INDIANAPOLIS, IND – Ohio State football coach Ryan Day was on the golf course when he heard the news that shook the world of college athletics.
Day leaned out of his golf cart to alert his friend, UCLA coach Chip Kelly.
“Hey, we’re in the same conference now.”
Despite a roughly 30-hour, 2,300-mile one-way road trip, or a five-hour flight from Ohio State to UCLA, Day and Kelly will now be seeing each other more often. Well, not yet, but in 2024, UCLA and USC will join the Big Ten – or the Big 16 – creating a major shift in college sports.
As for travel concerns, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and the current football coaches didn’t seem worried when they spoke at Big Ten Media Days on July 26 and 27 in Indianapolis, Ind. In fact, the new nationwide conference was spoke on as an overwhelming positive
“As far as the flight, it is what it is,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said. “For us, we’ll play the games that end up on our schedule. We’ll manage it and come up with a way to hopefully allow us and get out there to play our best. But great to have those two storied programs come to the Big Ten.”
Warren cited Northwestern and Nebraska’s season-opening football game in Dublin, Ireland on Aug. 27 as an example for his lack of concern.
“How many young students – forget about sports, but in college – have an opportunity to travel to Dublin?” Warren asked.
Because of that, I’m so proud of what Nebraska and Northwestern are doing, they’re amplifying that trip to be able to learn,” Warren continued. “So I look at it as not a negative, I look at it as a positive from an academic standpoint. And what we’ll do is we’ll work through these next two years from a scheduling component to make sure that we create the environment that’s most healthy and holistic for our student-athletes, which is one of the reasons I’ve started the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to be able to listen to them to say what’s important.”
The expansion will also give current Big Ten schools a chance to take a vacation of sorts in the middle of the grueling winter months. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm certainly seemed excited about wearing short sleeves in California in November.
“For our side, we’re excited to play in warm weather games and from their’s, they may not be excited to play in cold weather games,” Brohm said. “So any time you can be comfortable, it’s definitely easier to play.”
For Warren, having stake in major media markets New York, Chicago and Los Angeles was among the most intriguing factors in conference expansion. Universities across four time zones will allow the Big Ten Network expand its coverage.
“You’re going to wake up watching Big Ten football and go to bed watching Big Ten football,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “So that’s exciting for our players, exciting for our fans. Will there be a travel component to it? There is, but we’re going to Dublin in the opener, so it won’t be that big of a deal.”
The state of California has 24 Division I universities, but when searching for Big Ten expansion schools, UCLA and USC’s combination of strong athletics and academics caught Warren’s eye.
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UCLA is considered one of college basketball’s bluebloods, and while it hasn’t won a national title since 1995, the Bruins have reached the Final Four four times in the last 16 seasons. And after 10-21 record in Chip Kelly’s first three seasons, the Bruins’ football team is building momentum after an 8-4 campaign in 2021
USC recently hired coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, hoping to revive its football program that has strong history and tradition, but is 22-21 over the last four seasons. Led by coach Andy Enfield, USC’s basketball program has finished in the top three of the Pac-12 each of the last three seasons, including an Elite Eight appearance in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve got a great conference as it is with a lot of top-caliber teams,” Brohm said. “Normally you’ll have four to six teams in the top 20 at all times, and on any given day, anybody can win. So I think when you add two quality opponents that have won national titles, that have great venues to play in, it’s going to be a lot of fun for our players, a lot of fun for our fans and I think once we get to that point it’s going to make for an exciting season.”
On the academic side, both schools have an acceptance rate close to 15 percent while boasting a graduation rate above 90 percent, which immediately ranks near the top of current Big Ten universities. According to Times Higher Education, both schools rank in the top 30 of best academic universities in the United States.
“These are two academic and athletic institutions … who are innovative, who are forward thinking, who are bold, who will make us even stronger as a conference,” Warren said.
Athletics is a big component of it, but academics is incredibly important,” Warren continued. “You look at some of the alumni from USC, the Steven Spielbergs, at UCLA Jackie Robinson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Stan Smith from USC. You think of all the diverse, powerful alumni who have a diverse background, academically, athletically.”
The midwest has been home to the Big Ten since its inception, but the location of conference alumni represent the new-look Big Ten’s national footprint. Warren said aside from the midwest, the largest section of Big Ten alumni live in Los Angeles. Fitzgerald, Illinois coach Brett Bielema and Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck confirmed this sentiment, expressing their excitement to connect with Los Angeles-based alumni and potentially expand recruiting, too.
“We have a ton of living alumni out on the West Coast,” Fleck said. “And now that Big Ten footprint is really stationed there for all of our alumni. I think when you kind of look at it, does playing out there help recruiting? Yes and no. I think it’s very different than it used to be ten years ago, where kids can live stream games, watch any game they want, they have all the types of resources on their phones. But I do think it’s really positive for the conference and the league.”
The Big Ten poaching UCLA and USC from the Pac-12 can be viewed as a response to the SEC’s addition of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12, a move which will also likely happen in 2024. Warren danced around the question of whether this will destroy the current Power Five structure, but Rutgers coach Greg Schiano was more direct.
“We’re in a race with the SEC,” Schiano said. “We’ve got to make sure that we and they are battling back and forth, and [USC and UCLA] help us make our league better. When our league is better, that helps all of us recruit better.”
So, what’s next? It’s a question Warren gets every day. It may include future expansion, but he said that will only be done for the right reasons at the right time with student-athletes, academic and athletic empowerment at the center of further expansion decisions.
“We will not expand just to expand,” Warren said. “It will be strategic, it will add additional value to our conference, and it will provide a platform to even have our student-athletes be put on a larger platform so they can build their careers but also that they have an opportunity to grow and learn from an education and from an athletic standpoint.
I want to make decisions that, when we look back 30 years from now, that people will say that the Big Ten Conference was ahead of the curve in making these decisions.”
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