clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Penn State History: Joining The Big Ten

Since making the big announcement last week that Nebraska will join the Big Ten as their twelfth member, the entire conference has joined hands and sang Cumbaya over the news. Just about every university president, athletic director, and football coach released a statement praising the decision, which was approved by unanimous vote of the Big Ten presidents and chancellors.

"By unanimous vote, the Big Ten Presidents and Chancellors are pleased to welcome the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to the Big Ten Conference," said COP/C Chair and Michigan State President Lou Anna K. Simon. "We believe Nebraska is an extraordinary fit, reflecting the criteria we established at the beginning of the process - high academic quality, competitiveness, cultural compatibility and fiscal responsibility. The extensive and in-depth discussions my colleagues and I have had about Big Ten expansion permitted us to act expeditiously and prudently on the application submitted by Nebraska. We look forward to working with our colleagues at UNL in the years ahead."

Rainbows and lollipops for everyone!

The addition of Nebraska has been universally praised by everyone, and rightfully so. They are a tremendous program with a proud tradition. Adding a twelfth member should have happened 15 years ago, but it's finally here and now we are on the cusp of a new and exciting era of divisional play and Big Ten championship games. Big Ten football will never be the same, and it is better for it.

But 20 years ago there weren't many puppy dogs and man hugs when Penn State was extended an invitation to join the league.

The wheels of Penn State joining the Big Ten started in the early part of the 1980s. Joe Paterno was serving double duty as head football coach and athletic director. From this unique position Paterno could see that the future of college athletics rested in conferences. Penn State's non-revenue sports were struggling and weighing like an anchor on the athletic program. Football was paying the bills, but the entire department was at risk of collapse if the football team ever fell on hard times.

It was then that Paterno came up with his grand vision of an eastern all-sports conference that would include Penn State's traditional rivals like Pitt, Syracuse, Boston College, Temple, Maryland, and West Virginia. But issues over revenue sharing couldn't be worked out. Syracuse and Boston College felt their future was better served in basketball, so they joined the Big East and then coaxed Pitt to come along. Penn State petitioned to join the league, but the Big East didn't think their basketball program was up to their standards and they didn't want to be associated with football. (Syracuse, Pitt, and Boston College continued playing football as independents.) Penn State was left to wander through the wilderness on its own.

Penn State managed to land their non-football sports in the Atlantic 10 conference and remained an independent in football for several years. It worked well with Penn State playing in the national championship game in 1985 and returning to win it all in 1986. But then they had a scare.

In 1988 the football team went through a brutal rebuilding year and Joe Paterno suffered his first losing season going 5-6. Not only was it Paterno's first losing season, it was Penn State's first losing season in 49 years. Paterno wasn't getting any younger and was openly saying he planned to retire when he turned 65, just after the 1991 season. (Ha!) Penn State President Bryce Jordan felt he needed to find better financial security for Penn State's athletic program to ensure success in the post-Paterno era. So for that he looked west.

Jordan got in contact with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Illinois President Stanley Ikenberry, who was serving as the head of Council of Ten, the Big Ten's council of presidents. Over a span of a few months they spoke and arranged secret meetings to discuss the Big Ten absorbing the eastern power.

Penn State was a good fit for the Big Ten from an academic standpoint, Ikenberry said. But what about the Big Ten appealed to Penn State from an athletic standpoint? Ikenberry said then-Penn State President Bryce Jordan wanted to think about life A.P. (After Paterno).

"(Jordan) said, 'We think we've got to begin to plan for the post-Paterno era because you know Joe's not going to be around forever and he's getting up in years,' " Ikenberry said.


The initial meetings were extremely private. Bordering on secretive. Paterno, then-athletic director Jim Tarman and then-CFO Steve Garban visited with Ikenberry on the Illinois campus.

Ikenberry lobbied the Big Ten presidents for months, and when he felt he had a strong enough coalition, he let Penn State know.Ikenberry said at the time,

''We're proud of their academic standing,'' Ikenberry said. ''We're also pleased with the integrity with which they have conducted their intercollegiate programs.''

But word got out to the press (from the Penn State side) before any official announcement was made by the Big Ten office. The athletic directors and sports coaches of the Big Ten were blind sided and not pleased that such an important decision was made without anyone seeking their input. And shortly after the announcement was made, Delany had to backpedal a bit and say that Penn State had been "invited in principle", meaning the Big Ten wanted to slow down and consult their coaches and athletic directors. The next several months were not pretty.

Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler said,

It might be an exciting addition. I don't know how they will fit in. But you don't add someone to the conference and not consult the people in athletics. That was the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen done. I, and most of the other athletic directors in our conference, resent the way it was done, and if I offend some presidents, that's too damn bad.

The time has come that if they want to take over, they better consult the people who know what the hell is going on. They (the presidents) did it because of the friendship they have with each other. One president probably said, 'Hey, I'd like to play in your league,' and the other president said, 'Come on over and do it." That's about how much research went into that decision.

Much of the criticism that Penn State faced centered around the location of State College in rural Pennsylvania. At the time, the State College airport was too small to accomodate the charter jets that teams used to travel. So teams visiting Penn State had to fly into Harrisburg and take a two hour bus ride to get to State College. Bobby Knight famously said,

I've been to Penn State, and Penn State is a camping trip. There is nothing for about 100 miles.

Minnesota's Athletic Director Rick Bay was one of the more vocal opponents to Penn State's invitation. (emphasis added)

"I don't think it's a done deal," Bay said. "Maybe it's some wishful thinking on my part, but I think I see some backpedaling."

Wisconsin refused to take a position in favor of or against Penn State, which basically means they were against it but didn't want to sound like a bad guy.

After studying the decision for six months, the Big Ten presidents got together in Iowa and voted. Two-thirds of the Council of Ten had to vote in favor of Penn State in order for the Nittany Lions to be granted membership. The final vote was split 7-3 which gave Penn State the minimum number of required votes.

The Council of Ten, the association of Big Ten presidents, officially extended Penn State an invitation to join the conference June 4. But not all the members were waiting with open arms. Although Penn State received the two-thirds majority vote necessary to become a member, three of the 10 members reportedly gave Penn State the thumbs down.

Indiana President Tom Ehrlich is the only council member to admit voting against Penn State's invitation. Reportedly Michigan President James Duderstadt and Michigan State President John DiBiaggio also cast opposing votes.

Usually in these types of things you see a unanimous vote once the minority realizes their cause is a losing one. The fact that this didn't happen here tells you there were strong feelings involved. I'm not saying Joe Paterno holds a grudge over Indiana for openly voting against Penn State, but the Hoosiers are the only Big Ten team that still hasn't beaten the Nittany Lions in football. Just sayin'.

After the deciding vote was cast and done, Jim Delany said things could have been handled differently.

Delany acknowledged there was "a lot of turmoil" last December over the lack of communication between the Council of Ten and their athletic and faculty representatives.

"I don't think anyone can dispute that. There's been differences of opinion," he said. "Perhaps if we had it to do all over again, we'd use a different process, a process with more consultation. But that's water over the bridge."

Twenty years later Delany got his chance to visit conference expansion again, and true to his word Delany and the Big Ten took a much more deliberate approach to adding Nebraska.

Even after the vote was done, some coaches and athletic directors refused to get in line and support the move.

Minnesota Athletic Director Rick Bay, one of the leading opponents of Penn State's inclusion, said if athletic directors had voted on Monday instead of school presidents, "Penn State wouldn't be a member of the league."

Indiana football coach Bill Mallory said after the vote that he "would rather just leave the league as it is."

"I don't think it needs to be changed. I haven't seen (how adding Penn State) is going to benefit (the Big Ten)," Mallory said.

Ouch. Ohio State athletic director Jim Jones wasn't exactly offering up ringing endorsements either.

Ohio State Athletic Director Jim Jones would not discuss his opinion about Penn State. "It's immaterial how Jim Jones feels. It's done," he said.

In some cases, other schools actually made threats against Penn State.

Big Ten Conference basketball teams have issued a warning to Penn State: Build a new (basketball) arena or forget about playing host to conference games, (Penn State's) athletic director told the Board of Trustees yesterday.

One of the awkward things about Penn State joining the Big Ten was that after the announcement was made in 1990, the Nittany Lions didn't actually start competing in the Big Ten schedule until 1993. This in itself created a lot of tension between Penn State and the other Big Ten members.

Just like Big Ten expansion in 2010, Big Ten expansion in 1990 set off a ripple effect as other conferences panicked to snatch up new members and secure their position in the dawning age of the "Super Conferences". The SEC plucked Arkansas from the Southwest Conference and South Carolina who was competing as an independent. The ACC countered by taking Florida State who was competing in the Metro Conference. A few years later the Southwest Conference split up as Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, and Texas A&M joined the Big 8 to become the Big XII. The Big East made the biggest move adding Virginia Tech, Rutgers, West Virginia, Temple, and Miami and became a football conference in 1991.

As the age of the super conference dawned, they all jockeyed and negotiated for bowl game alliances. In 1992, still a season away from Penn State officially joining the Big Ten, Penn State found themselves in a position where they were locked out of all the major bowl games.

A series of arrangements between bowls and conferences will leave Penn State out of a major New Year's Day bowl game next year, even if the Nittany Lions are ranked No. 1 and unbeaten.

Obviously, Penn State was not happy about this.

"Our assumption is that we would operate as an independent and be in the at-large pool," Penn State Athletic Director Jim Tarman said Thursday. "We received assurances from several bowls that was the case."
Tarman was incredulous and then annoyed about Penn State's situation.

"I can't believe the networks would let that happen," he said. "You can't convince me that there isn't resentment out there about us going to the Big Ten."

The resentment Tarman was talking about was mostly directed at the Big East and Notre Dame due to Penn State cancelling many of the agreements they had to play each other to make room for the Big Ten schedule starting in 1993. Penn State was still a year away from joining the Big Ten and being eligible for the Rose Bowl and all of the other Big Ten bowl tie-ins, but obviously Jim Delany and nobody else went to bat for their future Big Ten partner to get them access to quality bowl games. And nobody in the Big Ten offered to allow Penn State to be eligible for their Big Ten bowl games after the Rose Bowl.

Penn State was forced to look out for their own interests. This led to the unusual situation where Penn State made an agreement to play in the Blockbuster Bowl (modern-day Champs Sports Bowl) before the 1992 season began. A major controversy was avoided as Penn State went 7-5 on the year, including a loss to Stanford in the Blockbuster Bowl.

While the bowl game situation with the football team was annoying, the situation with the basketball team was downright crippling. When Penn State announced they were joining the Big Ten, the Atlantic 10 wasn't happy about having a lame duck contender in their league. They allowed Penn State to participate in the 1990-1991 season, but they kicked them out on their own for the 1991-1992 season. Penn State was put in the middle of a scheduling crisis where they needed a ton of games on short notice. They pleaded with the Big Ten to help them out and give them some games, but they got very little assistance.

Penn State basketball coach Bruce Parkhill was furious saying,

I'm disappointed more Big Ten people didn't help out. It's not that they couldn't. They wouldn't.

Illinois and Ohio State were kind enough to offer Parkhill some games, but they were early in the season and Parkhill needed to fill out the schedule in January and February. To Northestern's credit, they claimed they called Parkhill but their phone calls weren't returned.  As a result Penn State had an abysmal schedule. 

The Big Ten had a lucrative television contract that had all of their non-conference games televised, and adding Penn State to the schedule would not have looked attractive to the networks. The reaction from other Big Ten schools could basically be summed up as "Ha Ha!"

Both (Michigan State basketball coach Jud) Heathcote and (Iowa basketball coach Tom) Davis suggested Parkhill enjoy a weak schedule while he has a chance.

"It could be a blessing. He should enjoy a 20-win season while he can," Heathcote said. "I say that tongue-in-cheek...but I'll trade him schedules if he wants to."

"He may prefer to stay with that schedule," Davis said.

After Penn State officially joined the league in 1993, things didn't get much better. Many of the Good Ol' Boys of the Big Ten resented Penn State because they thought Penn State thought they were going to come in and dominate the league. The Big Ten wasn't getting much respect in the '80s, and they hadn't won a National Championship since Ohio State in 1968. People were saying Penn State was going to save the Big Ten from obscurity. Others said Penn State was going to dominate the league. Comments like those made by Pennsylvania Lt. Governor Mark Singel didn't help. (emphasis added)

Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, however, was already saying, "I'm personally pleased that it's come together."

"What it means to Penn State fans is this: They can make plans to attend a Rose Bowl in the very near future," Said Singel, a Penn State trustee.

The animosity toward Penn State lingered for years after Penn State was admitted to the league. Lou Prator explains,

"But that anger from the coaches continued for almost a decade and a half," said Penn State historian Lou Prato, who has authored several books on the football program. "It’s only subsided because a lot of those coaches left for one reason or another. They all thought Penn State thought it was going to come in and take over the league and win every game, but Penn State didn’t believe that. That was one of the biggest myths."

Michigan players were particularly disrespectful toward the Nittany Lions. The Wolverines had won or shared five straight Big Ten championships from 1988 to 1992, and they didn't particularly care for this new program coming in with a chip on their shoulder.

At Michigan, the words "Penn State" are all but "X" rated.

"We're not allowed to say 'Penn State,'" Michigan recruit Jon Ritchie said while preparing for the Pennsylvania-Ohio interstate all-star game last July. "We have to say, 'the other team' or 'the 11th school.'"

When the two teams met for the first time in their 1000 game histories, Penn State was 5-0 and talking about winning the Big Ten in their first year. Michigan was 3-2 with losses to Notre Dame and Michigan State. The Wolverines were also highly annoyed. You probably remember how that game went. Penn State had a chance to win, but Joe Paterno elected to run up the middle four plays in a row and got stuffed.


The Wolverines relished the opportunity to woof it up after the game.

"You just have to pay your dues. Just like a freshman, you can't come in bragging and boasting," said (Michigan running back Tyrone) Wheatley.
"We weren't going to lay down and let them take our championship away from us," defensive lineman Tony Henderson said.

In 1994 in the midst of another Big Ten championship run in just their second year, quarterback Kerry Collins reflected on the relationship between Penn State and the Big Ten.

It might be a marriage made in heaven, but Penn State's union with the Big Ten has not been without skeptical in-laws.

"I feel there's a bit of resentment," Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins said Wednesday. "I don't feel we've been accepted because we're the new kid on the block. I think it will be taken care of over time. But I think that theory definitely holds some water.

Twenty years later, most people recognize the positive impact that Penn State has had in the Big Ten. Though it's not too hard to find sentiment in some Big Ten message boards that the Big Ten should have shipped Penn State back to the Big East instead of expanding and adding Nebraska.

The resentment Penn State experienced when they first made the jump to the Big Ten has mostly subsided. A lot of that is due to the fact that Penn State has not dominated the league as most people predicted 20 years ago. It also has a lot to do with the fact that most of the people who opposed Penn State's inclusion are either dead or retired. But Penn State is still kind of a third wheel in this conference. Currently it can be seen as people discuss possible division splits in the new 12 team league. The question that always seems to be left over at the end of discussion is, "What to do with Penn State?"

Will it ever change? Who knows. Penn State's east coast proximity will likely always clash with the midwestern flavor of the Big Ten. But Penn Staters could never dream of going back to being independent or joining the Big East. And I suspect most people in the Big Ten recognize that the conference is better off with the Nittany Lions as a member.