Big Ten decides tradition can be sold

When it comes to college sports, I, as a University of Wisconsin fan, haven’t had much in common with the Minnesota fans that surround me since I moved to this state several years ago. For most of the last decade – until this year, at least – the two schools’ athletic departments have been moving in very different directions.

But now, Gopher and Badger fans suddenly have something very much in common. None of us should be at all happy with the Big Ten Conference’s recent expansion.

In adding Maryland and Rutgers last week, the Big Ten made it no secret that the primary incentive was to penetrate the Washington D.C. And New York/New Jersey markets in an attempt to make more money for its television network. The Big Ten should at least get some credit for readily admitting as much, but then again, it would be awfully tough to argue that adding two athletic programs that are in financial ruin, and that have a combined all-time football record of 11-70-1 against current Big Ten teams, was made with competitive balance in mind.

The fact that money and greed drive college athletics is certainly not new. The recent free-for-all of conference realignment simply brought it to the forefront. What is sad about all of this, however, is that the Big Ten always seemed to be better than that. In fact, the conference always seemed to hang its hat on it.

There has always been a feeling of moral superiority that goes along with being in the Big Ten, and its fans have flaunted it with pride. When the SEC boasts of its vast football superiority, Big Ten fans retort that it’s because our conference’s schools haven’t sacrificed their integrity or academic standards in search of a better shot at a national title.

The Big Ten has also always taken pride in its natural rivalries, lengthy history and rich tradition, things to which it even alludes in the names of its football divisions, “Legends” and “Leaders.” The Big Ten has always been a conference full of major Midwestern state schools, all with strong academics. Eight of the conference’s 12 teams have been in the league for more than 112 years, joining back in the 1800s. All but two of the conference’s 12 programs have been in the league since at least 1950.

Even when athletic conferences across the country started trying to add teams willy-nilly several years ago, the Big Ten showed admirable and predictable restraint. While conferences like the Big East tried to add programs like Texas Christian and Air Force – schools that are neither big, nor east – the Big Ten settled for a single, history-rich program — Nebraska — that made sense on every level — financially, competitively, and even geographically.

But suddenly, everything for which the Big Ten has stood for the last century has been thrown out the window. To start with, the morally superior image of the Big Ten was tarnished before the season even began when two of its top programs were handed major sanctions that include bowl ineligibility. And now, in tossing aside its integrity in search of the almighty dollar, the Big Ten has essentially sold out like a rock band gone mainstream. In search of a wider audience and bigger bucks, it either didn’t’ bother to consider, or more likely or didn’t care, how its current fans would feel.

As a Wisconsin football season ticket holder, that’s the most disheartening part of all of this — how little regard the Big Ten seemed to show for its fans in this most recent expansion. While it’s hard to completely fault the conference for making a financial decision in a capitalistic economy, it is frustrating – and saddening, mostly – to see the conference morph into something that no longer even resembles the conference I and other Big Ten fans have grown to love throughout our lives.

While the conference has gradually regressed in football over the last decade into the complete laughingstock that it was this year, its fans watched last week as the conference’s answer was to add a pair of programs that actually detract from the conference’s overall power, rather than add to it. It’s rather hard to expect a Maryland program that is 4-44-1 all-time against current Big Ten teams, or a Rugters program that is 9-26 against those same 12 teams, to provide any level of competitive value to the league.

Still, it’s not the lack of competitive level of the two new programs that is most objectionable. It’s the fact that the most tradition-rich conference in the country has suddenly decided that tradition means nothing. And for that, its fans should be appalled.

At least Minnesota’s traditional rivalries have been somewhat preserved. The Gophers still get to play annual trophy games against Iowa and Michigan as fellow members of the Legends Division, and Minnesota’s rivalry with Wisconsin is preserved through the inter-divisional rivalry game that still gets played each year.

Wisconsin’s Leaders Division, however, has become a complete joke. Annually, Wisconsin will play games against Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State, schools with which it has little or no tradition, and all of whom have joined the conference within the last 22 years. Meanwhile, Iowa (one of Wisconsin’s most natural and longest rivals), Michigan (everyone’s rival) and Michigan State (probably UW’s most hated rival at the moment) all play in the other division. Based on the league’s rotational schedule, Wisconsin will play each of those schools just twice every six years, including four consecutive years without a matchup. It hardly even feels like those schools are in the same conference anymore.

What’s more, the Big Ten has virtually done away with ease of travel. For Wisconsin fans, places like Iowa City, Ann Arbor and Chicago always made for popular and fairly easy weekend road trips to watch the Badgers take on Iowa, Michigan or Northwestern. Now, Wisconsin will make those trips just once every six years, while costly flights to Happy Valley, Maryland and New Jersey have suddenly become the norm. It’s amazing that what’s good for the league is so bad for the fans.

At this point, it’s somewhat laughable that the Big Ten has kept its original name despite playing with more than 10 members since 1990. In keeping the name, the conference has always cited its rich tradition, a decision that has always made sense and has been mostly embraced by the fans.

Of course, that was before the conference decided that its tradition could be sold. For Big Ten traditionalists, the name of the conference is about the only thing we have left. But at this point, we might as well just sell that, too.

How does the “Good Hands Conference presented by All State” sound? It might not be as far off as you think.