What the Big Ten should do is
Who's that behind the microphone, getting all that face time this week in Chicago? Why, it's none other than Jim Delany.
You're enjoying yourself this spring, Jim. I can see that. And understand it, too.
It's like old times. Your Big Ten Conference is in the spotlight, the subject of relentless conversation and speculation as you circumspectly explore expansion. The entire nation is watching, waiting, wondering what the Big Ten will do, and wondering what the ripple effect will be.
It's been awhile since you commanded this much attention and flexed this much muscle. Your league hasn't won a football national championship since 2002, a men's basketball national championship since 2000. Women's hoops? Last title was in 1999. We won't even talk about baseball. (OK, we will: Minnesota, 1964.)
Dynasties in volleyball, fencing and women's lacrosse don't exactly galvanize your large and loyal fan base. You've spent so much time staring up at the Southeastern Conference that your neck hurts -- and your pride, too. So this opportunity to remake the college sports map -- and to make the SEC and every other league react to what the Big Ten is doing -- has got to feel good.
But the decisions that lie ahead are fraught with peril. There are at least as many potential wrong moves as right ones.
Which is why I'm here to offer my opinion on what would be the best course. Not just for the Big Ten, but for college athletics as a whole.
In 21 years as commissioner of the Big Ten, you've skillfully coaxed a stodgy league into plenty of gradual changes. You oversaw Penn State's arrival as the 11th team, took a swing (or several) at Notre Dame, introduced the postseason basketball tournament, helped make instant replay a reality in football, and were instrumental in the creation of the lucrative Big Ten Network.
But do you really want to be the guy who pulls the pin on a grenade that blows up college sports as we currently know it?
An expansion to 16 teams would do that, Jim. It would necessitate a pillaging of at least two conferences, most likely Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse from the Big East and Missouri and Nebraska from the Big 12. It would trigger additional robberies elsewhere, trickling all the way down through the 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision. Would you relish being the guy who throws the first brick through the store window and starts this looting process?
It would destroy what little collegiality is left in college sports. And I think you're old-school enough for that to matter.
But mergers and acquisitions are just the start of the issues associated with creating a 16-team monstrosity. Then you'd have to figure out how to organize the thing. Feel free to ask former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese how much fun that was -- he's still hearing coaches complain about scheduling in his sleep.
One source tells me the league wants four divisions of four teams, and two eight-team "sides." Good luck trying to make that work while maintaining traditional rivalries and some semblance of geographic coherence. (Example: Michigan and Ohio State must play each other, but if you put those two and Penn State on, say, the Eastern side, the league tilts like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.)
Then there's this part of the equation: If you go to 16 and the SEC has to follow, you run the risk of making your rivals even more powerful and expanding the gap between them and yourself. Adding either the southern third of the ACC (Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson) or a southern foursome from the Big 12 (Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) would only solidify the SEC's primacy.
So 16 is more trouble than it's worth. Now that we've agreed on that, let's look at Option II: going to 14 teams.
You can add three members without too much struggle, especially if you go get Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers. All three are believed to be waiting by the telephone with held breath and crossed fingers, just hoping you'll call.
And although administering a 14-team league is more difficult than a 12-team league, it's also inherently less difficult than 16.
But here's who you aren't getting in either the 16- or 14-team scenario, Jim: Notre Dame and Texas. They're the two golden tickets in this expansion game. Problem is, they know it. And they have things situated so well right now that it's hard to see either giving that up.
Notre Dame could conceivably make more money in the Big Ten -- but perhaps not so much more that it's worth sacrificing all the autonomy it currently enjoys. The Fighting Irish play who they want to play, when they want to play them, and where. They have a spot at the BCS table, a fat TV contract and perpetual public staying power in spite of their recent mediocrity. Why trade a Thanksgiving weekend game on prime time against USC for an 11 a.m. kickoff in Champaign?
And Texas? No. It's a geographic joke to consider transporting nonrevenue teams from Austin to State College or Minneapolis. And, once again, you'd be asking a school that is contemplating its own TV network possibilities to abandon a potential bonanza. Plus, you cannot get the Longhorns without also getting Texas A&M, which is only a moderately attractive wingman.
So that leaves the 12-team option, Jim. Not the sexiest or the boldest move. But the best move. Go grab one school and get yourself on even footing with the other power brokers in college sports.
Missouri offers proximity and two large TV markets (St. Louis and Kansas City). Rutgers offers the window into New York City, and something of an Eastern ally to Penn State. Nebraska offers the most football cachet.
Me? I'd take Nebraska. Not many TVs to subscribe to the Big Ten Network in that state, but the football appeal is nationwide. And the fan base is among the most rabid in America -- it cares too much to tolerate any long-term lapses in football, which means the Cornhuskers should always be viable.
Fans everywhere will tune in to watch Nebraska play Michigan and Ohio State. Not sure the same can be said for Missouri or Rutgers.
This way you can have two sensibly sized divisions and play a championship game, making your conference relevant into December. You can schedule with greater inclusion and fewer cries of favoritism than in a 16-team league. There still will be geographic divisional issues, but they are surmountable.
And think of this ancillary benefit: When you take Nebraska, and Colorado wanders off to join the Pacific-10, the Big 12 will be the Big Ten. And you will be the Big 12. Your leagues can simply switch logos and carry on. No fuss, no muss.
Most importantly, Jim, you will have done right by the rest of college sports. There are plenty of things wrong with the current model -- starting with the BCS -- but the future could be worse if this gets out of hand.
You can keep the pin in the grenade and still improve your league, Jim. And by all means, enjoy the attention along the way. Just be sure to choose wisely.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.