- Penn State's 25 seasons as a Big Ten school have been filled with drama, controversy and sustained success—and one of the program’s biggest regular season conference games in the past decade looms this Saturday.
Sports Illustrated is celebrating Penn State’s last quarter-century of Big Ten play with a special issue, honoring the school’s greatest players and games from the era. You can get your copy at newsstands now, or order it online here.
The new era began with a secret dinner.
In the spring of 1989, a delegation from Penn State, including football coach Joe Paterno, flew to Champaign, Ill., in a private plane to not draw attention. The president of the University of Illinois, Stanley Ikenberry, sent a driver to the airport but didn’t go himself to avoid being seen. Back at the President’s House on campus, just a single staff member was asked to work that night.
The purpose of the dinner was to discuss the possibility of Penn State’s joining the Big Ten. They didn’t want anybody to know, in case it didn’t work out.
At that point Penn State was competing as an independent in football, as it had done for a century, but going it alone was becoming less desirable. In 1981, Paterno had worked to establish an Eastern sports conference, but Penn State was left out in the cold as Syracuse and other basketball-centric schools joined the Big East. And, while it certainly didn’t turn out this way, Paterno at the time had said he planned to retire at 65, which was just a few years off. His expected departure was another reason the university longed for the stability of a conference affiliation.
Penn State’s president, Bryce Jordan, was the one who had contacted Ikenberry. As chairman of the Council of 10, the Big Ten’s governing body, Ikenberry held considerable influence—and he was also a former Penn State senior vice president. “What would you think about Penn State joining the Big Ten?” Jordan asked him. Ikenberry agreed to meet with Paterno et al., before raising the topic with the other nine university presidents.
Several months after the dinner, word reached the media that an invitation had been extended to Penn State to join the Big Ten. In June 1990, the Council of 10 convened in Iowa City for the official vote while Penn State administrators waited apprehensively in Old Main. After two days of deliberations, the conference presidents voted the Nittany Lions in 7–3, the minimum margin needed to pass. (Indiana was the only school to state publicly it had voted against the move.) The 1993 season was Penn State football’s first as a member of the Big Ten. Today it is hard to imagine the Big Ten without Penn State, and vice versa.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that it was the right decision then, the right decision now,” says Jim Delany, who has been Big Ten commissioner since 1989, “and that while there has been a lot of conference expansion since, I’m not sure there has ever been a better fit or match.”
Pennsylvania was a contiguous state to Big Ten territory, and Penn State was a land-grant institution like many of the conference’s members, but its most appealing attributes were ones that would help the Big Ten grow: Its football team brought the conference a third national brand, along with Ohio State and Michigan, and Penn State was also a bridge to the East, opening up a larger media audience, a broader recruiting base and the potential for expansion.
The reception at first, however, could be generously described as lukewarm. Traditionalists didn’t like the fact that the Big Ten now had 11 teams; others grumbled that tiny State College was inaccessible. Among the discontented was Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, who said, “I’ve been to Penn State, and Penn State is a camping trip. There is nothing for 100 miles.” Northwestern, meanwhile, feared that it was about to be pushed out. Penn State, which had won two national titles in the previous decade, also figured to make the football competition stiffer—not necessarily good news for all.
Penn State won its first Big Ten title in its second season in the conference, but memories of that undefeated 1994 team inspire ire as well as awe. The Lions headed to the Rose Bowl knowing that a victory over a three-loss Oregon team might not earn the poll votes needed to be named national champions—and that is exactly what happened. Had we still been an independent, fans griped, the Lions could have had the chance to play fellow undefeated—and eventual national champion—Nebraska, in the Orange Bowl, and win the title on the field.
Over the years the changes in major college football have confirmed the original analysis: joining a conference was a business necessity, as well as a competitive one. (Penn State’s other sports have benefitted, too: The Big Ten era hastened the construction of a new basketball arena, named after Bryce Jordan; and the Olympic sports have combined for 30 NCAA championships, more than any other Big Ten school.)
The move meant that regional rivalries like Pitt–Penn State went on hiatus for 15 years, but the Big Ten schedule quickly became the tablet on which Lions history was written. The LaVar Leap happened against Illinois; Larry Johnson broke the 2,000-yard rushing mark against Michigan State; and no matter their records, the Hawkeyes always seem to give the Lions trouble. After losing seasons in the early 2000s, Penn State declared its comeback on an October night in 2005 when defensive end Tamba Hali upended Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith to seal a victory against Ohio State. Were it not for a mysterious two seconds added back to the clock at Michigan Stadium the following week, the Lions would have been unbeaten. In 2016, when Penn State won its fourth Big Ten football championship, the season turned with an underdog win against the No. 2 Buckeyes, delivered on a blocked field goal returned for a game-winning touchdown.
The 2016 season was a comeback for Lions football, but Penn State had to return from a place no school ever had before. The program and community had been stunned by the November 2011 indictment of Jerry Sandusky, who had retired as defensive coordinator in 1999 after 32 years in State College. Sandusky was charged with sexually abusing boys he had met through his charity for at-risk youth. The arrest was the first in a series of shocks. Paterno was fired after Sandusky’s arrest, and the Big Ten decided to remove his name from the conference championship trophy; Paterno died from lung cancer two months later. Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of child sex abuse and will spend the rest of his life in prison. In 2017 three university officials, including former president Graham Spanier, were sentenced to jail time for failing to alert authorities to allegations against Sandusky.
The NCAA issued a four-year postseason ban to Penn State, reduced scholarships and vacated wins from 14 seasons. Bill O’Brien in 2012 and then James Franklin in ’14 were brought in to lead the football program as the first new head football coaches in Happy Valley since 1966. In ’14 penalties were rolled back, gradually returning scholarships and lifting the postseason ban, and Paterno was later restored in the record books as the winningest coach in major college football history. In ’16 the team again earned an invitation to the Rose Bowl.
At the Big Ten media days in the summer of 2017, Delany called the Sandusky case and its aftermath the “most difficult set of circumstances” he’d been confronted with, but he also commended Penn State’s road back. “They’ve got great leadership, great players,” he said, “and we’re really happy that they’ve gotten to the other side, if you will, after five years.”
Today, in the age of super-conferences, the Big Ten’s further expansion seems inevitable. But for two decades, Penn State had stood alone as the 11th and final member of the Big Ten. There had been a temporary moratorium on further expansion after Penn State was added, but in 2011, Nebraska joined. In ’14 came two more Eastern neighbors, Rutgers and Maryland. The clever Big Ten logo the conference commissioned when Penn State joined—the one with the “11” tucked in—was replaced with “B1G.”
Each subsequent expansion of the Big Ten may have been easier—but in the landscape of college football, not more significant than adding Penn State 25 years ago.
Jenny Vrentas, a writer for The MMQB, grew up in State College and graduated from Penn State in 2006.