Commentary

Nebraska finds home in Big Ten

Originally Published: June 11, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Nebraska entered into its shotgun marriage in 1994 with the Big 12 in a cranky mood and left it Friday with barely the politest of farewells. The Huskers had been a leader in the Big Eight and for 16 years never seemed comfortable with how power in its new home emanated from Austin.

[+] Enlarge Harvey Perlman and Tom Osborne
AP Photo/Nati HarnikHarvey Perlman and Tom Osborne made a convincing case for moving to the Big Ten.

By contrast, the announcement Friday that Nebraska would leap into the waiting arms of the Big Ten could be described as nothing more than a lovefest. And if you think about it, there's no university outside of South Bend, Ind., that fits into those Big Ten arms better than Nebraska.

"We are stronger today," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in a Lincoln, Neb., news conference. "Nebraska is an unbelievable program with an unbelievable legacy. It will make us better than before they joined the Big Ten Conference."

If you're keeping score, the Big Ten now has 12 teams, and the Big 12 now has 10, at least until the Texas regents meet Tuesday. The board will decide, for all intents and purposes, whether the Big 12 will live or die. If Texas leaves, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State appear sure to follow.

Where Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State and Baylor end up is anybody's guess. Maybe the American Red Cross will set up a shelter.

Nebraska, judging by the comments of athletic director and resident legend Tom Osborne, assumed they will need one.

"One school leaving does not break up a conference," Osborne said at the Nebraska board of regents meeting Friday. "Two schools does not. Six schools leaving breaks up a conference."

Like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the rumors of impermanence that have floated for weeks off the Big 12 coast rolled ashore over the last 36 hours and brought disaster with them. Colorado left for the Pac-10, but no one much flinched.

Nebraska, however, is the anchor of the league's North Division. University officials scoffed at the idea that staying in the Big 12 would be as secure, financially and otherwise, as moving to the Big 10.

Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman said at the regents meeting that Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe asked him Wednesday for the university to commit to the league through 2016. Perlman responded by calling Delaney to see if he thought love might blossom.

"Neither Tom nor I felt that was a very long-term commitment for the Big 12," Perlman said. "We thought our obligation to the University of Nebraska was to protect it from the vulnerability of being without a conference altogether. At that point, we re-engaged the leadership of the Big Ten."

Tom Osborne
AP Photo/Nati HarnikTom Osborne had a sometimes contentious relationship with the Big 12.

Delany and his conference presidents offered long-term security, a more prestigious academic environment, and, yes, more money. But they also offered a collegiality that Nebraska struggled to find in the Big 12. The headbutting had nothing to do with personality.

"Some of those people we've had an association with for over 100 years," Osborne said. "If some of them end up in unpleasant circumstances, we are really sorry for that. We do have good feelings about the conference and its membership. But we are really looking forward to the Big Ten."

The Big 12 formed as a marriage of convenience. Texas and its Southwest Conference buddies had TV sets and a state full of recruits. Nebraska and the Big Eight lacked clout in the media marketplace. The union, consummated in 1994, didn't survive the honeymoon without a couple of fights.

Osborne, then at the peak of his Hall of Fame coaching career, wanted the league to allow its members to accept academic non-qualifiers under the NCAA's requirements for incoming freshmen.

As Osborne wrote in his book, "On Solid Ground," the conference presidents tabled the matter until the spring of 1996, only to hold a conference-call vote in December 1995. The vote went 11-1 to ban the non-qualifiers, with Nebraska the lone dissenter.

That vote has stuck in Osborne's craw to this day, one former colleague said, even though the NCAA banned non-qualifiers from all FBS schools soon after the Big 12 vote.

The league also voted 11-1 to establish a championship game, with Nebraska again the holdout.

Life in the Big 12 became smoother. The league is the only one of the six automatic-qualifier conferences to apportion half of its revenues based on television appearances. That works in the favor of Texas and Nebraska. So does the vast recruiting territory of the Lone Star State, which may become more difficult for the Huskers to harvest now that they won't play any games there.

In the end, Nebraska set that aside to join a league in which it felt at home. Late in the news conference Friday, Delany described a Big Ten that does business in a different manner.

"Inside the Big Ten, there aren't a lot of votes taken," Delany said. "Harvey brought up a lot of 11-1 votes. Our people bring up ideas. They are reluctant to make changes unless [there is consensus]. I don't even remember deciding anything on a 6-5 vote."

Huskers football coach Bo Pelini dismissed the idea that he would miss Big 12 rivalries.

"I'm not a real emotional guy," Pelini said before breaking into laughter.

No, Nebraska won't be looking back with remorse, regret or nostalgia at its time in the Big 12. The Huskers have a new home. Their partners are as happy to have them as they are to be there. Love is a beautiful thing.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com