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COLUMN

Big money is pushing Big Ten expansion

If it adds far-flung teams, as appears likely, it will lose its rich traditions.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - 11:02 am

The Big Ten Conference may soon be getting bigger. Better? Not so fast.

If the Big Ten can rake in more dough by expanding to include some combination of Missouri, Rutgers, Nebraska, Connecticut, Syracuse and Pittsburgh – thus moving the Big Ten Network onto cable and satellite providers in St. Louis and New York – it will do so without hesitation.

But for those of us who remember when Matt Painter played, rather than coached, at Purdue, the impending loss of tradition is tough to swallow.

Everything that's unique about the Big Ten is about to be tweaked.

Consider the two sweetest Big Ten rivalries: Indiana vs. Purdue in men's basketball and Ohio State vs. Michigan in football. An entire state stops when IU and Purdue meet at the top of their games. And it doesn't matter how many games you win if you're the loser of the Ohio State-Michigan football game. Ask John Cooper.

Now, how does UConn vs. Iowa sound? Rutgers vs. Wisconsin? Missouri vs. Northwestern? I'll tell you what it sounds like: the Maui Invitational. I'm not sure how the Big Ten will weave a “14” into its logo, but once it expands, it will no longer be our league anymore. By ours, I mean the meat-and-potatoes Midwest. If Rutgers comes in, we're suddenly tight with New Jersey.

Forget the idea that the Big Ten would love to add Notre Dame and that it makes geographic and academic sense. The Irish aren't going to drop their football independence and their exclusive relationship with NBC, even if the money ends up being about the same. They simply aren't. Even in the bad years the ratings are decent, the fan base rabid, and the promise of a new coach and a new system always makes it 1988 again. Notre Dame's other sports, which are not televised by NBC, fit fine in the Big East.

So it looks as though the Big Ten will target a few Big East teams, and Missouri and Nebraska to reach bigger markets, draw bigger television numbers and send the conference's institutions home with a bigger paycheck. Then they can lower tuition, right? (You might want to check back on that later.)

Beyond the money to be made for the league's schools, I can't put a finger on any positive reasons for a Big Ten sports fans to embrace expansion. To be honest, I've barely adjusted to Penn State as the 11th member.

We've already reached the point where traditional showdowns, such as Indiana vs. Purdue or Michigan vs. Michigan State, sometimes occur only once during basketball season. The football schedule rotates now, and that will only increase with more teams. The trade-off will be a conference split into divisions, with the football season ending in a conference championship game, previously known as Ohio State vs. Michigan.

They'll probably put Ohio State and Michigan in the same division of an expanded Big Ten, thus preventing them from ever staging a conference-championship showdown. Oh, well, at least Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler aren't around to see it.

There's no stopping Big Ten expansion, which will likely lead to other conferences reloading with the bigger-is-better motif. This “progress” reflects the time-tested pursuit of life, liberty and the biggest network television contract possible.

It's all about the money, which is nothing new.

The tradition, lore and romance tied to the history of sports, etc., is reserved for us old-timers, and not for much longer. We're talking Syracuse vs. Illinois football, an orange explosion of mediocrity in HDTV. What's not to love?

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.