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What Things Would Look Like Had Penn State Not Joined The Big Ten

In a world where Penn State joins the ACC instead of the Big Ten, would things be much different today?

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Iowa vs Michigan State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

About a week and a half ago, we started a series looking into how things could have been different for Penn State if a certain loss didn’t happen. From playing in (and maybe winning) the national championship game in one sport, to sparking a string of national championships in another, there have been times where one looks back and justifiably wonders, “what could have been?”

Today we’ll be looking at a different type of “what if” scenario. Now that Penn State has been in the Big Ten for over 20 years, we have enough history to look at how things would have been different had this move not happened. Let’s get started.

The History

A few decades ago, a guy by the name of Joe Paterno saw that the landscape around college sports was changing. This change was catalyzed by the court’s decision to allow conferences to negotiate their own TV rights. Seeing the writing on the wall, Paterno tried to get Penn State into the Big East, but lost the bid by a single vote.

In the years that followed, Paterno tried to create his own conference composed of eastern teams. The initial schools in that conference would have been Boston College, Syracuse, Rutgers, Penn State, Pitt, West Virginia, Maryland, and Temple. Things were in motion until revenue sharing became an issue; certain teams wanted to keep football revenue but share basketball revenue, while others were willing to make sacrifices to get the ball rolling. Eventually the other schools chose to get deals that benefited their programs in the near term, and you know the rest.

This left Paterno with few choices on which conference to join: the Big 8 (which would later become the Big 12) and the Pac-10 (12) made little geographic sense at a time where geography mattered. That left us with the ACC, a conference with a few teams that had a long history with Penn State, and, of course, the Big Ten.

The Choice

Let’s get into the minds of the Penn State administration for a second. What benefits could the university as a whole get from joining the ACC? In terms of sports, there’s no denying that they were a premier basketball conference, with schools like North Carolina, Duke, Maryland, and NC State in the fold. Football was a different story. It wasn’t until Florida State, Miami, and Virginia Tech joined later in the process where one could seriously consider the ACC a football power. Clemson and Georgia Tech had been two of the few teams who had consistent success up until that point. In the 90s, competing with Florida State during its best years would have been fun.

However, Penn State most likely still has its down years yet to come in the early 2000s. By 2004, it would have shared the spotlight with both Virginia Tech and Miami, two schools that, at the time, were in better shape than Penn State. Contrast that with the situation in the Big Ten, and it’s hard to make the argument that Penn State wouldn’t find itself in a similar spot in terms of on-field perception.

In terms of academics, the ACC can’t match the level of prestige across the board. For example, every member of the Big Ten, with the exception of Nebraska, is a member of the AAU. In contrast, only Duke, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Pitt are members in the ACC. Big Ten schools rank among the best schools in the country every year, whereas there is a big gap between the top ACC schools and the rest. Adding to this, the Big Ten offers an academic-version of itself (for lack of a better term)—the CIC. This committee ensure that Big Ten schools (and UChicago) continue to be at the forefront of academic research.

If none of these arguments are compelling enough, let’s use the one that convinced the administration: Money. The Big Ten has consistently been at the top when it comes to revenue, both for its athletic departments and for its research units. The Big Ten, yet again, holds the largest media rights package, at around $2.64 billion, when you add Fox, ESPN, and CBS’s offerings. Contrast that with the ACC’s current deal, which brings in about $20 million per school per year, and that’s a lot of money on the table.

Some may astutely point out that had Penn State joined the ACC, the conference would be in a more favorable bargaining position. While this is true, Penn State alone wouldn’t have been able to make up the difference in revenue currently present between the Big Ten and ACC. Penn State stands to make about 20 million more per year than all ACC schools, and even the best of estimates would put that figure well below what the school expects to bring in.

The last, and perhaps most important point is this: When the Big Ten looked to expand the second time, they looked to the ACC and whatever was left of the Big East. In a scenario where Penn State is an ACC member, they would have become one of the top schools the Big Ten would have targeted. So even in a scenario where Penn State joins the ACC and not the Big Ten, they could have very well ended up right where they are, but without the years’ worth of massive revenue accumulation.