppl might make the trip to the game, Syracuse game? I doubt people will fly there just to see a college football, at least at this era no.
    If Syracuse want to make decent money off NYC television market, have fun persuading time warner & cablevision to adopt Big Ten network w/o having heavy penalties. They are greedy folks who still won’t give us NFL network


  8. Add the Ohio Bobcats… OU would be a great secondary rival for Ohio State as well as a regional rival to Penn State & Indiana. OU has a 13,000+ capicity Convocation Center for Basketball, Volleyball, Wrestling, etc. also an up & coming football team. Academically OU would fit perfectly into the Big Ten as the universities academics/prestige is highly regarded throught the midwest & the nation. Plus I believe there enrollment is just short of 30,000. The only thing holding them back is the fact that they have a small Football Stadium… which given the chance to join the Big Ten I’m sure OU would figure something out in regards to expanding Peden Stadium. As an OSU alum… my vote is for OU!! Other then the NYC Market, Syracuse does nothing for the Big Ten.


  9. osukn

    You hit the nail on the head in this article. I think people who feel that Notre Dame will never join the Big Ten miss the point. Notre Dame will never join the any conference because of the money generated by the football teams independence. No one would argue Notre Dame makes sense to the Big Ten or to Notre Dame. After all, it is no secret that the faculty at ND was a major push to join for academic reasons, i.e. the AAU and the academic Big Ten + U of Chicago.

    The problem? money. However, if you create a network that provides maximum exposure nationwide and creates more revenue than what ND already gets, now your talking about a completely different animal altogether. Why, at a BTN press conference, would Delany mention expansion? Don’t think that ND isn’t nosing around about the BTN and the revenues the network will create. Don’t think there isn’t discussions about the finacials at South Bend. These are volital times in college football. The last time ND expressed interest was at the beginning of the BCS. They didn’t want to be shut out. Of course, they got a great deal. But for how long?

    The BCS sytem is getting tweaked yet again.(probably) What will happen with the next BCS or some offspring of it. My gut tells me that ND gets nervous every time the BCS is tweaked. They are still ND, but with ESPN, ESPN 2 and the other 25 games all playing simultaniously on a saturday, ND isn’t quite what it used to be. When I was a kid you got the Big Ten game of the week and ND. That was it! Times have changed. They are one of four I-A independants. ND, in my mind, knows that the days as an independant are numbered. I don’t care what any body says about the Big Ten being down. It is the the most powerful atheletic and academic conference in the Country, with the most powerful man in college athletics as its commissioner, with huge institutions and encompasses one quarter of the nations population.

    ND expressed some interest in the Big Ten b/f the BTN. The only peice to the puzzle left, is can the BTN tip the revenue scale solidly in favor of joining over a path of Independence? That’s the million dollar question.


  10. josh

    Cincinatti should be added in my opinion–it doesn’t have the historica ties to the Big East like Syracuse or the Big 12 like ISU, Missouri, etc.


    1. There’s one monster issue with Cincinnati, which is that Ohio State already covers that market. With the Big Ten Network now in existence, where its profitability is based on getting into the most households possible, there is no financial incentive to bring on any school that is a market that is already covered by another market in the conference. This makes it even more likely that if the Big Ten ever chooses anyone other than Notre Dame (which has a huge national fan base), it would be Syracuse or Rutgers because they bring along the households in New York and New Jersey, respectively.


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  12. Bill

    Missouri, that’s who the Big Ten needs to grab as the 12th member. Pretty obvious they can play football, plus the metro areas of Kansas City and Saint Louis bring in the TV revenue. The rivalries in the Midwest beyond Illinois are obvious… Iowa, for instance… the list goes on. A great fit academically too.


  13. John

    I’d like to see the Big Ten extend another offer to Notre Dame to become the 12th school in the Conference. They should be given a reasonable amount of time to decide (no more than six months)and, if they again decline the offer, forget them and extend the offer instead to Syracuse. I really like the arguments made above in favor of the Orange and believe that such an agreement would be a winner for both them and the Big Ten. The only problem I can see where Syracuse is concerned is in the formulation of the two new divisions. An East-West set-up makes alot more sense than a North-South one does; unfortunately, if each school’s location determines its placement within a division, I don’t see any alternative to splitting up Indiana and Purdue, one in the East, the other in the West. But even Notre Dame presents a similar problem: On the one hand, if they’re placed in the East, it would require splitting up Indiana and Purdue. On the other, if Indiana and Purdue stay together in the same division, it would necessitate placing Notre Dame in the West, with no schools they have any recent rivalries with (that could potentially be a deal-breaker for them). In any event, the Big Ten is many years overdue in getting this done, so whoever they bring in, I’d like to see it happen sooner rather than later.


  14. Charles

    As a Syracuse fan I am intrigued by this discussion. But why would they want to move to the Big Ten? Both conferences are second tier in football (sorry, but you arent the SEC). Its a huge step down in basketball and believe it or not, but LAX is a revenue generating sport in central ny.


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