Legends and Leaders, Chapter 2: Balance of Power
(NOTE: This is the second chapter in a multi-part series on how the Big Ten Conference divided into two football divisions)
CHICAGO — When Big Ten officials discarded geography as the basis for football realignment, competitive equality quickly became the primary tenet.
League officials brought volumes of comparable statistics on the 12 football members for viewing as the realignment deliberations began. Big Ten officials Mark Rudner and Mike McComiskey spent 30 to 45 days before the meetings analyzing and compiling data to guide the decision-making process. Among the criteria included BCS bowls and appearances, BCS rankings, conference titles, conference and non-conference winning percentages against bowl subdivision opponents, Sagarin rankings, bowl appearances and bowl victories.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany established 1993 as the analysis start date. Penn State joined the league that year, the initial Bowl Coalition — the forerunner of the BCS — was formed one year earlier and scholarships had dropped from 95 to 85 by 1994.
“We felt like the timeline was, we should probably look at when Penn State joined the Big Ten so 20 years ago,” Northwestern Athletics Director Jim Phillips said. “We have 20 years of data. Could you have gone shorter? Yes. Could you have gone longer? Yes.”
The 12 athletic directors and Big Ten staff met August 1 and 2 at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency, concurrent with the league’s annual media day. Realignment was the key topic that day in at the hotel, and Big Ten staffers did their best to conceal all information.
“They gave us a room that was behind the kitchen so we could go and meet in private and not be interrupted by curious onlookers,” said Rudner, the Big Ten senior associate commissioner for television administration. “So we were grinding most of those two days.”
Patterns developed over the data. The league’s football schools divided into clusters. The upper tier consisted of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and newcomer Nebraska. Wisconsin and Iowa fell into a second tier but clearly ahead of the other six schools. To provide competitive equality, the top four schools and the middle two needed equal separation.
“Our No. 1 criteria was competitive equality,” Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez said. “Bret (Bielema, Wisconsin’s coach) and I were discussing it, and I felt it was important that you go 3-3. Three of those teams had to be in one division, three of them had to be in another division. If you put four in one, then it would look like it would be imbalanced.”
Among the top four teams, rivalries came into play. The first slice was at the top, and the questions began immediately. Do you separate Michigan from Ohio State — the league’s flagship rivalry — in divisional play? Do you separate Penn State from its primary rival, Ohio State? Do you incorporate annual crossover rivalries?
After significant discussion, the choice was made to place Michigan and Ohio State in opposite divisions, define the schools as permanent crossover opponents and decide the scheduling date question at a later time. Penn State was wed to Ohio State, a rivalry Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith said was “advantageous to keep on our schedule.”
Michigan and Nebraska, two teams that had met in the 2005 Alamo Bowl and had shared the 1997 national title, were sent to the other division.
Placing the top four was semi-easy, once the Michigan-Ohio State question was settled. The criteria McComiskey and Rudner developed moved the pieces in motion for divisional alignments. Geography and rivalries played a role in which school goes where. Michigan State immediately was placed with Michigan. Shifting around the remaining schools then became an eye-blurring process.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how many different scenarios we were looking at,” Rudner said. “We had a power point presentation and we were holding institutions on one side to another, and it was data driven. So every time we would do it, the data collection would change. We were looking at lots and lots of combinations using those three tiers.”
“We probably looked at 15 or 20 different models,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. “In the brainstorming spirit of things, we looked at or considered everything for a few moments.”
Geography was given consideration, and there were two anomalies — Iowa and Wisconsin. One school was out of place in every setup.
“Wisconsin and Iowa had to be in separate divisions according to our clusters,” said McComiskey, the league's assistant commissioner for technology. “One of them was going to be away from its geographic compatriots. It was just trying to figure out which fit better.”
Each shift meant another. The divisional situation was so fluid that an Iowa move from one division meant a comparable Northwestern, Minnesota or Illinois shift.
“It was an interesting process because as you were doing it every time you come up with one solution, that move creates maybe five more problems in another direction,” Michigan State Athletics Director Mark Hollis said. “It’s the old, ‘Every action has an opposite reaction.’ We struggled through it with the commissioner leading us through and (deputy commissioner) Brad Traviolia and Mark Rudner from the Big Ten office. They shut the door and the group went at it, and there wasn’t a lot of barking and screaming.”
“We tried to move the chess pieces everywhere,” Purdue Athletics Director Morgan Burke said.
Finally on Aug. 2 came the moment. One division had Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana and Illinois. The other had Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern.
“It was interesting,” Rudner said. “There was like an ‘Ah, ha’ moment. Everybody looked at the board and said, ‘Oh, there it is.’ It was sort of the ‘wow’ moment of the day.”
The group flirted with a few more potential divisions, but liked the ‘Ah, ha’ moment. The criteria was in place and many rivalries were included. Even the geography fit for many most members.
“At the end of the day, this one balances out to almost a thousandth of a point — win-loss percentage,” Burke said. “It was that close. It really was incredible.”
The group adjourned and set up an Aug. 13 conference call. The divisions were closer to reality but far from finalized. There were many factors to take into account: Wisconsin’s (or Iowa’s) awkward geographical division; several schools’ attraction to the Chicago market; impacted rivalries; Nebraska’s acclimation process; the Michigan-Ohio State game; scheduling, branding, finances ... there still was plenty to do.COMING THURSDAY: Chapter 3: Sweet Home Chicago. Multiple Big Ten schools want to play Northwestern annually to get their foot into the Chicago market.