Back Home: Big Ten Division Thoughts and Sweet Missouri Valley Conference Expansion

I’m finally back from a spring break vacation in Arizona (80 degrees for the White Sox spring training game that I attended last Wednesday compared to 30 degrees for Opening Day in Chicago yesterday), so let’s get a few updates since I haven’t posted in awhile:

(1) Big Ten Divisions – It appears that the Big Ten office is heeding the calls for the “Keep It Simple Stupid” approach of dividing the soon-to-be 14-team conference into East and West divisions, with Michigan State heading East with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland, the West having Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota and the only debate being where Indiana and Purdue will be placed.  IU-PU will then be the only protected cross-division rivalry.  Assuming that this comes true, my message to the Big Ten office is the following: THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!  While I initially advocated Michigan State being placed in the West with both Indiana-based schools in the East, the newly rumored setup was the next best alignment from my perspective.  The Pac-12 was smart in not trying to force any protect cross-division games outside of the California-based schools playing each other annually, so it’s great that the Big Ten reportedly will only keep the Old Oaken Bucket as protected while the West can continue to rotate through Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State more often in this KISS alignment.  (Note that it’s a heck of a lot less heartburn for the West schools to see Indiana or Purdue falling off the schedule more often compared to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, which was likely a large driver for Sparty getting placed in the East.) It still makes a lot more sense in my mind for Indiana to head to the East since it’s (1) actually further East than Purdue, (2) a school with a disproportionately large East Coast student population and (3) better for competitive balance purposes.  The only reason that I can think of for IU pushing back on an Eastern placement is that it knows that it will never break its Rose Bowl drought competing in a division with resurgent Michigan and Ohio State programs.  Regardless, the Big Ten seems to finally be making the right choices on its divisional alignment.  Let’s just hope those right choices also extend to burying the Legends and Leaders division names next to Jimmy Hoffa*.

(* The Meadowlands aren’t that far from Rutgers, so it would still be in the Big Ten footprint.)

(2) Sweet Missouri Valley Conference Expansion – The “new” Big East consisting of the old Catholic 7 schools poached Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10 and Creighton from the Missouri Valley Conference right before the start of the NCAA Tournament, which is likely going to trigger a massive realignment of the midmajor non-FBS conferences.  While the MVC is celebrating Wichita State’s Final Four run, it is also the league most openly pursuing expansion/replacement options as of now (Missouri State’s president actually Tweeted that he’s out visiting interested expansion candidates)*.  Various reports so far indicate that the MVC has had some conversations with Oral Roberts, UMKC, Loyola (Chicago), UIC** and Valparaiso.  The latter three Chicago area schools don’t surprise me at all: I Tweeted a few weeks ago that my gut feeling was that those programs plus Belmont would be at the top of the MVC list if Denver wasn’t going to be considered.  (Reading between the lines in this interview by MileHighMids of Denver’s athletic director, it appears that the MVC would have been interested in Denver if the school were to add more sports, but the AD isn’t willing to commit to that right now.)

(* For a great analysis of potential MVC candidates using Google Maps, check out this anonymous posting.)

(** For disclosure purposes, my parents met at and graduated from UIC, with my father then spending over 3 decades working at that campus. I don’t have any real rooting interest in the UIC Flames sports teams, but I’ll admit to having an affinity for the institution overall with my family connection.)

Perusing some MVC message boards and blogs, I’ve generally seen fans vomit over these choices with calls that they could either (1) do better or (2) stand pat at 9 schools.  It reminds me of the recent UCLA basketball coaching search*, where much of the fan base seemed to be incredulous that they couldn’t lure the likes of Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart and had to settle for the protector of a rapist… er… Steve Alford.**  The MVC fans seemed to have hopes for the likes of SLU and/or Dayton (the former of which is definitely going to be in the Big East, where it’s just a matter of when, while the latter likely will be there but has to sweat it out a bit with Richmond as a competitor for spot #12) and are now facing the reality that the realistic candidates aren’t nearly as desirable.

(* For what it’s worth, I believe that UCLA is an elite program with only Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana and those rat bastards from Duke being in the same class. However, the Bruins’ lack of a sexy hire was the result of an elitist approach to job security by the school and fan base. That is, they just fired a guy in Ben Howland who went to three Final Fours, pulled in a top-ranked recruiting class last year and won the Pac-12 regular season championship this year.  At most schools, that record warrants a lifetime contract – Shaka Smart is going to be able to parlay a single Final Four run into perpetuity at VCU.  I fully understand how many UCLA fans believed the trajectory of the program was going in the wrong direction with Howland and a change might have been needed simply for the sake of a change, but they might have failed to understand how top level coaches in stable positions aren’t exactly enthralled with the prospect of taking a job where a 3-time Final Four coach got canned right after winning a conference championship. Hence, the pool of interested parties was much more shallow than anticipated.)

(** I highly recommend Black Heart Gold Pants blogger Patrick Vint’s message to UCLA fans about Alford on Bruins Nation.)

From my perspective, the MVC isn’t going to be able to add any real home run additions on-the-court. Belmont has the best performance over the past few seasons of the potential candidates, but geographic fit seems to be an issue in that case and their attendance figures have been subpar.  As a result, the MVC likely needs to concentrate on attacking its worst weaknesses as opposed to attempting to replace the irreplaceable Creighton in terms of basketball performance.  To me, that worst weakness is that fact that Wichita is the MVC’s largest TV market at #69 overall in the US.  Those of you that read me regularly know that I’m not in favor of expansion only for the sake of additional markets, but in the case of the MVC, having Wichita as your largest market is Charles Barkley turrible. Even if some of the candidates in large markets aren’t necessarily great TV draws, the MVC is eventually going to need them for recruiting purposes for long-term survival.  (This is why even if SLU and Dayton end up leaving the Atlantic 10 on top of Butler and Xavier, that league is still in much better position going forward with its footprint.) That means that a school like Murray State, which has had solid attendance and on-the-court performance, might appear to be desirable for MVC fans but not so much for the conference’s university presidents.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, I have a particular interest in how the MVC is going to proceed since I firmly believe that it should have a better presence in the Chicago market than it does today. Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Bradley all predominantly draw students from and send alumni to the Chicagoland area (with Northern Iowa and Drake also sending large contingents to the region, too).  However, the MVC doesn’t draw the coverage that it ought to considering the in-place fan base since it lacks a direct Chicago presence (which is critical unless you’re the University of Illinois or Notre Dame).  Therefore, it’s not a shocker that two city schools (UIC and Loyola) and a university on the periphery of the metro region in Northwest Indiana (Valpo) are being visited by the MVC powers that be. The MVC leadership likely recognizes what I see in that Chicago is a large market that can be legitimately leveraged by the conference.  It’s not so much that the MVC thinks that UIC or Loyola can “deliver” Chicago in a way that Illinois, Northwestern, DePaul or Notre Dame are able to, but rather that the critical mass of MVC students from and alums living in the area can give the league a solid presence akin to what the A-10 has in Philadelphia or Washington, DC. The MVC doesn’t have any type of major market anchor right now and that’s increasingly going to be a negative risk factor if it’s not rectified.

I haven’t forgotten that ORU’s crosstown neighbor of Tulsa just got invited to the “Old” Big East (or Conference TBD) today. I’ll have more thoughts on that the status of that league in a separate post. Until then, enjoy the Final Four!

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from mgoblog)


New Year’s Conference Realignment FAQ: Big Ten, Mountain West, Big East and Catholic 7


As the college football season has come to an end with Alabama and the SEC triumphant once again and basketball season in full swing, let’s take stock of the conference realignment landscape:

(1) Is the Big Ten expanding to 16 or 18 (or more) and if so, when? – Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune recently noted that there are some within the Big Ten that believe that the conference won’t stop expanding until it gets to 18 schools.  That being said, I’m not someone that believes that further Big Ten expansion is imminent.  Sure, there are schools that the Big Ten seem to be more than willing to add to create a legit superconference (e.g. Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and, of course, Notre Dame), but I continue to believe that there isn’t going to be some type of impending exodus from the ACC.  Look back at how much of a sales job the Big Ten needed to procure Maryland, which is a school in a state contiguous to the current Big Ten footprint, has relatively weak conference rivalries (Terps fans may care about Duke and UNC, but it’s not reciprocated), has turned into a Northern school from a cultural perspective and clearly needed more athletic department money.  From my vantage point, the members of the ACC still like the league even if they’re wary about the TV contract (whereas the Big 12 is the opposite where everyone outside of Texas really isn’t a huge fan of the league per se but are happy about the latest TV deal).  Are the Big Ten and SEC stronger than the ACC?  Absolutely.  However, that doesn’t automatically mean that the ACC is a sitting duck that’s about to get picked apart.

Let’s put it this way: if the Big Ten really thought that it could obtain all of the ACC schools that I’ve seen rumored that the conference wants to add in such a quick manner (e.g. within the next year), then I highly doubt that Jim Delany would have granted an invite to Rutgers.  That’s not a knock on Rutgers and what it can bring to the table in the new Big Ten setup (the school makes sense as an addition for various reasons, not the least of which is a presence in the New York City metro area), but UVA, UNC, Georgia Tech and probably Duke (yes, Duke, and yes, I need to take a shower after saying that) would have all been ahead of the Scarlet Knights on the pecking order.  Convincing Maryland to head to the Big Ten was tough enough and that’s nothing compared to persuading truly Southern schools such as UVA and UNC to come along (and by the same token, the SEC isn’t going to be as attractive to those same schools as it was to Texas A&M and Missouri).

As a Big Ten guy, I personally see a ton of benefits for the conference if it raids the ACC further.  From an objective standpoint, though, I don’t see that happening soon.  The threat of the Big Ten being on the prowl probably gives the conference more power than it does in terms of actually striking.  I know this much: the Big Ten will wait for who it really wants at this point.  They’re not going to force anything other than a 100% fit and to me, that would likely need to be some combo of UVA, UNC, Georgia Tech and/or Notre Dame (although I’d personally want to see Florida State become a prime target).  That could take awhile to come to fruition, so I believe we can put the Superconference Armageddon scenarios away for the time being as realistic (even though they’re so much fun to talk about as hypotheticals).

(2) What are the Big Ten divisions going to look like? – Greenstein’s report also intimated that the Big Ten was looking at an East/West split for divisions with the possibility of putting Northwestern in the East due to its alumni contingents in the New York and Washington, DC regions.  However, the word out of Northwestern is that they would prefer to stay in the West with its closer rivals such as Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin along with enjoying a massive influx of Nebraska fans buying up tickets in Evanston every other year.

From what I’ve seen, the divisional alignment that I had proposed a couple of weeks ago with Michigan State in the West and both Indiana and Purdue in the East and every school having a protected cross division rival won’t come to fruition.  If Northwestern is in the West (and I’ll be honest as an Illinois fan that I’d personally be pretty pissed if Northwestern ends up in the East on top of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State), then it would seem that Indiana would make more sense as the Hoosier State rep in the East (look at this Wall Street Journal article from a few years ago about how many East Coast students have been invading Bloomington lately) while Purdue would head to the West.  That would mean the East would have Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan State and Indiana, while the West would have Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue.  In that event, I would hope that the Big Ten assigns Indiana-Purdue as the only protected cross division rivalry while everyone else goes on a regular rotation.  This would allow the West schools to continue playing Michigan and Ohio State more often, especially if the Big Ten increases its conference schedule to 9 games.  The Pac-12 did the right thing by only making the games between the various California-based members into annual cross division games and not trying to force any unnatural pairings.  Hopefully, the Big Ten has the good sense to do the same.

(3) What’s going on with the Big East/Mountain West skirmish? – As of now, the conference realignment action is really happening outside of the scope of the five power conferences (Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12).  The latest cog in the Gang of Five wheel is San Diego State, which is faced with a decision of whether to “go back” to the Mountain West Conference (which they are still a member of until July 1st) or “stay” with the Big East as football-only member (which they have committed to join on that date) and the Big West for basketball and Olympic sports.  I don’t envy the decision that has to be made by the Aztecs since neither option is exactly optimal – it’s either being in the MWC, which has a new TV deal structure that will largely benefit Boise State, or the Big East whose membership is in flux and SDSU will almost certainly be the lone extreme geographic outlier.

Even though there’s a case to be made that San Diego State would make more football TV money in the Big East and actually reduce their Olympics sports travel costs in the Big West, I believe that the Aztecs will ultimately stick with the MWC.  It comes down to a simple question: would San Diego State have chosen to join the Big East one year ago if it knew how the league would look today?  In my opinion, it would be an emphatic “No”, as evidenced by schools in smaller markets such as UNLV and Fresno State having since rejected overtures from the Big East.  It would have been one thing if the Big East still had AQ status (or the equivalent of it in the new postseason system) or could reasonably procure an outsized TV contract compared to the MWC (which is what Big East commissioner Mike Aresco has been trying to convince people will be coming down the pike even though no one outside of Big East partisans believes him), but being the sole West Coast team in a league that isn’t receiving favored treatment anymore and looks like it won’t be adding anyone else within 1500 miles of your school (which we’ll get to in a moment) is a rough thing for any university president or athletic director to sign up for.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the Big East is a bad choice for everyone.  Houston and SMU, who have been rumored to be targets of the MWC, still make a lot more sense in the Big East.  At worst, those schools will be in a better version of the Conference USA that they will be leaving, so the MWC doesn’t provide much upside comparatively.  As much as some observers seem to want to watch conferences just pack it in and completely die off, the Big East (or whatever it will be called in the future, which is a separate issue) can still survive as an entity with the pieces that it still has left.  Tulsa appears to be a Big East expansion target, which would be a solid addition for its Southwestern flank.  UMass is also out there as a classic “university presidents might love it and fans will hate it” option – they have a nascent and struggling FBS program yet offer a public flagship university in the Northeast that plays football at that level (which otherwise don’t exist at all outside of the 5 power conferences plus UConn).  Several other schools from Conference USA (e.g. Southern Mississippi) and the MAC (e.g. Northern Illinois) might also get a look, but my feeling  is that Tulsa and UMass are the frontrunners to get the Big East up to 12 football members (assuming that San Diego State stays in the MWC) as soon as possible.  The league would then do everything it can to keep Navy on board as an addition for 2015 and, if Mike Aresco is successful in doing so, would target one more school on top of that to get to 14 schools for that season.

(4) What is the TV Contract and Expansion Status for the “Catholic 7”? – The Catholic 7 defectors from the Big East (DePaul, St. John’s, Marquette, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Villanova and Providence) have upended the “football means everything and basketball means nothing” axiom of conference realignment.  According to Darren Rovell of ESPN. com, Fox has offered $500 million over 12 years for the Catholic 7, with the assumption that the group adds 5 more schools to get up to 12 members.  That figure will likely be larger than what the football playing schools in the Big East will receive for both football and basketball.  I’ve said many times on this blog that football in and of itself isn’t what’s valuable, but rather quality content.  In this case, the Catholic 7 are offering quality content in their sphere of non-FBS basketball schools with traditional schools in large urban markets.  The problem with so many conferences is that they’re trying to apply the way that the Big Ten and SEC make money via football when they don’t have the assets to do it properly.  It would be akin to a mom-and-pop corner store trying to run a business like Wal-Mart or Target without the requisite supply chain.  Not every conference can be all things to all people in the manner of the Big Ten and SEC, so the Catholic 7 was smart enough to realize (or at least make the right decision when backed into a corner) that they can exploit a lucrative niche.  They became the Trader Joe’s of college conferences as opposed to Wal-Mart, if you will.  Instead of being subject to the whims of raids from the 5 more powerful football conferences as members of the hybrid Big East, the Catholic 7 have positioned themselves as arguably the most powerful non-FBS sports conference out there.  The non-FBS market might be much smaller than the FBS market as a whole, but there’s something to be said to being #1 in the former with complete control of your destiny as opposed to #6 (or even #7) in the latter without any buying power.

With the Fox offer apparently contingent upon the Catholic 7 adding 5 schools, that brings into question who would be the expansion candidates.  Xavier and Butler have been continuously named by several separate outlets as locks, so that takes up the first two spots.  The next 2 most likely targets appear to be Dayton (great fan base) and Creighton (ditto with a top notch on-the-court program right now on top of that).  All 4 of those schools should feel fairly comfortable about getting into the new league with the Catholic 7 (which may very well still end up with the Big East brand name when all is said and done) with this news about Fox wanting a 12-team league.  That leaves the last spot that appears to be a battle between St. Louis and Virginia Commonwealth.

If I were running the Catholic 7, I’d definitely recommend SLU as school #12.  From my vantage point, this is an opportunity for this group of schools to create a conference with branding that goes beyond athletics with like-minded institutions.  Essentially, the new league can be to urban undergraduate-focused private schools in the Midwest and East Coast what the Big Ten is to large research institutions in the same region.  In that regard, SLU is a perfect institutional fit with the Catholic 7 and the 4 other schools mentioned.  SLU also has excellent basketball facilities and a solid history in the sport, so it’s not as if though this would be a poor on-the-court move.

VCU, on the other hand, would purely be a basketball resume addition.  Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that approach, as this new league is going to need top notch hoops teams on-the-court to gain the requisite NCAA Tournament credits to pay the bills.  At the same time, VCU would be an Eastern-based addition to balance out all of the other probable expansion candidates that are located in the Midwest.  However, I’m wary about VCU being an addition based on short-term results as opposed to long-term institutional fit.  What surprises me is that there has been zero buzz about the Catholic 7 looking at Richmond, which has a solid basketball resume itself and is a better institutional fit as a private liberal arts school located in the same market as VCU.

It’s not an accident that SLU was added by the Atlantic 10 immediately after Conference USA stopped its hybrid model after the Big East raids of 2003, while VCU and Butler were only invited this year.  SLU would be a long-term move in a solid TV market that’s a great institutional fit and makes geographic sense assuming that the Catholic 7 wants to add Creighton.  I have all of the respect in the world for VCU as a basketball program, but SLU would be best for the new Catholic 7 league for the long run.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from CBS Sports)

Divisions of Labor: Frank the Tank’s Big Ten Expansion Survey Responses and the Classic Music Video of the Week

Big Ten Map

I have been meaning to post my responses to the Big Ten Network’s conference expansion survey, but so much realignment news (such as the 7 Catholic schools in the Big East deciding to split off) has intervened that I’m only getting a chance to fill it out now.  Here are my thoughts:

1. My favorite school is _____.

The University of Illinois, the ultimate drinking school with a football problem.

2. My favorite school is in the _______ Division.

The Leaders Division… I think.  Let me Google this.

3. As the conference expands beyond 12 teams, should the new teams be added to an existing division or should new divisions be drawn from scratch?

These need to be blown up like the 2 versions of the Death Star.

4. What do you think of “Legends” and “Leaders” as division names?  (Strongly Like to Strongly Dislike.)

Please see the answer to Question #3.

5. Should the B1G change or keep the current division names?

Please see the answer to Question #3.

6. If you think the division names should be changed, what should they be changed to?

Assuming that logic prevails and the Big Ten has something close to a geographical alignment (a very large assumption when dealing with university presidents and athletic directors that have managed to turn what ought to be a simple exercise into a massive internal political debate), it should be East-West or North-South.  If an obsessive Big Ten sports fan like me still needs to stop and think about which school is in which division after two years, then the conference made a mistake.  The theme, as I argued over and over again back when the Big Ten added Nebraska, should be K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple Stupid.

7. If divisions were to be changed, what criteria should be used to determine them? (Rank by importance Competitive balance, geography, protect traditional rivalries.)

The #1 consideration by far should be to protect traditional rivalries, as those are at the heart of what makes college sports great.  Close behind that should be geography, as that is a factor that will never change, whether it’s one year from now or two decades down the road.  Competitive balance is honestly a minor factor for me.  All programs inevitable go up and down on-the-field over time, so attempting to gerrymander divisions based on historical records virtually always ends up backfiring (see the Leaders Division this past season and numerous occasions with the ACC divisions).  The Big Ten made a massive mistake in overweighting what it believed to be competitive balance in constructing the current divisions and I hope that they see the light this time around.

8. How important is it for IN-STATE rivals to be in the same division? (Very important to not important.)

It’s important, but there can be exceptions provided that those rivals are still playing each other annually.

9. How important is it for TRADITIONAL rivals to be in the same division? (Very important to not important.)

As with the answer to Question #8, it’s important, yet workarounds can be accommodated as long as the rivals continue to play each other on an annual basis.  The main problem with the way that the Big Ten constructed the Leaders and Legends Divisions is that most of the Big Ten schools have multiple traditional rivals, which means that many of them inherently need to be in the same division in order for the maintenance of those rivalries to work.  Wisconsin is getting completely screwed by not getting to play traditional rival Iowa and the Badgers are a natural school to help further integrate Nebraska into the conference.  In my opinion, the Wisconsin/Iowa/Minnesota trifecta should have never been split up and Nebraska fits in there as the fourth wheel of that western flank perfectly.

10. Currently, the number of conference games the B1G plays is 8. Should this increase?

Yes, the number of conference games absolutely needs to increase to 9.  This is even more important if the Big Ten continues to designate cross-division annual rivalries, where schools would only play their counterparts in the opposite division (excluding designated cross-division rivals) only 2 times in a 12 year period without a 9th conference game.  That extra conference game at least turns it into a more tolerable 2 times in a 6 year period cycle (which still isn’t exactly optimal).  While every school in the conference wants to maximize home game revenue by playing more MACrifice games, the Big Ten isn’t like the SEC, which has a history of having conference members going very long periods of time without playing each other and doesn’t think much of it.  That won’t (or at least shouldn’t) fly in the Big Ten.  The fact that the Big Ten had agreed to go to 9 conference games in a 12 school alignment prior to the now-defunct Big Ten/Pac-12 alliance gives me optimism that they’ll do so when it’s even more critical.

11. What is your preference on a B1G Basketball Tourney? (Every team qualifies, or 12 of 14 teams qualify.)

I’m a very large believer that every conference should have all teams qualify for its basketball tournament.  Unlike the football conference championship game that only involves 2 teams, the basketball tournament is the one major conference event where the teams, fans and alums from all of the schools can gather together as a shared experience.  For those that say that the conference tournament should be about merit, I would reply that leagues should eliminate conferences tournaments all together if people want to be truly merit-based (as the performance over the course of 3 months of regular season games should trump what occurs in 3 days of a conference tournament).  Basketball tournaments are purely money-making machines for the power conferences, so you might as well let everyone participate.  Plus, there’s the romantic idea that every single school still has one last shot to make it into the NCAA Tournament, which is inherently a more interesting aspect of watching conference tournaments compared to how they’re really just seeding exercises for the teams that already know that they’re going to make it to the Dance.

12. Currently, the B1G has no divisions for basketball. Should this be changed?

I don’t believe that basketball divisions are necessary as long as each school has at least 2 or 3 locked-in annual rivals (e.g. Indiana-Purdue, Michigan-Ohio State, etc.).

13. If yes, why should there be divisions for basketball?

Please see answer to Question #12.

14. If no, why shouldn’t there be divisions for basketball?

Please see answer to Question #12.

15. When people reference “B1G”, do you recognize that to be the Big Ten Conference?

Yes, I do.  At first, I wasn’t a large fan of the new Big Ten logo, but that has grown on me (unlike the division names).  In the social media context, being able to refer to #B1G on Twitter and have people generally know what that means is extremely useful.  That’s not a minor point in today’s world.

16. With 14 teams currently, should the B1G remain the “Big Ten”, or should its name be changed?

It should ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS be the Big Ten, even if it ends up with 16 schools or more.  If the Big Ten didn’t change its name back when it added Penn State over two decades ago, it certainly shouldn’t do it now.  There’s way too much name recognition and brand value with the conference name.

17. Do you have any further thoughts on B1G expansion?

Well, I’ve provided my thoughts on Florida State here.  Otherwise, I don’t have a preternatural desire to see the Big Ten expand further.  The 14 schools that the conference will have going forward fit together well academically and institutionally with geographic continuity across the Northern half of the United States.  If there’s a legit football power in a top market such as Florida State available, then I think the Big Ten ought to be aggressive.  However, there isn’t an overall need for the conference to expand for the sake of expanding.  I’d be perfectly happy with staying at 14 members.

As for how the divisions should actually look, as I’ve stated before, I favor the K.I.S.S. approach.  Realistically, I believe that the Big Ten will need the following requirements in any divisional structure at a minimum:

(a) Ohio State and Michigan must play annually – This is pretty obvious.

(b) Ohio State and Penn State must play annually – This might be less obvious to people outside the Big Ten (or even with some fans within the Big Ten), but trust me, this is a non-negotiable game.

(c) Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland must be in the same division – The entire crux of the Big Ten expansion to 14 is to solidify the league’s presence on the East Coast, which effectively mandates that they have to be together.

What’s evident here is that Ohio State and Penn State are really the keys to the new Big Ten divisional alignment.  For instance, these parameters mean that there is no way that Ohio State can be in a division opposite of both Michigan and Penn State – the Buckeyes have to be in a division with at least one of those schools.  The East Coast bloc of Penn State/Rutgers/Maryland also limits the league’s options.  We also have to consider whether the divisions need to split up the four traditional powers (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska) evenly or if 3 of them can be in one division.  I personally believe that 3 of them can be in one division provided that the other side has more depth of non-bottom feeders top-to-bottom, but know that others (particularly athletic directors) may disagree with that.

Ultimately, I’m most in favor of going with an East/West split with Michigan going to the East and Michigan State in the West.  It would look like the following (with cross-division rivals next to each other and rationale in parentheses):

Michigan – Michigan State (in-state rivalry)
Ohio State – Wisconsin (continuation of current Leaders divisional game)
Penn State – Nebraska (continuation of current cross-division king program game)
Indiana – Illinois (two schools in bordering states passing time until basketball season starts)
Purdue – Iowa (continuation of nonsensical cross-division game)
Rutgers – Northwestern (New York City vs. Chicago angle)
Maryland – Minnesota (they pulled the last two straws)

Even though three “King” programs are in the East, I believe that there is still a solid balance of schools with top notch fan bases in the West (Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa) to compensate for it.  Most other ways of attempting to put two Kings in each division end up with wacky geography or one extremely strong division and the other being very weak.  (Yes, I know that I’ve said that I don’t think that competitive balance should matter, but I’m realistic in believing that others believe it’s important.)  Now, it’s understandable that the older members of the Big Ten West likely would not be happy only seeing Michigan and Ohio State 2 times every 6 years, so that could be a deal-killer.

The “Inner-Outer” setup that the BTN provided as a choice here is an interesting concept, as it groups the 4 western schools (Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota) with the 3 Eastern schools (Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland) in one division while the 7 other schools in the middle are in the opposite division.  It’s terrible in terms of geography and the casual sports fan would look at it and say, “WTF?!”, but it does achieve the goal of preserving every single traditional rivalry as an intra-divisional game with the exception of Ohio State-Penn State.  I’m not a fan of the Inner-Outer alignment personally (and most people that I know don’t like it either), yet I certainly wouldn’t put it past the Big Ten presidents and ADs to head down this road.

Classic Music Video of the Week – “12 Days of Christmas” by John Denver and The Muppets

The events of the past week really put back into focus what’s most important in life: friends and family.  This video always brings back fond memories of my family popping in a VHS tape of the John Denver Christmas Special with The Muppets every year and my own kids now find The Muppets to be just as hilarious as I did.  I hope that all of you and your loved ones have a wonderful holiday.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from DigNittanyVolleyball)

Big Ten Division-palooza

As we pull away from the images tonight of people burning Jim Delany UNC jerseys all across the state of Ohio and on a day that BYU officially declared its independence in football,  joined the WCC for non-football sports and announced long-term deals with both ESPN and Notre Dame (with BYU killing off a self-termed “prenuptial agreement” with the WAC in the process, meaning that even Mormons know that it’s something that you need to have ‘cause when she leaves your ass, she’s gonna leave with half), the Big Ten has finally ended months of speculation by announcing the following division alignment:

Michigan State

Ohio State
Penn State

Michigan – Ohio State
Nebraska – Penn State
Michigan State – Indiana
Iowa – Purdue
Northwestern – Illinois
Minnesota – Wisconsin (EDIT – Oops on somehow forgetting this one initially. Badger fans were already pretty raw.)

Let’s put aside the fact that the Big Ten has ignored my advice and legions of fans across the country and then called up my 13-month old twins to punch in random letters on a Garmin system for the geography of this division split.  (On a side note, right when the Big Ten Network special about the divisions started, the twins simultaneously started screaming in sounds that I thought would only be possible if a hyena breeded with Mariah Carey.  As a result, I apologize in advance if my writing is a little punchy.)  Believe it or not, I don’t want to just be a hater that’s gonna hate.  In fact, there are a few positives as to how the divisions shake out:

(1) Maximum Marquee Matchups – When Jim Delany continuously harped on “competitive balance” as the main factor determining the divisions, that was really code for “We need to split up Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska evenly.”  Even though schools such as Iowa and Wisconsin have been quite strong performers on the field over the past 2 decades (making a KISS East/West split within, in my humble opinion, acceptably balanced) wasn’t as important as getting 2 of the 4 “marquee brands” into each of the divisions.  I still believe that Michigan – Ohio State would’ve been better off as a division game, but at least the Big Ten made the wise decision to continue to make that into the final game of the season.  The chances of a rematch in the championship game the week afterward is fairly weak (as Mr. SEC pointed out, cross-division rivals Alabama and Tennessee have never met in the SEC Championship Game) and even if it were to occur, the ESPN hype machine that makes Yankees – Red Sox Grapefruit League spring training games seem like Armageddon will run at full tilt.  I also don’t believe that there’s any chance that, in the event that both Michigan and Ohio State already have their division games clinched heading into their rivalry game, the teams will mail it in like playoff-bound NFL teams in week 17 because the bowl system and BCS ranking criteria (whether for the national championship game or at-large berths) demand that schools don’t take any week off.  Beyond that, the TV networks are going to be giddy over being able to broadcast Ohio State – Penn State, Michigan – Nebraska and Penn State – Nebraska.  Whatever you may think of the division alignments right now, there’s no doubt that all of us Big Ten fans (and more importantly, sports fans across the country) are tuning in for those matchups.

(2) Setup for the Illini Dynasty – I try not to be an Illinois homer here, but when I see 2 division annual games Indiana and Purdue and the cross-divisional preservation of the LOL Trophy game with Northwestern (OMFG I miss the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk), the Illini might actually make it to consecutive bowl games within the next 4 decades.  Will we fail despite being given a cupcake schedule (at least relative to other Big Ten teams), the largest alumni base of any school in the nation’s third largest market, and a prime recruiting location between Chicago and St. Louis?  Absolutely!  But, we can’t say that Jim Delany didn’t try to help a brother out.

(3) The Death of the Altoona Bowling League Trophy With a Lion Mold-a-Rama Pasted on the Side (AKA Land Grant Trophy) – YES, THAT TROPHY DESERVED TO DIE, AND I HOPE IT BURNS IN HELL!

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t issues here.  For one, Wisconsin is going to put more miles on the road than the Barbasol truck driver.  Wisky has ended up being the only school that doesn’t have ANY current protected rival within its own division, lost the Heartland Trophy game with Iowa and aren’t getting the opportunity to start a natural annual rivalry with Nebraska.  At the same time, hearing that Iowa and Purdue would have a protected rivalry felt like one of those reveals at the end of “Dating in the Dark” where the guy finds out the girl he’s been hitting on all week has back hair.  (I have a preternatural love of all varieties of blind dating shows, just like all red-blooded American males.  Am I right?!  Hello?  Anyone?)  That matchup just sticks out badly.

Overall, I’m numb from the divisional alignment discussion, although I REALLY wish that I knew about the Big Ten Division Creator before today since it’s on the level of the NBA Trade Machine as a time waster.  (Never fear – there is also a Pac-10 Division Creator.)  Processing the division split over the course of the day (with the knowledge that the date of the Michigan – Ohio State game wouldn’t be moved), I’ve basically come to the conclusion that it could’ve been worse.  It still smacks of the gerrymandered divisions of the ACC, but at least the setup allows for a full slate of compelling games on paper.  Regardless, actual football games will be played tomorrow, so be sure to grab your Rotel and Velveeta.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

(Image from mpopek’s Twitpic page)

Message to the Big Ten: Don’t Create the New Coke Conference

A little over 25 years ago, the Coca-Cola Company was concerned that it was losing market share to Pepsi in the “Cola Wars” and hired an avalanche of consultants and scientists to concoct a new formula for its flagship product.  If you were a businessman that only made judgments based on specific metrics from market studies, it looked like the move would be a success.  Focus groups actually gave a ton of positive feedback to what would become known as “New Coke” and stated that they liked it better than both the original Coke formula and Pepsi.  Coca-Cola executives in Atlanta were convinced that this was what was going to overtake the “Pepsi Generation” by making a clear and bold break with tradition and the past.

New Coke was introduced to the public on April 23, 1985.  The public’s reaction was swift and visceral: they wanted to torch the company’s headquarters.  Oh sure, they said that they liked New Coke in blind taste tests, yet all of those highly-paid consultants didn’t factor in that there was a bond to the original flavor that went beyond the taste buds.  New Coke bombed in stores, boycotts occurred across the country, all of the original formula Coke left on store shelves was being hoarded and politicians started squawking.  Less than 3 months after New Coke’s debut, Coke brought back the original formula under the name Coca-Coca Classic.  David Keough, the president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola at the time, stated this (with emphasis added) at the press conference announcing the return of the traditional taste:  “There is a twist to this story which will please every humanist and will probably keep Harvard professors puzzled for years.  The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people.”

I’m a corporate attorney that has spent most of my career either working with or for large management consulting firms.  So, I have a ton of respect for consultants in general and personally have a lot at stake working within that industry.  I also have no qualms about bucking tradition when its appropriate in order to maximize revenue – most of the readers here came across my blog via a post advocating that the Big Ten go after Texas in a decidedly non-traditional expansion move.  According to Mike Gundy, I’m not even old enough to be a man yet.  The point is that I’m not an old fuddy duddy traditionalist that doesn’t think about finances and just wishes everything would go back to the old days.

Here’s the problem that I have and we’re facing as fans on the outside: no consulting firm on Earth will receive much in terms of hourly fees by telling Coca-Cola to stick with its original formula… or say that the Big Ten should simply have a logical East/West split in its divisions… or that moving the Michigan-Ohio State game from the last weekend of the regular season is so ludicrous that merely discussing is a waste of time since it is a slap in the face to college football fans everywhere.  Doing what’s logical can be summed up in a comment to a blog post (much less a blog post itself).  Making several million dollars in consulting fees requires to coming up with wacky division alignments, statistical analysis on “competitive balance”, test marketing, and multitudes of Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations explaining how there’s a double pot of gold if you can get Michigan and Ohio State to play twice in a single season.  Never mind that the ACC tried to do the same with Miami and Florida State and the football gods have crushed the prospect of that conference championship game matchup every year.  I’m sure that the Big Ten brass in Park Ridge has been poring over so much data over the past few months without public interaction that they’ve likely convinced themselves that the simple and logical answer to divisional alignment and treatment of the Michigan-Ohio State game can’t possibly be good enough, just like the people at Coca-Cola’s headquarters 25 years ago.

Alas, the very smart people at the Big Ten conference offices are completely outsmarting themselves here.  For whatever reason, the KISS formula of a logical East/West division split simply won’t do.  I can somewhat understand the desire to split the 4 “marquee brands” of Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska evenly amongst the divisions.  However, the thought of (1) sending Michigan and Ohio State to opposite divisions and (2) moving their rivalry game from the end of the season to the midseason is even worse than the idea of New Coke.  At least Coca-Cola wanted to shake things up because it was losing market share.  In contrast, the Big Ten is at the height of its power and has ZERO reason to eliminate a single rivalry game or mess with its most valuable regular season property.  Jim Delany, Barry Alvarez and other Big Ten representatives claiming that there isn’t a way to preserve all of the conference’s currently protected rivalries is complete B.S. (especially if it’s true that the Big Ten will have a 9-game conference schedule starting in 2015).  They can ALL be protected if the Big Ten chose the KISS alignment, but they are affirmatively CHOOSING not to use it.

Well, if the Big Ten isn’t going to go with the KISS formula (which I continue to believe is the right way to do it), it should at least try to mitigate the damage that it’s going to do to its fans and traditions.  My hope is that the Big Ten realizes that it’s not worth it to whore itself out for $150,000 per school (as determined by Dan Wetzel of Yahoo!) in the hopes of a Michigan-Ohio State rematch in a Big Ten Championship Game.  That’s right: a whole $150,000 per school, which is less than the annual interest on John Calipari’s slush fund.  Seriously, though, to put that in perspective, mgoblog calculated that Michigan could raise $150,000 by increasing ticket prices by twenty cents.  Also, Ohio State is paying Colorado $1.4 million to visit the Horsehoe for a PACrifice blood money home game in 2011.  So, the complete destruction of the century-old tradition of the Michigan-Ohio State game will pay for less than 7 minutes of Colorado’s time on the field.  WTF?!

Let me hammer home for the second time in this blog post that the ACC has tried this exact same thing with its gerrymandered divisions that look like a rottweiler tore into a Rand McNally road atlas in order to setup a Miami-Florida State championship game and HAS FAILED.  The fact that the national media doesn’t immediately point out immediately how AWFUL the ACC divisions are (as opposed to the constant bitching about the red herring of the perceived Big 12 North/South “imbalance”) is one of my biggest pet peeves in all of this.  LOOK AT THE FAILURE OF THE ACC HERE.  I will beat this into everyone’s head until it becomes a reflexive response.

Before I get angrier about this, let’s try to put together a reasonable alternative to the KISS formula that keeps Michigan and Ohio State together while also making a good faith effort toward the amorphous concept of “competitive balance”.  To me, there are 3 “pods” of schools in the Big Ten:

Ohio State
Penn State
Michigan State



Here are my division alignment parameters:

(1) 2 teams from each pod are in each division
(2) 1 permanent intra-pod cross-division opponent
(3) Michigan and Ohio State are kept together (meaning Penn State and Nebraska must be together)
(4) Don’t let either Penn State or Nebraska be on islands
(5) Equal access to prime recruiting territories means as much as competitive balance

So, here’s my proposed division alignment:

Ohio State

Penn State
Michigan State

Michigan – Michigan State
Ohio State – Penn State
Wisconsin – Nebraska
Minnesota – Iowa
Northwestern – Illinois
Purdue – Indiana

Under this, Michigan – Ohio State continues to be played at the end of the regular season and the conference sets up another marquee end-of-the-year matchup between Nebraska and either Penn State or Iowa.  The 4 marquee brand schools are split up evenly and every school has direct annual exposure to at least 3 of the 4 top recruiting territories within the Big Ten region (Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania).  Finally, except for Wisconsin – Iowa (which was most in danger because they are both such natural pairs with Nebraska and I’ll be damned if the Floyd of Rosedale, the most bad-ass trophy in sports, gets cut), EVERY SINGLE CURRENTLY PROTECTED RIVALRY WILL LIVE ON.  Once again, don’t let anyone sweet talk you into thinking that “competitive balance” had to kill multiple rivalries – that’s complete bunk.

Whatever your thoughts are on this issue, I encourage you to email Jim Delany at (h/t to super commenter Adam) and the president/chancellor and athletic director of your favorite school.  Even better on top of that, email the groups of people that can really make the aforementioned people squirm: the members of the board of trustees of your favorite school that sign the paychecks and the applicable state legislators that control public university funding.  Be sure to mention if you donate to your school or hold season tickets and what will happen to such donations and season ticket payments if the Big Ten continues to ignore its fans that provide financial support to its member institutions.

I hope that Jim Delany and the powers that be within the Big Ten remember the thoughts of the former Coca-Cola president that screwed up by introducing New Coke:  All of the time and money that the Big Ten is paying consultants to figure out its division will NOT measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to the conference’s traditions by so many people.  If the Big Ten is going to make a grave error in its divisional alignments, at least make it only a Crystal Pepsi mistake instead of a New Coke nuclear bomb on history.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

(Image from Virgin Media)