Spartan Nation Spoke to all 11 Big Ten Head Football Coaches about, "It’s Time for the Big Ten to Put Conference First!...The Coaches’ Take!"

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Before the start of ‘09 season, we discussed the Big Ten’s need to expand the conference schedule to ten games (CLICK HERE TO READ). If the Big Ten is going to once again become the premier football conference in America, they must play a complete and balanced schedule to identify a true Big Ten Champion. 

Photo by Bill Marklevits

Photo by Bill Marklevits

During the course of the regular season, Spartan Nation conducted multiple interviews with Big Ten coaches to gauge their attitudes towards such an idea. As we arrive to College Football’s “Championship Weekend,” Big Ten fans are left yet again to watch other conferences play some of the most important games of the year. Next year, the Big Ten season will finally end after Thanksgiving. But that’s only the first scheduling step needed to improve the overall brand.

When Spartan Nation asked Mark Dantonio about expanding the conference schedule, the Spartans’ Head Coach favored another direction all together. “When you look at those different things…I think the better solution would be to add a football team and have two divisions.” Though Dantonio chooses only to focus on things in his control, recognizing that expansion decisions will not be left up to the Coaches alone, he didn’t completely oppose the idea of a full Big Ten slate, provided a fair schedule be created.     

Three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year Kirk Ferentz (Iowa) told Spartan Nation at the year’s pre-season Media Day that he’d like to see the schedule evolve in two ways. The Hawkeyes Head Man would favor Big Ten teams playing full ten game schedule, but also expanding the overall schedule to thirteen games. Ferentz believes his players would favor the expansion since they work thousands of hours over the course of a year just to play twelve times. He also sees adding a thirteenth game as a possible compromise to losing any potential non-conference, home game revenue.   

Ferentz and Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald agree that a schedule expansion should coincide with a scholarship increase. “You tell me were going to play all ten teams, in twelve games, and I’d ask you for ten more scholarships,” Fitzgerald said. “You give me ten more grants… we’ll play all ten teams.” As much sense as that concept might make, neither Coach felt a scholarship increase was imminent.

Fitzgerald has the unique perspective of playing and coaching in the modern-era Big Ten. He doesn’t favor adding a tenth game to the conference schedule because he doesn’t see it as that different from the status quo. “I’m always for improving, but it has to be something significant for me to want to make a change…I don’t see how playing all ten teams is a significant change.” That’s not the only reason Fitzgerald doesn’t like the idea. “It’s already hard enough to win the Big Ten Championship right now!,” he quipped.

Embattled Michigan Head Coach Rich Rodriguez has the freshest perspective on Big Ten schedule expansion, having recently coached in a conference (Big East) where the season doesn’t wrap up until after Thanksgiving. “I don’t think it’s (playing ten conference games) a bad idea completely, it has some merit to it.”  

But Rodriguez suggested that losing a potential home game could have deep repercussions on Big Ten Athletic Departments. “That (last) home game is obviously a big revenue source…losing that, would I’m sure, be an issue.” And though we might be at the absolute peak of Athletic Department budgets, including football budgets individually, money is always going to be a major issue. “Everybody has (reduced their football budget)…we talked about it at length this spring with our Athletic Administration, on ways to cut cost and reduce,” Rodriguez told Spartan Nation. “With us, and our tremendous revenue and crowds we have, I think you still have to do your due diligence and see what you can do in light of the economy.”

Coming off his fifth straight Big Ten Championship, and sixth overall, Buckeye Head Coach Jim Tressel sees both sides of expanding the conference schedule. “I think in some ways that would be a good idea...but from a universal stand point, I’m not sure it would be.” It’s not just as simple as expanding the schedule to ten games (five home, five road) for Ohio St. The Bucks carry the country’s largest Athletic Department, and would have a hard time losing the revenue of an 8th home football game. 

“We (OSU Football) happen to sponsor thirty-six sports, and we really need to have seven or eight home games in order to have those thirty-six sports, and right around 1,000 student athletes,” the “Senator” told Spartan Nation. With only a twelve game home schedule, the Bucks would likely max out at seven home games, which could force real change. “You’d have six away games, and that would probably force our Athletic Department to make some decisions they really don’t want to make,” Tressel said. But should the overall schedule expand to thirteen games, OSU could probably protect their annual eight home games. 

On the other hand, Athletic Departments across the Big Ten should realistically consider sponsoring less Varsity sports, whether football schedules change soon or not. Tressel said that budgets might already be all the way trimmed. “We’ve been working very hard to be as good as we can…we’ve all tried to cut back in a lot of different ways…but could you cut back to a point where you could make up for the loss of 2 home games? No, I don’t imagine you could make those kind of cuts.” 

Yet, the Senator’s job is to win football games and graduate student athletes. It’s not to dictate Athletic Administration policy. That’s why no one reading the Coaches’ opinions should take everything they say as gospel. Coaches spend so much time working their craft that it’s probably not fair to expect them to fully grasp the bigger picture. No one may want to cut a number of Varsity sports, but soon, every Big Ten Athletic Department might have to.

Besides funding concerns, the “Senator” worries that big time non-conference matchups could become extinct should the schedule expand to ten conference games. “It would make it such that you probably wouldn’t want to schedule a bunch of (big) home-and-home games. We’ve had really exciting experiences with Texas, USC, and Miami (FL) coming up.” 

Yet, if the schedule went to thirteen games, that would leave plenty of time for two non-conference “cup cakes” before a potential big time non-conference matchup. Even at twelve games, there’s space for a tune up game before engaging a serious opponent. Just how many non-competitive games would the Big Ten Coaches like fans to support, year after year? I know this, fans would have no problem supporting a twelve or thirteen game schedule stocked complete with competitive contest after competitive contest. 

Indiana Head Coach Bill Lynch was most opposed to the idea of ten conference games.  “We beat each other up enough where I don’t really see where we need to expand to ten,” Lynch said. He echoed Tressel’s concern that some team’s long standing out of conference traditions would be threatened by such a scheduling move. While that really doesn’t seem likely, since most teams don’t have more than two of them, it would seem even less likely should there be an expansion to thirteen regular season games. 

“The way the schedule is set now…I think we’re all comfortable that we get a good champion,” Lynch said. But clearly, thousands of Big Ten fans would disagree, and even some Coaches. “I think twelve is enough,” he concluded. “I guess I’ve been around long enough from playing ten, to coaching ten, to coaching twelve.”

Joe Paterno is getting set to wrap up his 43rd year as the Head Coach at Penn St. Joe Pa has probably coached in more eras of College Football than anyone in the game’s history. But, Penn St. has only been an Athletic Member of the Big Ten since 1993, so Paterno is relatively new to these parts. Perhaps all that experience, combined with his long standing roots in the north east, has shaped Coach Joe’s unique perspective on Big Ten schedule expansion.

“I would prefer to expand in the New York Television market,” he told Spartan Nation. “If we could, there’s fifty million people that live within…fifty miles,” Paterno said. “I think we outta expand to twelve teams, have division champions, and work it out that way as they have in the SEC (and other conferences).”

Paterno and Penn St. know the disadvantage the Big Ten has by wrapping up before Thanksgiving, just look at their performance in last year’s Rose Bowl. “Southern Cal had two games after we finished playing our schedule,” he reminded Spartan Nation. That fact was quite evident to anyone that watched as the Big Ten’s best wasn’t nearly as sharp as the Trojans. USC thumped the Lions early to a 28-7 halftime lead, then cruised home to win 38-24 in a game that was nowhere near as close as the final score.   

If given a choice between expanding the Big Ten schedule and expanding into two divisions, Paterno quickly said he’d rather add another team.  But unlike Indiana’s Bill Lynch, Paterno would be open to the possibility of a complete Big Ten schedule instead. “If they could work something out…that’s fine with me…just so that it’s not something a little near sighted, that’s going to put us further behind the exposure that the SEC and these other conferences have by playing games after were through playing.” 

Realistically, there isn’t “big time” college football in the north east once your pass Happy Valley, PA. So we can’t be totally sure what Paterno has in mind.  The likes of Rutgers and Syracuse (the nation’s largest private University) don’t seem a good fit in the Big Ten. So perhaps Joe Pa would like to see an expansion to add Notre Dame, which is an idea that will likely be revisited each time the Irish’s NBC contract approaches termination. With the Irish’s relatively poor performance over the last twenty years, perhaps the time is finally approaching where they will need to join a conference. There could be little dispute that geographically and logistically, the Big Ten would be their best fit when that time comes. 

But remember, joining the Big Ten isn’t only about athletics. It’s also about academics, and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which is known as the "Academic Big Ten." The CIC was established in 1958, and is an academic network of the Big Ten Universities, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Chicago. Any addition to the Big Ten would likely need the Universities’ approval to also join the CIC. The last time that Notre Dame discussed as joining the Big Ten, in the late 90s, there were legitimate concerns about their fit in the CIC. So expanding to add another school in the Big Ten is anything but a simple process.

Something to Think About…

Many of the Coaches expressed regret about having to play after Thanksgiving, and about keeping their kids away from their families on perhaps the best American Holiday. My response to that is simple, “get over it.” Every other major Football conference has student athletes playing after Turkey Day. Though we might not like it, if the Big Ten wants to be more competitive on a national scale, they’re going to have to embrace the coming change and end the season at the same time as the other BCS conferences have their title games. Though this concept seems like a no-brainer, it’s taken the conference until 2010 to finally start to come around.

Some have wondered where Big Ten games would appear, since TV networks have become used to the Big Ten wrapping up before Thanksgiving. Well, for one, we have our own network! For two, Big Ten games are still among the highest rated of any conference, have the biggest national following, and still hold the clout to move schedules of the other conferences. Do you think ABC/ESPN would mind having Big Ten games again to replace the boring and uninspired ACC and other sluggish games they feature on these last two weekends? Big Ten games played after Thanksgiving will not have trouble finding the Television air waves.

My final suggestions to the Big Ten to “put conference first,” are these:

  • Immediately expand the conference schedule to ten conference games
  • Work to expand the overall schedule to thirteen games as quickly as possible
  • Require each team to play five conference at home and five on the road, with now more than two in a row of either kind at any point
  • Allow Big Ten games to be played at any point in the yearly schedule
  • Require each team to have one bye week, taking an NFL type approach to limit its timing to a uniformed window, (ex. between weeks five through nine)
  • End the season on the same weekend as other BCS Conference Championship games. 

Now that’s putting Conference First.