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COLLINS: In 2018, What Is Big Ten Football?

August 19, 2018

In 11 days, three Big Ten Conference football programs will play football games. Two in West Lafayette, Indiana. The other in Minneapolis. The rest of the conference’s 14 clubs, including all of its bigger attractions, will follow suit within the next few days.

But right now, two of those teams’ head coaches are on paid administrative leave. One is no worse than the second-most successful college football coach in the country, the face of the conference’s marquee program at the center of a domestic violence abuse investigation that stunned fans around the country. The other had a player, offensive lineman Jordan McNair, pushed so hard through a workout in late May that he later died, making us all wonder how in 2018, knowing what we know about player health and care, something like this can still happen to an otherwise healthy 19-year-old athlete on a football field.

What’s happening now with Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Maryland’s D.J. Durkin is without question a black eye for college football, and on the surface, they’re isolated incidents that happened to enter the national conversation at a time when the sport is piquing with excitement. Those who’ve been following the Big Ten long enough, though, know better.

They know these are incidents symptomatic of a larger malady in the Big Ten.

For years during the Southeastern Conference’s reign of terror over big-time college football, the Big Ten and its fans largely maintained a “we’d never operate like they’re allowed to operate” air when comparing their brand of football to the SEC, where the facilities arms race and focus on building national brands brought controversy along with the wild success to places like Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida and Georgia.

But the Big Ten has operated exactly in that way, which has led to just about the same results. Unprecedented success. Wild profits. And self-inflicted controversy.

Meyer and Durkin are in the crosshairs now, and it stands to reason at least Durkin won’t survive the problems he created with his job. But, they aren’t the first to meet public criticism in the face of getting their respective programs to the next level. From Nov. 9, 2011 — the date Penn State fired legendary coach Joe Paterno in a swirl of confusion and anger in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal — head coaches have been booted out of power in one form or another at an alarming rate more for how they coached than the results they obtained.

Illinois and Indiana let go of their respective head coaches, Tim Beckman and Kevin Wilson, over concerns about how they treated injured players. Rutgers ousted Kyle Flood officially for circumventing school policy by contacting a professor regarding the academic status of a player, but that came in the midst of a season in which several players were charged with violent felonies. At Minnesota in 2016, the university suspended 10 players after a sexual assault investigation, then fired head coach Tracy Claeys for supporting a player-led protest over due process concerns.

At Michigan State, Mark Dantonio still has his job, but the Detroit Free Press reported in January that sexual assault allegations were made against seven Spartans players, and that’s not to mention that school’s relationship with disgraced school physician and convicted serial child molester Larry Nassar.

By any measure, that’s too many dalliances with scandal for one conference in such a short period of time.

But as the 2018 season approaches, the reality is the conference’s unwanted return to the national spotlight this month will cede to the one for which it has pined for over the last decade. Because football season is starting, and through all of the messes surrounding it, the Big Ten has gotten really good when it comes to the football business.

Three teams from the Big Ten — No. 3 Ohio State, No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 9 Penn State — will open the season ranked in the top 10 of the coaches poll. Consider that Michigan State (12) and Michigan (14) are knocking on the door, and that gives the conference the most teams ranked in the top 14 in the nation. And no other conference has more than three.

There are reasons for this that have nothing to do with the problems, of course. Meyer and Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin changed the way the conference is recruited, making it far more competitive. There’s also the likelihood that success in college football and any sport for that matter is cyclical by nature, that the SEC couldn’t continue dominating the way it did in the 2000s any more than the Big 12 could continue doing what it did in the 1980s. Someone had to take over.

And the Big Ten had billions of reasons it wanted to take over.

Last year, the conference signed a six-year, $2.46 billion agreement with ESPN, FOX and CBS to broadcast football and basketball games. That cash is divided even-Steven among the conference’s 14 member institutions. This, just a decade after the launch of the conference’s Big Ten Network, which has annually pumped tens of millions of dollars to schools that have largely used it to restock their athletic departments.

Green has always spoken loudly in college sports, but the Big Ten has practically developed the blueprints for a printing press. Which means that for all its public relations problems, many would argue the Big Ten is the most successful conference in college athletics today, all around. At what cost? Well, profit trumps cost.

Consider this, though: When the Big Ten filed with the Internal Revenue Service in 2012 to renew its tax-exempt status — yeah, it gets to call itself a nonprofit organization — it listed its main purpose in its mission statement to “sustain a comprehensive set of shared practices and policies that enforce the priority of academics in student-athletes’ lives and emphasize the values of integrity, fairness and competitiveness.”

Is it doing that?

Is any conference doing that? More importantly, can any conference do that and have sustained success encouraging championship-level competition in a major sport?

In 11 days, the Big Ten will attempt once again to prove it is the most competitive conference in the biggest sport the NCAA offers. It is probably closer to doing so now than it has been in decades as it tries to dog-paddle through its own personal cesspool.

Is college football itself the cesspool, or is the cesspool just the runoff from the cost of success?

Either way, the Big Ten has bought into both, and it has paid the cost in full.

DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at

dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter

@DonnieCollinsTT.

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