Nebraska's Big Ten move brings anticipation, but also challenges
As an offensive assistant for Nebraska in the mid-1960s, back when scouting opponents in person was still allowed, Tom Osborne sat in the stands for a game at Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium. "I remember thinking, 'This is a lot like Nebraska,'" said the Huskers' legendary coach and current athletic director. "The passion for college football, the pageantry, certainly shared something in common with the fans in our state."
Nebraska and Wisconsin are about to share a more tangible bond. More than a year after the frenzied drama of conference realignment, five prominent relocations -- Nebraska to the Big Ten, Colorado and Utah to the Pac-12, Boise State to the Mountain West and BYU to independent status -- become official July 1. While the date may seem anticlimactic to some, the process of changing conferences was not as simple as altering logos and printing new stationary.
"It will be kind of a watershed day, because one thing I'll be grateful for is we'll no longer have one foot in two conferences," said Osborne. "The past year has been a bit awkward because we've been competing in the Big 12 but not involved in Big 12 affairs -- other than to pay an exit fee. At the same time, we've been trying to integrate with the Big Ten, we've attended a lot of meetings, and yet we're not a voting member. So to get past the transition stage will be important."
The most pressing challenge of Nebraska's transition involved the 2011 schedule. Teams generally know most of their future opponents years in advance and can plan accordingly, but Nebraska didn't find out until last September that it would be making trips this season to Wisconsin (Oct. 1), Minnesota (Oct. 22), Penn State (Nov. 12) and Michigan (Nov. 19).
"When you've been in a conference for a number of years, you have a pretty good idea where you want to stay," said Jeff Jamrog, Nebraska's assistant athletic director for football operations. "We had some hotels booked two years in advance."
After soliciting recommendations from his Big Ten counterparts, Jamrog -- who could moonlight for Hotels.com -- traveled to those cities (as well as some for 2012) in search of hotels that could accommodate nearly 100 guests and provide adequate meeting rooms, food and security. "It's been interesting negotiating some of the prices," said Jamrog.
Big Ten policies and geography presented other challenges. Nebraska's new conference limits the team's traveling roster for the Sept. 24 nonconference game at Wyoming to 70 players (the Big 12 only dictated league contests) as well as the number of people the team can put up at a hotel the night before home games (also 70). And whereas in the past the Huskers could count on at least one bus trip per season in the Big 12 (to Kansas, K-State or Iowa State), all Big Ten road games will require a flight. The program figures to spend an extra $200,000 per season on travel.
Changing conferences has been expensive in general for Nebraska. As part of a settlement last September, the school relinquished $9.25 million in 2010 and '11 Big 12 revenue as an exit fee. And while it's joining a league with more lucrative television contracts (Big Ten teams net $20-$25 million annually), Nebraska will not receive the same share as the other schools until those deals can be renegotiated.
"We're not fully vested at this point, and we won't be for a few years," said Osborne. "We will not receive any huge economic windfall initially."
Television has also become the source of another headache. Just like its Big Ten counterparts experienced three to four years ago, Nebraska and its fans are getting caught in the middle of an ongoing standoff between the Big Ten Network and Time Warner Cable (the primary cable provider in Lincoln), with the looming threat that local fans won't be able to see the Huskers' first two games against Chattanooga and Fresno State as well as one league contest. Previously the school would have aired the first two games as local pay-per-view broadcasts, but like all Big Ten schools Nebraska had to surrender those rights to the conference.
"We were probably as far along as Texas at one point in terms of starting our own network," said Osborne. "We were planning to start it this summer. We obviously had to cancel that plan."
In a hardball negotiating tactic, the conference has yet to hand over the rights for Nebraska home games to the Big Ten Network, saying it won't do so until Time Warner Cable agrees to give the channel "comparable" distribution to systems in other Big Ten states. (It's currently offered on a premium digital tier.) Time Warner Cable contends it's entitled to those games, with a spokesman telling the
Fans who do receive the BTN will be treated to three days of "Big Ten Welcomes Nebraska" programming this weekend. That may surprise coach Bo Pelini, who when reached Wednesday didn't realize Friday was the school's Big Ten start date. Pelini and his staff began preparing for the move as soon as recruiting season ended last February.
"There was more work in the offseason, that's for sure," said Pelini. "We always spend some time [watching tape of] new opponents -- we just had a lot more to do this year. But we were fairly selective, how we went about it. You don't have to watch every single game to know who people are, just to get a general idea what you're going to be dealing with. We didn't watch the teams we're playing at the very end of the year, and one [Michigan] just had a coaching change."
Osborne doesn't have special plans to celebrate Friday, even though he and chancellor Harvey Perlman ultimately made the decision that sent ripples through college football last summer. While the nationwide domino-effect of conference realignment ended up being fairly modest, there's no understating the significance of a program with Nebraska's prestige severing what were in some cases century-old affiliations.
It's been widely written that Osborne resented Texas and the power it had wielded since joining what was formerly the Big 8 back in the mid-'90s. Ever the diplomat, the former Congressman offers no such gripes publicly, other than to lament that state's more advantageous climate. "In sports like baseball, golf and track, you were competing against warm-weather schools where they could practice year-round and recruiting was a little easier," Osborne said. "We're on a more level playing field now."
Ultimately, the move will be bittersweet for Osborne and the rest of Husker Nation.
"There will be some mixed emotions; we have a long history with schools like Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and Iowa State," said Osborne, who coached 25 games against each of those teams. "It's sad to be leaving them, but on the other hand our fans, coaches and athletes are all looking forward to being in the Big Ten. This is not to disparage anyone in the Big 12 -- we had a great amount of respect for all of those schools -- but in terms of how we view academics and athletics, we're probably a little more like-minded across the board with those in the Big Ten than the Big 12."
If the magnitude of the move doesn't hit home on July 1, it certainly will three months later. The Huskers play their first Big Ten game Oct. 1 at Wisconsin, the school Osborne first scouted nearly a half-century ago.