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Penn State and the Big Ten

The Centre Daily Times is running a very interesting three part series on the history of Penn State joining the Big Ten. Click here to read Part One.

Paterno, who also served as Penn State's athletic director from 1980-81, had attempted to forge an eastern all-sports conference in the early 1980s that would have consisted of Penn State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers and Temple, among others. Not enough of those universities came on board -- Pitt joined the Big East in basketball -- and the vision never came to pass.

So instead of looking north and south and east for new alliances, Penn State looked west. And the West looked back.

Stanley Ikenberry served as Penn State's executive vice president for administration from 1971 until he became the University of Illinois' president in 1979. In 1989, he was the chairman of the board of Big Ten presidents, known as the "Council of Ten."

Ikenberry knew Penn State. He knew that in terms of size, academic reputation and athletic tradition, it matched up well with the existing Big Ten schools.

"I knew the university and the people," said Ikenberry, now an education professor at Illinois. "There was a level of trust on their part and my part that might not have otherwise been available."

Sometime in late 1989, Paterno, Penn State athletic director Jim Tarman and senior vice president of finance and treasurer Steve Garban boarded a private plane and flew to Champaign, Ill., where they drove to Ikenberry's home for dinner and discussion about Penn State's potential future.

One of the more interesting bits that caught my eye in part one include the acedemic benefits of joining the Big Ten.

Membership in the Big Ten meant membership in the Association of American Universities as well as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.

"The academic wing of the Big Ten," Jordan said. "One doesn't hear much of it but it's an important aspect of the conference."

Penn State would have access to materials in all of the Big Ten's other libraries. Its academic leaders would have easier and more frequent contact with their conference counterparts.

Another interesting fact in the article was the trouble the Big Ten had getting seven votes together to approve Penn State merger. Northwestern and Minnesota were the most vocal in their opposition. Northwestern because they were afraid Penn State's invitation would mean one school would be asked to leave, namely them. Minnesota resisted because, well, I guess they just didn't like Penn State. And of course, Bobby Knight's opinion, like every other opinion he has ever had, was broadcast every day in the media.

After two more hours of discussion that morning, Ikenberry called a recess. Wisconsin chancellor Donna Shalala took him aside and said she believed Northwestern president Arnold Weber was hesitating because of his belief that Penn State's entrance into the conference would lead the Big Ten to ask Northwestern to leave.

That was not anyone's intention, said Ikenberry, and when the meeting resumed, the council instituted a three-year moratorium that would freeze the number of teams in the conference at 11.

Northwestern was satisfied. Penn State had its seven votes, and was formally accepted into the conference on June 4, 1990. But not everyone celebrated.

The most outspoken detractors were Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight, who made half-kidding remarks about the difficulty of traveling to State College, and Minnesota athletic director Rick Bay who, according to Jordan, was "almost vitriolic in his opposition." Opposition also came from Penn State alumni, who were doubtful that the Nittany Lions would be able to establish the same sort of rivalries they had forged with in-state and Eastern foes with their Big Ten brethren.

Part one was an extremely interesting read. I recommend everyone go check it out and read up on parts two and three on Monday and Tuesday, especially if you're a young fan who doesn't remember the days before life in the Big Ten. I'll offer more commentary on the series after it comes out in print.