Legends and Leaders, Chapter 4: Rivalries, Reunions and Resignation

Illibuck (Mark Jones/U of Illinois)
Illibuck (Mark Jones/U of Illinois)

(NOTE: This is the fourth chapter in a multi-part series on how the Big Ten Conference divided into two football divisions)

CHICAGO — Rivalries are the lifeblood of nearly every sporting conference, and the Big Ten is no different.

The league’s football schools compete among one another for 12 of the nation’s most recognizable traveling trophies. So when the Big Ten realigned itself in August 2010, the lifeblood of each college football program was at stake.

Before Big Ten realignment meetings began on Aug. 1, each athletic director had the chance to vouch for their rivalries. Iowa’s Gary Barta touted Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Michigan’s David Brandon wanted Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State. Every other athletic director did the same thing went around the room talking about playing certain teams in perfect worlds. It was a parochial process.

“Everybody had a wish list, but when you put everybody’s wish list together this was not a process that was going to please everybody,” Brandon said. “Compromises had to be reached, but everybody had their wish list and it was put forward.”

Recently retired Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther and Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith talked of preserving the Illibuck rivalry, which was uninterrupted from 1914 until 2003 when it rotated off the Big Ten schedule. Guenther also had a list of others he wanted to protect.

“Most of us consider us having  two or three rivalries; it’s not just one,” Guenther said. “When we looked at the instate stuff, which obviously we had with Northwestern in this state, Purdue and Indiana have a natural thing going and then you have a rivalry we feel strongly, we have good competition with Iowa.”

Of all the areas for potential conflict, rivalry preservation was at the top for Big Ten officials during realignment. The league includes perhaps college football’s best rivalry in Michigan-Ohio State, the oldest major-college rivalry in Minnesota-Wisconsin, intrastate clashes in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, and several others that span generations.

The scrutiny was intense. Fans sent letters to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, “not probably hundreds, it was thousands” about Michigan-Ohio State. Delany received letters from Purdue, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin fans about their school’s important rivalries.

“We said we were going to respect that, and they let us know it was important to them,” Delany said. “So that was a consideration.”

Minnesota-Wisconsin have played 120 times since 1890. That rivalry wasn’t going anywhere. Purdue and Indiana have played 113 times, and that was the only one Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke strongly vouched to protect.

“We play The Bucket game. You don’t want to lose that one,” Burke said of the Indiana-Purdue rivalry. “After that, I really didn’t care. Illinois is simple because it’s probably the closest Big Ten school to us, so that’s an easy one for fans to drive back and forth.”

After the historic and intrastate rivalries were protected, the opponent list got tricky. Both Michigan and Michigan State pushed for rivalries with Penn State. Newcomer Nebraska wanted to play border state Iowa and nearby Minnesota. Iowa and Wisconsin, which compete in the Big Ten’s most-evenly competitive rivalry at 42-42-2, wanted to play one another. Several schools wanted annual games with Northwestern, and Northwestern wanted to play Iowa or Wisconsin.

They all weren’t going to happen.

“Everybody had to compromise,” Brandon said. “So we were all in a position where we had to compromise. My example of behalf of Michigan is Penn State. We’ve had a terrific rivalry develop with Penn State. We’ve had some great games, two storied programs. The idea that we’ll go years at a time and not play Penn State is not something that is necessarily great, from my perspective, but that was a necessary byproduct of the process we all went through.”

Michigan State and Penn State became a protected rivalry when the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993. The schools had ended their league seasons against one another every year since 1994.

“Penn State is a team that we love to play, both here and away,” Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis said. “But at the same time, many schools in the Big Ten we love to play here and away.

“That game is one as an athletic director that I said, ‘Hey, we don’t need to hold that one in place to the degree of other rivalry games falling by the wayside. We wanted to keep Michigan, we wanted to keep our fans in Chicago; those two things were very important to us.”

Nebraska has little history with any Big Ten schools. Athletic Director Tom Osborne’s rivalry preferences were based on proximity to Lincoln and protecting his fans from extended travels.

“I think most of the fans in Nebraska tend to look at Iowa as somewhat of natural rival,” Osborne said. “We have played Minnesota a lot over the years, going back to Bernie Bierman in the 20s and 30s. I think that’s a fairly natural game, and I’m glad we have them as well as Iowa. We also probably would have some interest in Wisconsin. But we couldn’t have everybody in our division that way.”

As the divisions were formed, several non-divisional rivalries became protected as crossover battles, including Michigan-Ohio State, Illinois-Northwestern, Minnesota-Wisconsin and Michigan State-Indiana. Penn State-Nebraska became a protected crossover, as did Purdue-Iowa. Ironically, the permanently protected Iowa-Purdue game was not played in 2009 or 2010 because the two were not designated as annual rivals.

“Obviously we’re aren’t kidding ourselves, and none of us stand here to believe that was the leading rivalry discussion in the Big Ten,” Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta said. “But it is where it worked out. I’m pleased.”

Burke had a similar feeling about Iowa-Purdue but turned the thought into a positive.

“There’s a lot of cultural similarities between Iowa City and West Lafayette,” Burke said. “I don’t think it wasn’t one I went into the meeting saying, ‘I’ve got to have Iowa.’ But I wasn’t disappointed. We’ve played for years, we’re reasonably close in proximity, we both reside in farm country. There are a lot of similarities. It didn’t bother me in the least.

“I had a struggle with trying to make Purdue vs. Minnesota. We’ve played the Gophers for a long time but, there isn’t as much ... big city vs. college town. But with Iowa I said, ‘OK, that makes sense.’ I had no problem with that.”

The divisional process and opponent status reached its near conclusion, but it wasn’t over. Through the divisional breakdown and protected crossover rivalries, only three trophy games fell short of annual status — Iowa-Wisconsin, Penn State-Michigan State and Penn State-Minnesota. Some schools wanted to make one more run at protecting a rivalry.COMING LATER TODAY: Wisconsin's Melancholy. The northwest triangle of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota was riddled with issues once competitive equity trumped geography, and Wisconsin was tossed into a division void of its closest rivalries.  

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