The End of Big Ten Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism is a tricky proposition. Those that believe in it must not have any qualms about being labeled a blowhard. Those that don’t believe in it typically find the blowhards insufferable. It’s not easy to hold yourself up and say “We’re different,” but the Big Ten did that for years.

The addition of Rutgers and Maryland this week may finally be bringing that era to an end.

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It wasn’t until 1972 that the Big Ten did away with its bizarre “no-repeat” rule that prevented legitimate conference champions from going to the Rose Bowl in back-to-back years. Winning wasn’t everything.

When the Big 8 and SEC expanded in the 1990s and created big money championship games, the Big Ten quietly added Penn State, a lonely independent who ruled the east. The conference was then content to stay at 11 teams and forego the big television revenue it certainly would have commanded if it just added another team. Money wasn’t everything.

The Big Ten, as well as the Pac-10, fought for the tradition of the Rose Bowl while the rest of college football was trying to move towards a de facto national title game, first with the Bowl Coalition and then with its successor, the Bowl Alliance. Nebraska and Michigan have a split 1997 national title to show for it. The conference eventually relaxed it’s Rose Bowl tie-ins, paving the way for the Bowl Championship Series, but the message was clear. Tradition mattered. Competition wasn’t everything.

These weren’t easy places to be in the evolution of college football, but the Big Ten held on fiercely to its own sense of athletic and academic morality. The popular perception was that it started to cost the conference on the field in the 2000s. When Ohio State was beaten badly in back-to-back national titles games in 2006 and 2007 it was held up as physical proof that the stodgy, old-fashioned Big Ten was losing ground to its more progressive neighbors.

So the nation’s oldest major athletic conference got progressive. It created the Big Ten Network in 2006 and many football fans outside of the conference footprint laughed. Who wants to watch that? Turns out, a lot of Big Ten fans and alumni did and the conference suddenly had the single biggest bargaining chip in all of college football.

It was an exceptional move.  It led to the addition of Nebraska in 2011, a move that set the dominoes in motion for the great conference realignment of recent years. The Big Ten suddenly was the model and every other conference was scrambling to replicate it. The Pac-10 made sensible additions in Utah and Colorado and created its own network. The SEC, the most powerful conference on the field, grabbed Missouri and Texas A&M. The Big 12 had to go way outside its conference footprint and against its initial wishes to grab, respectively, West Virginia and TCU. The ACC and Big East fought for the remaining scraps.

The irony of Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten was that it was based almost entirely on being a “good cultural fit.” (Having the fourth-most wins in the history of college football being a large part of that culture.) Nebraska didn’t offer access to millions of television sets but it sent every other conference scurrying to get them so their own in-house networks would have the most appeal. It was a bold decision and, for now at least, it might go down as the last such decision for the Big Ten.

And that’s the strange thing about the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, two fine institutions with historically less than fine football. It was a reactionary move. It says that, even in the Big Ten, football and “fit” don’t matter as much today as television access does. Maryland and Rutgers, on paper, offer the Big Ten access to the New York City and Washington D.C. markets. That’s what matters and the Big Ten, today, is as powerful as ever.

But it’s no longer different. Everything comes with a cost.

That’s not such a bad thing. As a writer covering Nebraska football, I’ll admit that I always found the “Big Ten Exceptionalism” a little off-putting when viewed from the outside. I’ll also admit that once on the inside, it was easy to get sucked in to the allure of belonging to the club.

That’s how exceptionalism works. It’s intoxicating on the inside, infuriating on the outside.

Thankfully, with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, it’s now gone. As bad as blatant money-grabbing college football may seem, at least it’s honest in its intentions.