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A B1G Decision – Nebraska’s Move to the Big Ten, 10 Years Later

September 18, 2020

This story originally appeared in the Hail Varsity 2020 Husker Football Yearbook. With Saturday marking what would have been Nebraska’s season-opener against Purdue, we’re making it available to our online readers. Before COVID-19 changed plans, Nebraska was set to begin its 10th season in the Big Ten. This is the story of that first year. Subscribe today.

From the time the Big 12 was formed in 1996 through the 2010 season, Nebraska football won an average of nine games a year, won its division nine times, and played for six conference championships. Since leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten, Nebraska has won an average of seven games a season and played for the conference title just once.

More importantly, though, Nebraska has had four losing seasons in the league. It had four in the 50 years before joining.

The period of conference realignment at the beginning of the last decade is always viewed through a football-saturated lens (though maybe it shouldn’t be), and when the university officially and publicly applied for membership to the league on June 11, 2010, the Big Ten thought it was adding a legend.

The 2020 season will mark Nebraska’s 10th in the Big Ten. Suffice it to say the Huskers haven’t quite lived up to their end of the bargain.

There are absolutely zero regrets about leaving.

Someday, Bill Moos is going to visit the recently-retired Jim Delany at his North Carolina cabin in the wilderness. Moos, Nebraska’s Athletic Director, has an admiration for Delany and the career the former Big Ten commissioner crafted. If expanding the Big Ten is one of Delany’s crowning achievements, that cabin is a jewel in the headpiece. It’s a cabin where, had expansion happened again during his tenure, Delany would have vetted new universities seeking admission. It worked so well the first time.

John S. Peterson
Nebraska AD Bill Moos on the sideline at Memorial Stadium.

On May 25, 2010, then-UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman and AD Tom Osborne flew from Lincoln into the Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina. They had strict instructions from Delany to get them to a face-to-face meeting with the commissioner, a requirement for entry into the Big Ten. Delany told them where to fly, where to stay, when to get picked up, and to not say anything to the driver who would take them to their destination.

Secrecy was paramount. Osborne, of course, made conversation in the hotel lobby with none other than the head of Big 12 officiating the morning before they were supposed to meet. The ultimate dad who finds someone he knows everywhere he goes. Perlman feigned ignorance. Getting caught here would have been tantamount to tripping and slamming your nose into the track 10 feet before the finish line.

Conference realignment whispers had grown by that point into more of casual conversation throughout most of the country. The creation of the Longhorn Network, and the growing influence of the University of Texas on the Big 12, had served to create angst within the league and hurdles to joining others.

The Big 12 was falling apart. On Dec. 6, 2009, one day after watching from the sidelines as the Big 12 and SEC held championship matches, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors met at its winter meetings in Park Ridge, Illinois. Atop the docket was the future of a conference that presently didn’t have a league title game of its own. Ten days later, the conference and Delany released a statement saying they would be considering expansion in the next 12 to 18 months.

“I think everybody assumed their target would be Notre Dame,” Perlman said. Right in the center of the league’s geographic footprint, academically strong, athletically prestigious, the Irish made sense on paper. “Notre Dame had no interest in blending its football program with the Big Ten.”

In January, Perlman learned six Big 12 schools were considering a jump to what was then the Pac-10.

Chief among them were Texas, the two Oklahoma schools and Colorado. Moos, who was the athletic director at Oregon until 2007 and then at Washington State beginning in 2010, said Texas was problematic. With an expansion to 16 teams, the Pac-10 wanted its own TV network, and UT’s insistence on maintaining inventory rights to its own network instead of turning it over to the conference proved challenging.

Osborne had fought Texas’ growing reach before, while Perlman seemed content to still sit at the Big 12 table, but now Nebraska needed stable footing and the Big 12 wasn’t providing it.

Back-channeling began.

“We weren’t able to have long conversations with anybody because this had to be kept secret,” Perlman said. “If this would have gotten out that we were thinking about it, or engaged in negotiations with the Big Ten, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Perlman met with Osborne. Osborne met with all of Nebraska’s head coaches. Assistant coaches for football say they heard bits and pieces from what head coach Bo Pelini chose to share, but they weren’t privy to the conversations being had at the top. Osborne would report back to Perlman with what he was hearing from his coaches. From Perlman’s point of view, no one was against the move.

Nebraska football was one second away from beating Texas for the 2009 Big 12 title. It would go on to play in the 2010 Big 12 title game. Nebraska wasn’t far from the top of the hill. It was built for the Big 12’s spread, not the Big Ten’s muscle. At the end of the day, though, the decision was being made for athletics, not by athletics.

“There were a variety of reasons. From an academic point of view, there was no comparison,” Perlman said when asked why the Big Ten. “(They) are major public research universities that have a common character and tradition, one in which I thought we shared, which was far different than what the Big 12 is, and I’m not saying that the Big 12 is better or worse, but our ambition of becoming a major research university seemed more consistent with what the Big Ten was doing. They also had a long tradition of academic collaboration, which I thought would be important for the University of Nebraska. The Big 12 had no academic collaborations at all.”

“And … if you say you’re a Big Ten university there’s a reputational advantage because it means something. In the Big 12, when you say you’re a Big 12 institution it’s largely athletic.”

Nebraska got $9 million from the Big 12 conference in its final year. The league was losing revenue. Nebraska agreed to a delayed payout structure upon entry into the Big Ten, but even still it got more from its new partners than its old.

Follow the dollars and cents.

Those led to some rather rocky terrain in North Carolina.

Delany’s son picked up Perlman and Osborne from their hotel at 9 a.m. sharp.

“Jim had a cabin that he’d had for a long time in the mountains near Chapel Hill,” Perlman recalled. “There’s some fancy name for it but I can’t remember, you know, as you have Southern estates, they have fancy names. It was a lovely place in the woods.”

After an hour drive in, they spent the next six making presentations about why Nebraska fit, what Nebraska brought to the table, and what the Big Ten could offer in return. That afternoon, Perlman and Delany went for a walk through the woods to talk one-on-one.

“He gave me reason to believe he was impressed with what Nebraska had to offer,” Perlman said. “He made no commitments of course, but he at least left me optimistic.”

So much so that on June 3, when the Big 12’s presidents and chancellors met and Perlman was asked directly for a commitment to the conference going forward, he said no.

In 2010, Nebraska played Colorado at home. Kenny Bell was sitting as a redshirt, but that meant his first game in a Husker uniform against the Buffs would be played in Boulder, his hometown. “I was really excited,” he said. When Nebraska announced that 2011 trip wouldn’t be made, it hit Bell differently. “I took that news pretty hard.”

Feelings changed quickly, though.

“I believe we’re a Big Ten football team,” Bell says now with a noticeable deal of pride in his voice. “That’s the only thing, probably, I will thank Texas for.”

The academic piece of it is what it is, but purely from a football standpoint, Nebraska might belong more to the Big Ten than it ever did to the Big 12. “Our niche that we had at Nebraska,” former offensive coordinator Tim Beck says, “a physical team trying to run the football, that was our niche in the Big 12, but in the Big Ten everybody did it.” In the Big 12, Nebraska was the northernmost school in a conference of predominantly southern programs. In the Big Ten, everyone has hoodie weather in October.

Offensively, Nebraska was already doing the same stuff. That its style now homogenized with the rest of its counterparts was what served as the welcoming factor. But defensively in the Big 12, the only time Nebraska saw a power-run scheme was in practice.

“Just from a roster management standpoint, we were always in the Big 12 a lot heavier in recruiting defensive backs because of the amount of nickel and dime that we would have to play, and we weren’t as concerned on a year-in, year-out basis about how many traditional linebackers that we took,” said John Papuchis, a defensive assistant on Pelini’s staff. “If you look back at our 2009 season, Dejon Gomes played our dime linebacker. That was something that fit a lot different in the Big 12 than it did in the Big Ten.”

Gomes was listed as a 6-foot safety. Lavonte David, a star linebacker in his own right, was only 6-foot-1. “We were basically nickel and dime defensively, largely defensive backs and speed rushers off the edge,” said Rich Fisher, Nebraska’s wideout coach from 2011-2014. With the Big 12 being so pass-heavy, sheer size in the front seven wasn’t an end-all, be-all. Nebraska is still, 10 years later, playing catch-up in that department in the Big Ten.

“Take a Big Ten team right now and put them in the Big 12,” said Rick Kaczenski, a longtime Big Ten assistant and defensive line coach at Nebraska from 2012-2014. “Take Wisconsin and put them in a different league now. I think that’s how you have to look at it. They’d probably win some games but there’d be some matchups in the Big 12 that would take them a while to get adjusted to and to recruit against.”

John S. Peterson
Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s head coach from 2008–14, on the sideline during the 2013 UCLA game.

Worried is probably too strong a word. Bo Pelini wasn’t worried about the transition. To say he was would be revisionist. Nebraska won at least nine games each of its first four years in the league; that doesn’t happen by sheer circumstance.

“There wasn’t really much change,” Bell said of the offseason strength and conditioning program. Bell said strength coach James Dobson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, didn’t feel the need to overhaul his workouts because the conferences changed. “‘Dobber’ was always very confident that we’d beat people up in the third and fourth quarter, and I think if you look especially in those ’11 and ’12 seasons, that really hit home with what kind of conditioned football team we were.”

Nebraska’s coaching staff felt it had the respect of its colleagues in the league, but the Huskers were still the new kids on the block.

“Our first year, everyone wanted to beat us,” Beck said. “We were new. They wanted to show that the Big Ten was a much stronger conference in their eyes than the Big 12 was. I felt that the first year. We had a tough go of it. We got thrown right into the fire.”

Year one’s conference opener was against seventh-ranked Wisconsin on the road. Nebraska played Ohio State and a ninth-ranked Michigan State team at home, as well as Nos. 12 Penn State and 20 Michigan on the road. After pulling off a come-from-behind win over Ohio State on Oct. 8, 2011, Bell started to see the tenor of opposing teams toward Nebraska change.

They had to be taken seriously.

The part that’s underscored the most in all that was the off-the-field work required to accomplish what they did.

Other teams had to prepare for one new game on the schedule. Beck likened it to a bowl game. Nebraska had to prepare for 11 new games. Papuchis pointed out, too, that the only team on that 2011 schedule Nebraska had played the year prior was Washington in the nonconference. “That just doesn’t happen,” he said.

Beck called that part the toughest of the entire transition.

“Everything was new, every routine, where you flew into, how you drove to the stadiums, the kickoff times,” he said. “(In the Big 12) you knew a team’s go-to blitz package and when they were bringing it. You knew what your counters were. “You could go and say, ‘Yup, Oklahoma is going to be really athletic boys,’ or, ‘Iowa State’s going to be really physical,’ but it’s like, ‘OK, Penn State, tell me about them.’”

John S. Peterson
Tim Beck, a Nebraska assistant from 2011 to 2014, at a Husker practice in 2013.

Familiarity breeds confidence. Fisher said you can’t discount what it means to not even have to think about where the locker room is at the opponent’s stadium that week, or what side of the field you’re on.

“The routine of playing every week is a large part of being successful,” he said.

Just like with a new team, the assistant coaches said a big jump was made between the first year and the second.

After the 2012 season, Nebraska had beaten every other team in the new league.

“We knew, especially after those first couple years, how difficult of a job that was and how successful we were,” Fisher said. “Maybe we weren’t as bad as maybe even administration thought.”

But back-to-back losses to end the 2012 season, both featuring huge point totals surrendered by the defense, exposed a problem.

“I don’t think we had the depth,” Kaczenski said. “What you didn’t have by the time you got to the Iowa game in Week 11, Week 12, when it’s like two heavyweight boxers leaning on each other in the 11th round (was depth).

“You were just trying to make it to the game. I think there was a depth shortage early on with big, physical guys because that league is just so grueling. It’s a lineman league. To be honest with you, I think when we were really close to getting over that hump was 2014 . . . I think 2014 was really where we started to get to that cycle where we felt we were going to have enough depth to continue to compete in the Big Ten.”

Then the coaching change.

“When I arrived in October of 2017 and I had an opportunity to observe us in competition in football, I was amazed at how the human equation was not there,” Moos said. “In no way did we have the strength, the depth in key positions, you need to have, and that does not correct itself overnight, and we’re still very much in the process of correcting that.”

Of the coaches from the previous regime interviewed, no one has hard feelings about the end. But they’ll tell you they were just starting to get to where they needed to be. In a way, Nebraska is just now, six years later, getting back to that point.

From 1979 to 1997, 19 years, Nebraska played in a Florida-based bowl game 12 times. Nebraska was a mainstay at the Orange Bowl in Miami. From 2008 to 2013, six seasons, it was back in Florida another four times for bowl games.

“When you walked into a high school in Florida, and I had the Florida area, those coaches that had been there for a long time, they knew Nebraska because they grew up watching that game,” Fisher said. “The kids didn’t have as much exposure to it as the coaches, but yet those relationships helped us.”

Wisconsin won the Big Ten conference in 1896, its inaugural season (then under a different name). Seven schools made up the league then, including Michigan, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue. Iowa and Indiana joined in 1900, Ohio State in 1913.

Yes, recruiting now is vastly different from recruiting even 20 years ago, but Michigan and Ohio and Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota have been recruiting battlegrounds for the same schools for a very long time.

“Where do you go?” Beck said. “And we were new, so you had to establish that you could win in order to beat those teams in recruiting battles in their states.”

Daniel James Murphy
Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis walks off the field at Camp Randall Stadium following the Nebraska-Wisconsin game in 2014.

Papuchis added recruiting coordinator to his list of titles in 2011. In moving leagues, and no longer having any visibility in the state of Texas, Nebraska refocused its recruiting elsewhere. The Huskers conducted an internal study once they moved to the Big Ten of where the top 300 high school prospects in the country signed in relation to where they’re from. The overwhelming majority stayed in-state or went to an adjacent state to play ball.

The staff still wonders if leaving Texas was the right call.

“We took a little bit of our emphasis out of Texas and placed more emphasis throughout the Midwest with people going to recruit Ohio and Michigan,” Papuchis said. “I don’t know if that paid the dividends that it could have and should have.”

The attraction from California kids was diminished too, Papuchis thought, as Nebraska now wasn’t even going to be playing in warmer climates away from home.

“What I don’t know is at that time—and we’ll never know, I guess, because hindsight’s always 20/20—if our brand was strong enough to overcome that, and the ties we had there, were they more important?” Papuchis said. “Was it more important to continue to recruit the Dallas area because of a Rex Burkhead and because of Steven and Courtney Osborne? Should we have stayed there with a bigger presence? We didn’t abandon (Texas), but we didn’t have the presence we had had in the past.”

Nebraska signed nine Texas prospects in the 2009 class, then five in the next class and six in the following class. In 2012 and 2013, it signed just two Texas products. In the 2014 class it signed just three.

“You (played) six schools in the Oklahoma-Texas area, it was easier to go into the South and recruit,” Beck said. “We had the same type of players that Colorado had, that Missouri, that Kansas State and Kansas had. When we got to the Big Ten we lost some of that. We lost some of those recruiting battles in those areas. In the past we were going into Texas and beating Texas Tech on a kid because we were winning the North and they weren’t winning the South and we’d get a really good player. You weren’t winning those battles now.”

Beck remembers being at Kansas and trying to recruit for the Jayhawks and getting a boost on the trail if KU basketball had just won a national title. Visibility in everything mattered.

Kids wanted to play close to home, but kids wanted to be able to play in front of family if they weren’t at home.

Bell getting to play in front of his parents every other year without them having to travel is a recruiting tool.

Nebraska played Penn State each of its first three years in the league and then didn’t see the Nittany Lions again until 2017. Hard to win a battle in Pennsylvania that way.

“You had to develop all new relationships with coaches; those were the guys you relied on, those high school coaches,” Fisher said. “We started to go a lot more national.”

You see the net Nebraska’s current coaching staff casts across the country. Assistant coaches have regions to recruit and they go beyond just looking for their own positions. Nebraska offers more kids than anyone in FBS football and it looks at everyone from the upper Northeast (Mike Dawson’s territory) to Hawai’i (Tony Tuioti’s).

Look at the continued success in Florida, where head coach Scott Frost feels he still has capital with high school coaches.

“I don’t know what the right thing to do would have been in hindsight,” Papuchis says.

“What we were missing, and what I’ve tried to establish since I’ve got here, was a natural rival,” Moos said.

Beck said the hardest game during the 2010 season was the Colorado game, because of everything it meant Nebraska was giving up.

Does Nebraska miss the Big 12? Not really. Moos doesn’t, not that he ever knew it. Nebraska has added Colorado to its schedule (a success from an economic standpoint) and will soon play against Oklahoma in football and Kansas State in basketball. Moos is adding old Big Eight schools to the schedules not just to drum up nostalgia but because Nebraska is still searching for those rivalry games in the Big Ten.

It can’t beat Wisconsin. Iowa has NU’s number. The easy targets haven’t been easy wins for Nebraska, and lopsided matchups breed contempt, not rivals.

But Nebraska does not miss the Big 12 even looking at the move in hindsight. Nebraska’s payout from the Big Ten’s TV deals put close to $40 million dollars in the university’s pocket for fiscal 2019.

“It was worth it,” Moos says.

Even from a distance, Moos thought Nebraska was making the right move in leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten. He has respect and admiration for the former Pac-12 athletic director and current Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, but Moos sees the Big Ten rivaling the SEC for the best organization of academic institutions in the country.

“When has anybody left the Big Ten to go to another conference?” he asked.

When in the Pac-10, Moos fought for equal distribution of revenue amongst all member institutions. The Big 12 was unequal, too. In the Big Ten everyone gets the same cut of the pie.

For fiscal 2018, the first year of the Big Ten’s new TV deal kicking in, the Big Ten had $759 million in revenue. Nebraska, and 11 other fully-vested conference partners each got north of $50 million. The football program for fiscal 2019 reported $96.1 million in revenue.

“You’ve seen our budget grow significantly,” Moos said. “We are fortunate that we brought with us this amazing fanbase—and this is important—that were willing, and still are, to be patient as we adjust … They’ve been understanding about losing the old rivalries for the good of the bigger picture. Not every fan base would do that.”

Nebraska had to wait to become fully vested, but a fully equal league promotes parity, Moos says. Illinois beat Wisconsin last year. Rutgers has the financial backing to bring back Greg Schiano. Purdue beat Ohio State two years ago. Respect throughout the league provides stability to every institution.

Nebraska didn’t have that at the end of its Big 12 days. Football is fighting to recapture its glory days, but moving conferences wasn’t a football-centric move. Would Perlman make the same decision today that he made 10 years ago, if he knew how the next 10 years would play out?

“Oh yeah, for sure,” he says. “I have no regrets about this.”

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