Maryland and Rutgers Joining the Big Ten Still Raises Eyebrows

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As July 1 and the official date of Maryland and Rutgers joining the Big Ten nears, the conference realignment invitations that previously raised eyebrows now furrows them.

No, the November 2012 announcement that these East Coast athletic programs were joining a league long synonymous with the Midwest–geographically and culturally–was not an elaborate prank. Despite economic hardships at Maryland and leadership turmoil at Rutgers, there appears to be no 23rd hour decision to prevent what is the most confounding round in this cycle of conference realignment.

Certainly it won’t be Maryland or Rutgers objecting.

Stewart Mandel, in one of his last pieces for Sports Illustrated, details the Big Ten’s advancement to the Atlantic and the New York and D.C./Baltimore television markets as the Big Ten in “survival” mode. While the necessity of adding Maryland and Rutgers is debatable from the Big Ten perspective, the survival label applies much more to the incoming members.

Like plenty of people and businesses during the Great Recession, Maryland’s dire economic outlook forced the university to drop seven varsity sports in 2012.

The Big Ten’s invitation came just four months after the university announced it was ceasing these sports, seemingly providing an answer to Maryland’s financial woes. Instead, it added a $52 million headache in the form of an ACC exit fee lawsuit.

Founding member Maryland’s split from the ACC is the most acrimonious of this round of realignment, save West Virginia’s departure from the Big East for the Big 12. West Virginia paid the Big East a $20 million exit fee; $11 million of which came from the university, the Big 12 fronting the other $9 million.

Now, West Virginia has seen immediate dividends from joining the Big 12, last month cashing a $14 million paycheck from the conference that equals about double its payment from the Big East. In two years, the MetroNews reports West Virginia will earn the full $23 million allotted for its members.

In the interim, West Virginia is working out the expenses and schematics of travelling for conference games outside its geographic region. But that’s where similarities between Maryland and West Virginia end.

It’s a small price to pay for the conference, which needed West Virginia’s membership to ensure the Big 12’s survival. After losing Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten, the Big 12 truly stood on the brink of conference extinction.

West Virginia was not simple an eastern outpost or quick-fix that gave the Big 12 the numbers necessary to continue. The Mountaineers were BCS stalwarts, appearing in the Sugar, Fiesta and Orange Bowls from 2005 through the 2011 season. That head coach Dana Holgorsen had helped Big 12 member Oklahoma State become one of the most exciting teams in the nation made the Mountaineers a perfect fit from a football perspective.

Maryland’s football identity is…? The Terrapins have been perpetual also-rans in the ACC–though that’s a step up from the 1990s, when they were perennial cellar dwellers. Ralph Friedgen, the most successful Maryland head coach since the program’s glory days of the 1970s, was unceremoniously canned following a nine-win campaign.

Randy Edsall’s subsequent first two seasons were disastrous, partially the result of implementing new schemes and partially due to rashes of injury. Injury limited the Terps again in 2013, though they finished above .500 and with a bowl game appearance, a somewhat positive note on which to leave the ACC.

One of the nation’s most exciting players, Stefon Diggs, is one of 17 returning starters back in the fold for Maryland. All that experience, combined with the move to a new conference, would seemingly spark interest, right?

Well…

Ouch. Only Ohio State’s national alumni presence and tendency to travel well explains the price of tickets for the Terps’ date with the Buckeyes. But $14 against Iowa? $21 against defending Big Ten champion Michigan State?! The size of Maryland’s surrounding television market does not translate into very many eyes watching, at least in person.

That’s a bad sign, given the Big Ten’s eastern expansion is largely predicated on expanding its footprint into those markets–and specifically, expanding the Big Ten Network into more homes.

Rutgers in particular offers the promise of a more substantial reach. Located in the shadows of New York City, Rutgers is the only major college football program in America’s No. 1 TV market. The Big Apple has somewhat embraced Scarlet Knights football at times during a successful run from 2006 through 2012. The late James Gandolfini appearing on the sidelines gave Rutgers an invaluable pop culture cred, a sort of East Coast counter to when Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell joined Pete Carroll’s USC teams in the mid-2000s.

Former athletic director Tim Pernetti made the media rounds early in the 2012 season when the Scarlet Knights were undefeated and ranked in the Top 25. Jersey-born celebrities Jay Mohr and Artie Lange both featured Pernetti as a guest on nationally syndicated radio shows. Lange’s DirecTV simulcast prominently featured a Rutgers football helmet and poster of the comedian in a Scarlet Knights stocking cap.

Nine wins in Kyle Flood’s first season as head coach, national recognition and a Big Ten invitation; things were looking up for a program that was once among the most bullied punching bags in Div. I-A football.

Receiving an invite to the Big Ten validated the Rutgers football program. For the Scarlet Knights, accepting a Big Ten invite was a no-brainer: guaranteed College Football Playoff access, a more lucrative television contract, greater reach for a still-growing program.

Since 2012, however, Rutgers’ PR at the national level has been almost exclusively damage control. Pernetti was forced to resign in spring 2013 in the wake of men’s basketball coach Mike Rice being fired for abusing players.

Pernetti’s replacement, Julie Hermann, has been gaffe-prone and has vocal critics within the football program.

And while winning cures all ills, the positive momentum Rutgers football established under Greg Schiano is wilting. The Scarlet Knights finished their last season in the American Athletic (formerly Big East) 6-7. The excitement of joining a new conference is not enough to overshadow the Rutgers athletic department’s overall malaise, once again seen in lackluster ticket prices.

The Big Ten’s expansion strategy is more comparable to that of Group of Five conferences like the American Athletic and Conference USA, both of which targeted metropolitan areas with growth potential. The Power Five conferences have relied more on established programs: Utah won two BCS bowls in the seven years before it joined the Pac-12; TCU appeared in two BCS games in just three years before joining the Big 12. Missouri was regularly competitive in the Big 12 for a decade before joining the SEC. The ACC replaces Maryland with Louisville, arguably the hottest athletic department in college sports.

The Big Ten is even deviating from its own previous strategy. The last two members it added, Penn State and Nebraska, brought years of sustained football success and proven fan bases. While no one will ever confuse Lincoln, Nebraska as a major TV market, a half-century of sold-out home games is a pretty good indicator that the Cornhuskers have the kind of captive audience a conference wants.

Maryland and Rutgers joining the Big Ten is much less like Penn State and Nebraska doing so, and more akin to C-USA adding UT-San Antonio or the American snatching up UCF.