While Nebraska is still a member of the Big 12 Conference, momentum is building that status is about to change.
All of the discussion is about college football. Not even men’s basketball, with its Final Fours and Big Dances and Dick Vitale is even mentioned other than by hoops fans who wonder if Kansas can maintain its lofty status in a world where they are playing Air Force and Colorado State instead of Texas and Oklahoma.
I understand why football is central to the discussion of conference expansion/realignment, but I do feel for the “other” sports who get caught in the waves created by the cash cow. What becomes of national power Husker volleyball with a move outside the Big 12? Does Mike Anderson’s baseball program instantly become a major player in the Big 10 or does it get swept up in the mediocrity? Everyone talks about football, let’s see what the impact is on the rest of the Husker athletic landscape if NU’s conference rivals suddenly shift east versus south. We’ll look at NU’s most followed non-football sports.
On the surface, this seems like just the thing Anderson needs to put NU baseball back in the discussion of conference championships. Sure, Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota have been NCAA regional teams in the past, but rarely in the same season. In fact, the Gophers were the only team from the Big 10 in the 64 team field this season. Imagine if Wisconsin were the only Big 10 school in March Madness? Unfathomable? Yes. But in the world of Big 10 baseball, one is many times all you get.
And if you think the fact that the Big 10 being ranked 12th in conference RPI is just a fact that the selection committee takes notice of, think again. Baseball recruits know that the Big 10 is where a promising pro career can go to die. If you have the chops to play pro ball, but need some college seasoning – do you want to play your conference games in Columbus, Ohio; Iowa City, Iowa or West Lafayette, Indiana? Or do you want to be where it’s warm and where the scouts are plentiful because you are playing against others who also have the same pro dreams as you do?
Baseball recruiting is hard enough to Lincoln. Now imagine if you cannot even promise a trip to Texas or Oklahoma when conference season rolls around. The “Texas recruiting” question has come up many times in the football discussion. You could make an argument that football will or won’t take a hit in the Lone Star State with prospects. I don’t think you can even argue that baseball recruiting won’t suffer to a significant degree if the Huskers are playing ball in the Big 10.
I think NU baseball, which has already fallen off the national radar screens due to two non-regional seasons, has an elevated chance of disappearing completely with a move to the Big 10.
When you compare top programs with other top programs, the move to the Big 10 seems to be a push in terms of stiff competition. You dump longtime nemesis Kansas as well as Texas and Texas A&M (among others) in exchange for perennial NCAA tourney contenders Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State. Purdue is in many ways like Kansas State in that you can expect a solid run every 4 to 5 seasons and you also have Illinois. What is worrisome is that Michigan and Indiana have been in a lull for a few seasons and are due to snap out eventually.
So even if the Big 10 represents a slight move up in competition, I think that could be offset by an elevated status in recruiting. The Big 10 region has some good basketball talent. The current Rivals 150 has a healthy dose of Big 10 region talent. While Texas is represented, it’s not like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and other Big 10 border states like Kentucky and Tennessee. I wouldn’t expect Doc Sadler to beat out the power schools in those states for their homegrown talent, but the pool seems to be large enough that NU could get some good ball players from the area. Plus, you’ll have the newest arena and practice facilities within the next three years. I don’t think basketball flourishes in the Big 10, but it will have more of a fighting chance than baseball.
On the women’s side, Connie Yori has already proven she can recruit players from just about anywhere. Alaska, Washington, Canada, California. The dynamics of recruiting female versus male athletes are different. The professional training ground aspect is not as pronounced. As far as competition, it gets a little easier in the Big Ten. Of course, it was bound to considering the Big 12 has led the nation in women’s basketball RPI the last couple of seasons.
Women’s basketball could be the sport that benefits the most by a conference shift. Recruiting likely isn’t adversely affected while NU becomes an elevated player in a league that has good, but not great competition.
The postseason rivalry that has taken shape with Nebraska and Penn State becomes a regular season duel to the death with a move to the Big 10. That would not only be good for the two schools, but for volleyball as a whole. The Nittany Lions have elevated the Big 10’s overall performance as well with Illinois and Minnesota emerging as new volleyball powers along with old foes like Wisconsin.
John Cook already has one of the best volleyball recruiting hotbeds in his own backyard. Perhaps the biggest fear would be losing some more homegrown Nebraska kids to places like Iowa or Illinois. In the end, NU comes out good in either conference.
The one drawback to the Olympic sports question is the increased travel. Gone are the bus trips to Ames, Manhattan and Lawrence. Replaced by flights to Minneapolis, Chicago, Bloomington and Happy Valley, PA. While the NU athletic budget will get an infusion of more cash, according to popular theory, the Husker travel budget will grow considerably.
While the first few years of Big 10 membership will bring with it a new curiosity with new locations to travel to like Ann Arbor, Madison and Columbus, eventually the reality of expenses will even catch up to the always hungry Husker Nation. How much will NU’s vaunted fan base ship to farther away locales? And what about large, loyal alumni groups like North Texans for Nebraska? No more “home games” for them.
In the end, when you look at all the factors, I still think Nebraska in the Big 10 will be good for the athletic department overall. Our national profile won’t be over-shadowed by an ugly shade of burnt orange; the added coin in the bank account will keep the non-revenue sports healthy and the academic reputation of the University will be greatly enhanced being affiliated with some of the most prestigious schools in the country.
ADDENDUM: (Added 1:30pm, Monday)
Interesting tidbit from wrestling coach Mark Manning from Monday’s Executive Club: While he wouldn’t give any insight to Friday’s NU staff meeting with Tom Osborne, he did bring to light something that I did not know previously. Wrestling is a Tier I sport in the Big 10, meaning that all schools must have a team. With the talk about emails flying back and forth between Texas and Ohio State in April over the Longhorns joining the Big Ten, one thing is forgotten – Texas doesn’t have a wrestling team.
Now, considering this expansion talk is about 1) money and 2) football, this may not be a big stumbling block. Texas has the money to start a wrestling program (and the likely two additional women’s sports that would almost have to be added to satisfy Title IX), but do they really want to? Also, the Big 10 could wave those rules if they so choose, but longtime wrestling powerhouses Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State might not like the idea of de-emphasizing wrestling in the Big 10. They still might have to consider it. Why? Well guess who else doesn’t have a wrestling program?