It all seemed so neat and tidy last December—so final. The presidents of the Big Ten universities invited Penn State to become the easternmost member of what would presumably be called the Big Eleven. Flushed with gratitude, the Nittany Lions accepted. Press releases were distributed, toasts drunk, and fond visions entertained of a certain bespectacled Italian-American coach, pants rolled up to midshin, pacing a sideline at the Rose Bowl.
This is an article from the May 7, 1990 issue
Today, 17 weeks later, this scenario is far less certain to become a reality. According to sources in the Big Ten, the admission of Penn State into the venerable conference is now only slightly better than a 50-50 proposition. "The announcement conveyed that this was a done deal," says Michigan president James Duderstadt. "It is not."
"I'm assuming it's a done deal," says Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. "They made an invitation, and we accepted in good faith."
Between these disparate perceptions lurks the potential for profound disappointment for Penn State, and embarrassment for the Big Ten, wrought of a power struggle between its members' presidents and athletic directors.
"We certainly didn't mean to walk Penn State out on a limb," says Duderstadt, although that is precisely what the presidents have done. Penn State officials are indignant about the Big Ten's waffling, but not enough to say, "Let's call the whole thing off." Outwardly at least, Paterno, the man most prominently identified with the Nittany Lions, has been a model of patient understanding. "I have complete empathy for the people who have to implement this," he says. "The Big Ten hasn't changed in 35 or 40 years [its current members have been together since Michigan State was added to the Big Nine—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin—in 1949], and all of a sudden here comes Penn State, and they've got to absorb us."
Or do they? The presidents of the Big Ten—or you may refer to them by their lofty collective title, Council of Ten—are now claiming that what they extended to Penn State last winter was merely an invitation "in principle," pending further review, although this review was barely mentioned at the time. Since the council proferred the invitation, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has appointed a 17-member transition-and-expansion committee comprised of athletic administrators and faculty members from all the conference schools, as well as conference staff, to study the feasibility of establishing a Big Eleven. The committee will issue its report in early June, at which time the presidents will either make the invitation official, postpone any decision until their semiannual meeting in December or scrap the idea altogether.
But it seems clear that the committee is belatedly studying what had already been decided and that the presidents may be backtracking on their commitment to Penn State. If you find this process vaguely boneheaded, you have several supporters among Big Ten athletic directors; "bassackwards" is how Minnesota athletic director Rick Bay describes the presidents' handling of the situation.
What Bay and his counterparts at most other Big Ten schools are especially ticked about is that the presidents acted without consulting them. On Dec. 3, the day before the council issued its invitation, outgoing Michigan State athletic director Doug Weaver met with the presidents. "I never did hear the words Penn State," recalls Weaver. Ohio State athletic director Jim Jones learned of the conference's overtures to the Nittany Lions from the sports editor of his local paper. After the news broke, Michigan's lame-duck athletic director and football coach, Bo Schembechler, said, "This confirms the worst fear I have of presidents' getting too much control in athletics.... Not one athletic director was consulted on this matter. How can they do that?"
The haste with which the presidents acted has also rankled a lot of Big Ten faculty representatives (who represent the academic point of view in league affairs). Like the athletic directors, they have experienced a certain left-out feeling. Until recently, faculty reps were accustomed to having considerable say in important decisions, reflected in the fact that until 1987 the Big Ten was formally known as the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives. That year the presidents incorporated the conference and vested absolute power in themselves as part of a long-overdue move by university presidents across the country to take control of their athletic departments. But in asserting themselves, the presidents—and not only those in the Big Ten—have met with stubborn resistance from athletic directors and faculty reps jealously guarding their turf. Thus, Penn State finds itself caught between rival forces, nervously awaiting the outcome of the Big Ten's intramural struggle.
Given how the athletic directors and faculty representatives were bypassed in December, it isn't surprising that the transition committee has unearthed a number of impediments to the proposed addition of the Nittany Lions. The strongest complaint is one that has been voiced to the press by Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight: "Penn State's a camping trip. There's nothing for about 100 miles." Knight isn't entirely wrong. State College, Pa., is 1,468 miles from Minneapolis, the westernmost city in the Big Ten, 1,030 from Iowa City and 522 from East Lansing, Mich. Since athletes in nonrevenue sports (in the Big Ten, everything except football and basketball) usually travel by van or bus, even outsiders might wonder how, in an era of academic reform, the Big Ten could justify making, say, the cross-country or wrestling team spend three full days away from classrooms journeying to a meet a thousand miles away.
Luckily for the presidents, the competitive-format subcommittee is chaired by Ohio State's Jones, an athletic director who believes the travel difficulties can be worked out. "Every sport doesn't have to have a double round-robin or even a single round-robin," says Jones. "Some teams can meet just once a year, at the conference championships."
One wrinkle being explored by Jones's subcommittee to ease travel burdens is the addition of a 12th school, so that the conference could go to divisional play. Syracuse, Pitt, Rutgers, Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Maryland have all been mentioned by the presidents as candidates. Says Jones, "Everyone might not be overjoyed by how things get worked out, but they will be worked out."
Nor does the geographical issue alarm Illinois president Stan Ikenberry, who remains the Council of Ten member most gung ho about adding the Nittany Lions. "The distances between Pac-10 schools are even greater, and they seem to be muddling through," Ikenberry says. Indeed, the University of Washington is 1,583 miles from the University of Arizona. Paterno points out that the roads to State College are being expanded and the airport is being enlarged. "And they're talking about high-speed trains you'll be able to take to Harrisburg [an hour-and-45-minute drive from State College] that go 300 miles an hour," he says. The earliest projected completion date for those magnetic levitation trains, now being researched at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, is well beyond the turn of the century, but Paterno says, "All I'm asking is for people to be a little more farsighted. A time will come when we'll be closer together than we realize."
A touchier question for the Big Ten is whether Penn State is up to snuff academically—an ironic concern, considering that one reason the presidents gave for the merger is the Nittany Lions' squeaky-clean reputation. To remain eligible for sports after one year at Penn State, athletes must earn a 1.5 grade point average. In the Big Ten they need a 1.8. "But these are small points," says Phil Nelson, the head of the food sciences department at Purdue, who chairs the subcommittee on academics and governance. "We don't anticipate having much difficulty working them out."
A more formidable obstacle may be the unseemly snobbery that has arisen among some Big Ten faculty reps and their athletic department allies. "Penn State is probably not any different from a lot of schools around the country," says the Boilermakers' athletic director, George King. "The difference is, the Big Ten is above that."
How nice for the Big Ten. But before the anti-Penn State forces start thinking about wooing Oxford and Cambridge, they would do well to recall the 1989 trial of sports agents Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom, during which it was revealed that football players at Iowa had taken such courses as billiards, bowling, jogging and slo-pitch Softball to remain eligible. Nine athletes from the Big Ten entered pretrial agreements with prosecutors for improperly signing contracts with Walters and Bloom before their eligibility had expired. There were none from Penn State. Paterno, in fact, has declined to recruit countless talented athletes whom he feared would become academic washouts. Not all his Big Ten counterparts have been so particular.
In character and quality, Penn State has much in common with most of the Big Ten schools. A large (29,000 undergraduates), research-based, land-grant university, Penn State "would be a very comfortable fit," says Ikenberry, who was a senior vice-president at Penn State before becoming the head man at Illinois. In fact, the main impetus behind the Nittany Lions' eagerness to give up their independence and join the Big Ten is academics, not athletics. If it were to enter the conference, Penn State would probably be invited to join the Big Ten schools, as well as the University of Chicago, on several prestigious academic consortiums and computer linkups. As a member of these groups, Penn State would stand to gain tens of millions of dollars in research grants. That, in turn, could be expected to attract more distinguished faculty, which would mean a loftier academic reputation, which might ultimately translate into more and better-qualified students from all over the country.
"People want to know, 'What are you doing this for?' " says Paterno. "I tell them it's being done because the president of this university, Bryce Jordan, thinks it's a great thing for us, academically. This was never a football decision."
For the Big Ten it is very much a football decision—and, potentially, a very lucrative one. By the time Big Ten teams—whose schedules are fairly well set into the mid-'90s—would start making regular visits to State College, Beaver Stadium will have been expanded to accommodate 92,500, making it the conference's second-largest arena, behind only 101,701-seat Michigan Stadium. TV revenues for the member schools would also swell. The Big Ten has a base of 17.8 million television households in seven states. To those, add 5.3 million TV homes in Pennsylvania alone, then factor in the widespread interest in Nittany Lion football—Penn State has 300,000 living alumni and is the favorite team of many nonalumni fans in the East—and the conference could be looking at a hefty raise in '95, when it renegotiates the conference's TV contract with ABC, or signs with another bidder.
"But no one's sure if that extra revenue will offset the cost of bringing in an extra school," says the insistently pessimistic Bay, who is chairman of the subcommittee on TV and revenue sharing. "And Penn State's basketball program doesn't bring much to our package." Perhaps not, but Nittany Lion basketball, which has improved in recent seasons, would be helped immeasurably—especially in recruiting—by an affiliation with the hoops powerhouses of the Big Ten.
Paterno says, "We could make money, we may lose money." You can only crunch numbers for so long, he adds, until "you go with what you feel in your gut. This is something you've just got to have a feel for. And it feels right."
Most of the Big Ten athletic directors hope that the presidents no longer share Paterno's gut feelings and that the movement to draft Penn State has lost momentum in the Council of Ten. Says Bay, "If all the information we gather suggests this would be a mistake, I hope we have the courage to back up. I hope we won't plow ahead just to keep from embarrassing a couple of people." Purdue president Steven Beering, once described by one colleague as "very enthusiastic" about the expansion, now says, "It is by no means a fait accompli." Also retreating are Duderstadt and Indiana president Thomas Ehrlich, who recently announced that he would follow the recommendation of his school's athletic advisory board, which consists of eight faculty members, three alumni and two students.
But Ikenberry remains confident that Penn State will come aboard. He says that back when athletic directors and faculty representatives held sway over the Big Ten, "nobody really knew where the buck stopped." Most of the presidents would now like there to be no doubt. As one person close to the dispute said last week, "For the presidents to back off now would be to hand the power back to the athletic directors. I don't see that happening." Indeed, for all the sound and fury coming from the ADs, coaches and faculty reps, the real power resides in the Council of Ten, soon—probably—to be the Council of Eleven.