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Big Ten Expansion, Penn State and the Future

Penn State began the expansion circus in 1990. Now it can reap the benefits.
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The new world of college athletics began in 1989, when Penn State officials, including president Bryce Jordan and football coach Joe Paterno, pitched an idea: We should join the Big Ten.

Thirty-three years later, Penn State is firmly rooted, yet somehow still an outsider, in the Big Ten, which is still getting bigger. USC and UCLA announced Thursday that they will join the Big Ten. USC announced that the Big Ten voted to accept both schools as full members beginning in August 2024.

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said in a news release that the vote was “unanimous,” or much smoother than the one that took place in 1990, when a united front didn't welcome Penn State. That year, three Big Ten schools (Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana) voted against Penn State joining the conference.

Penn State never received a warm welcome to the Midwest. Former Illinois president Stanley Ikenberry, with whom that Penn State contingent met in 1989, recalled the vote as being a "complete insurrection." Further, then-Indiana president Tom Ehrlich told told Pennlive's David Jones for the same 2010 story that his 'No' vote represented several clear issues.

"I voted ‘No’ because I felt that our teams traveling to Penn State was just too long a trip," Ehrlich told Jones in an interview. "I listened to the benefits as far as money from TV. But I thought the primary thing was supporting our intercollegiate athletes. And to schlep to State College, well, it’s not easy to get there.”

Now, the Big Ten media rights money is going to top $1 billion, and teams are going to fly across three time zones for midweek basketball and soccer games. Meanwhile, the Big Ten will celebrate because it's out front of college athletics' fundamental reshaping.

College football can thank (or blame) Penn State in part for the paradigm shift it continues to undergo. Penn State forever changed the Big Ten Conference. So how will this move (and certainly future additions) affect Penn State? Some thoughts.


Penn State needs money. It has to pay James Franklin's 10-year deal, spent $48.3 million on upgrades to the football building and should be negotiating a lifetime contract for wrestling coach Cael Sanderson.

And Beaver Stadium.

The athletic department navigated the pandemic better than other schools but still is recovering from the $23.9 million budget deficit it reported for FY 2021. These and other expansion moves will put Big Ten programs in a competitive position financially against the SEC.

In a few years, Penn State athletics could be reporting $200 million in revenue. That will lift all 31 sports.

The Lions are 'Unrivaled' anyway

What program is better positioned to attack the new world of regional-rivalry-free college football than the one whose marketing slogan literally is "Unrivaled"'?

The Lions historically built their rivals through Eastern independence and have been reticent to generate much sports hatred in the Big Ten. Sure, Ohio State is a rival from Penn State's perspective, and Penn State is a rival from Maryland's perspective.

But even now-former Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour (her last day was Thursday) acknowledged early in her tenure that she was asked a lot about Penn State-Pitt.

"I mean, we're Penn State," Barbour said in 2015. "I love college football. I love talking about rivalries, but what's that, really? What happens on a Saturday with 107,000 people in a stadium is what our fan base, our community, our alumni and our entire university get fired up about."

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Well, maybe they'll also get fired up about hosting USC for a welcome-to-the-Big-Ten Whiteout in 2024. Penn State and USC have played 10 times but only twice each in true home games. Their last meeting, USC's 52-49 victory in the 2017 Rose Bowl, was an all-time classic.

But about those Big Ten 'divisions'

The ACC's "protected rivalry" model looked possible for the Big Ten until this move. Perhaps it still is, considering a potentially 20- or 24-team leviathan will require scheduling compromises.

But if the Big Ten sticks with this 16-team format, it could simply place USC and UCLA in the West and shift Purdue to the East. However, that ensures Penn State must continue laboring through Ohio State to reach the title game. Not what Penn State fans necessarily wanted after other conferences lifted their championship-game restrictions.

New recruiting territories

Last year, former SI analyst Jim Mora, Jr., now the head coach at Connecticut, suggested that Penn State start chasing the quarterback talent in California more vigorously.

"You have to be able to come out to California and find some of these young, talented guys that are now going to Alabama and Ohio State and places like that," Mora said in an interview. "And you have to convince them to come to Penn State and be a difference-maker."

Penn State has stretched its traditional recruiting boundaries significantly under Franklin. The 2023 recruiting class includes three players from Florida (two from national power St. Thomas Aquinas) and two from Alabama.

With USC and UCLA on board (and perhaps more California schools to come), Penn State has a hook to become more aggressive in recruiting the West.

Quite an introduction

Patrick Kraft starts his new job Friday as Penn State's athletic director. He's an aggressive sort who will maximize this move in every possible way for Penn State. As university trustee Brandon Short said in a recent interview, "He wakes up every day thinking about how to make the athletic programs at Penn State better."

In addition, new Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi now has a significant voice in Big Ten expansion matters. Consider that two of Bendapudi's first major actions at Penn State were hiring Kraft and voting on expansion.

Welcome to Penn State!

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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button's on the home page) for more great content across the network.