Tuesday August 3rd, 2010

They stood together on stage Monday afternoon for a brief, somewhat historic photo op. To the left of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was Penn State's 83-year-old coaching bedrock, Joe Paterno. To the right, Nebraska's Hall of Fame coach-turned-athletic director, 73-year-old Tom Osborne.

Asked later why conference officials arranged the shoot, Osborne said, "I don't know. I assume someone wanted people who are really old in the same picture."

Senior citizens they may be, but Osborne and Paterno were two of the most influential figures in ushering in the Big Ten's new age.

While the Huskers won't join the conference for another year, their presence was already felt at this year's Big Ten media days, with Osborne attending meetings with the league's athletic directors and more than 30 media members from Nebraska on hand to cover the proceedings.

Already, barriers have come crashing down within this long-staid conference, and at times Monday it felt like walking into a bizarro Big Ten universe. According to Delany, a date and site for the 2011 Big Ten championship game could be announced within the next 30 days, and divisional alignments shortly thereafter. He's openly lobbying his schools to play a nine-game league schedule in the future. And did Jim Tressel really just say he's OK with possibly moving the Ohio State-Michigan game to earlier in the season?

The only thing that's apparently not changing: the league's name. ("The Big Ten is the Big Ten regardless of the number," said Delany.)

Though he was portrayed as one of the biggest power-players in this summer's Conference Realignment Madness, Delany -- who for years expressed ambivalence about expansion -- spoke Monday more like a witness to the process than an orchestrator.

When I asked Delany on Monday essentially "why now," he cited a growing restlessness among coaches who felt the league was falling behind some of its BCS peers, specifically singling out Paterno, who lamented in the spring of 2009 that the Big Ten "disappears" for two weeks when the SEC, Big 12 and ACC play their December title games.

"If you're responsible for the welfare of a conference, you have to look at what's happening around you," said Delany, the Big Ten's commissioner since 1989. "As you know, not only coach Paterno but other coaches felt like a championship game played in December would be good for us. I said then and I would say now that's not reason enough to expand. But certainly he raised that, and I think he raised it in an appropriate way."

Paterno and Delany helped spearhead a similar move nearly 20 years ago when Penn State joined the conference, at a time when super-conferences and big-money TV deals were still in their infancy.

When the league first announced its latest expansion aspirations last December, Obsorne said he "didn't give it much thought," adding, "I don't think many people in Nebraska did." Over the next several months, however, he was surprised to learn (first in discussions with Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, a Nebraska alum, and later with Tressel, who came to Lincoln for a speaking engagement) that the Big Ten was indeed interested in adding his school.

With uncertainty swirling around the Big 12's future, conference officials ultimately gave Nebraska an ultimatum to pledge its loyalty, at which point Osborne and chancellor Harvey Pearlman decided to take the plunge.

"It was a fairly easy decision for us when that opportunity afforded itself," said Osborne. "There wasn't much internal debate."

What first seemed an unlikely marriage to outsiders has begun to make more sense now that the hubbub has dissipated.

Nebraska, rightly or wrongly, perceives itself to share more in common academically with the 11 current Big Ten schools than the 10 remaining Big 12 schools. (How's that for some confusing math?) Osborne cited the Big Ten Network as a beneficial tool for his program, which, due to its state's small populace, is forced to recruit nationally, while BTN president Mark Silverman beamed that "Nebraska is as big-ticket a football market nationally as there is."

Nebraska, like every Big Ten peer, is also a cold-weather school, and it shares a similar blue-collar identity with that of Wisconsin, Iowa (both of whom could become natural rivals) and, of course, Paterno's Nittany Lions.

Though separated by more than 1,000 miles, Penn State and Nebraska share a lot of commonalities. They're both rich with tradition, synonymous with iconic coaches (though the Huskers have spent more than a decade trying to find their next face) and marked at their height by powerful running attacks and run-stuffing linebackers. Yet they've met on the field just 13 times, most recently in 2003.

Most likely, they're about to become annual rivals.

Delany reiterated Monday that the ADs are weighing competitive balance far more than geography in determining the league's two divisions, and specifically cited 1993 -- the year Penn State joined the conference -- as the starting point for its historical data. I used almost the same exact criteria in a column from June that showed the Huskers and Nittany Lions will almost certainly be grouped opposite fellow blue bloods Ohio State and Michigan.

"I really think the Nebraska thing was a coup," said Paterno.

It's remarkable that even at 83, Paterno is still helping to shape the conference's big-picture agenda. If it were up to him, in fact, the Big Ten wouldn't stop at 12. Delany said Monday the league is taking a "pause" from further expansion talk to focus on integrating Nebraska, but may revisit the issue in the fall. Paterno makes no bones about the fact that he'd like to see the league add two more teams from the East Coast, where his school lacks a natural conference rival.

"I think that would be good for us," he said. "When you see the Pac-10 come in [last week] and have a party in New York for TV, you start to realize that there may be some things we could get in the Big Ten from association with more than one [Eastern] team."

Of more immediate concern is whether Paterno will still be on the sideline the first time Penn State faces Nebraska.

After fighting what has been described politely as "intestinal" issues ("It's a little bit below the intestines," he joked in an unavoidably awkward exchange), Paterno appeared frail and exhausted Monday -- much more so than just a year or two earlier. He's had to cut back on his public appearances. Even his customary proclamation that, "I have no plans whatsoever as far as whether I'm going to go another year, two years, five years or what have you" sounded far less cocksure than usual.

If it comes to pass that this is in fact Paterno's final season, consider it a fitting last act that he helped usher in another era in college football. He's been around long enough to chronicle a whole bunch of them.

"If I some day get around to writing a book about the difference between what college football was like in 1950 when I first got into coaching to where we are today ...," Paterno said. "[Michigan AD] Fritz Crisler and [Big Ten commissioner] Tug Wilson didn't even want [games on] TV!"

Now, he coaches in a league with its own cable network and which will soon claim schools in nine different states.

"When I look at the addition of Penn State and the addition of Nebraska, I feel like in both cases the Big Ten became a better conference," said Delany. "Both institutions represent and have a relationship with the Big Ten that I think combines iconic brands."

The Big Ten's brand was built long ago around the legacies of Woody and Bo. Its next chapter may well be defined by the additions of Dr. Tom and Joe.

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