Legends and Leaders, Chapter 3: Sweet Home Chicago
(NOTE: This is the third chapter in a multi-part series on how the Big Ten Conference divided into two football divisions)
IOWA CITY — Chicago’s moniker as the nation’s “Second City” isn’t quite applicable in Big Ten country.
Chicago is the Big Ten’s Mecca as judged by the annual recruiting battles and neutral-game collisions at Soldier Field. More Big Ten alumni live in Chicago — the nation’s third-biggest market — than any other city in the world, according to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.
When Big Ten officials and athletics directors discussed splitting into divisions last summer, several schools sought to align with Northwestern because of the Chicago market. Northwestern has the smallest football stadium and rarely provides more than the minimum to the league revenue-sharing pie in gate receipts.
But that market is priceless, and Michigan State Athletics Director Mark Hollis was primed to mine it.
“Chicago is very important for us and a lot of other schools because of the amount of alums that live there,” Hollis said. “So Northwestern was an opponent that we wanted to play regularly. We had some outstanding games, some of the best comebacks in Big Ten history, both ways in a series like that.
“The recruiting base you get out of Chicago, the media coverage that you get in Chicago, the number of alums we have down there is astronomical. If I fought for anything, I was fighting to play Northwestern on an annual basis, knowing that we already had Michigan.”
Michigan State achieved its goal and landed Northwestern as a divisional foe.
Before Nebraska joined the Big Ten as its 12th member, each school designated two oppnents as annual rivals. Northwestern played Illinois and Purdue every year, something that Purdue Athletics Director Morgan Burke wanted to continue but didn’t materialize.
Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta was interested in playing Northwestern for many of the same reasons as his colleagues. As of June 30, Iowa has 32,033 alumni living or working in Illinois, many of which reside in the Chicagoland area. Iowa buses its football team to Evanston, which costs about $50,000 less than flying so it’s a cash savings as well.
“I like the fact Northwestern is in the greater Chicagoland area,” Barta said. “It’s a good drive for their fans and our fans. So once it became apparent that it was going to be that last version, that’s when I started to think about the positives of the way it was shaking out.”
Northwestern will compete with Iowa in the Legends Division.
Northwestern Athletics Director Jim Phillips wanted to preserve Northwestern’s instate rivalry with Illinois, an annual series since 1927, and was interested in yearly games against Wisconsin and Iowa. Philips said he was aware of the interest most schools had with his own.
“The reality is that all now 12 institutions have an awful lot of alumni and alums in this area,” Phillips said. “Any time you can get back to Chicago there’s a chance where institutions around the Big Ten to rally their alums. I completely understand that. But was it more or less than any other institution? I can’t say really that it was.
“I think we’re all really pleased with where we ended up. I think there’s a really nice rivalry building between Northwestern and Iowa. I can say that for several others in the division.”COMING FRIDAY: Rivalry Reunions and Resignations. Every athletics director had a chance to pound the table in front of their peers to maintain rivalries. Some lasted, others did not.