INDIANAPOLIS – Pat Fitzgerald, a hard-nosed linebacker at Northwestern in 1995, capped the Wildcats’ improbable season against Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
It represented a traditional matchup between the champions from the Big Ten and the Pac-12, then known as the Pac-10.
But in a few years, the schools will be part of the same conference after the Big Ten added USC and UCLA last month in an aggressive round of expansion.
Fitzgerald, now entering his 17th season as coach at Northwestern, sees the additions as the latest in a series of changes in sports, from relaxed transfer restrictions to expanded opportunities for players to monetize through name, image and likeness.
“Change,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s college football right now.”
More accustomed to the evolving landscape, Fitzgerald is among the majority of coaches who sound excited about the Trojans and Bruins coming into 2024.
“We’re not going backwards,” Fitzgerald said. “We are not going back to 10 teams. We’re not going back to eight league games. So wherever we go, we as coaches have to adapt and plan to be effective and successful.
The Big Ten has been expanding for decades, first outgrowing 10 member schools when Penn State joined the league in 1993.
Then came Nebraska in 2011, Maryland and Rutgers in 2014.
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But even as it moves beyond its Midwestern roots, each step is relatively modest, keeping the conference’s geographic footprint in adjacent states.
USC and UCLA don’t have much proximity, being in Los Angeles and more than a thousand miles from the nearest Big Ten school.
“Coming to Iowa will be a home game for those guys,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said, “as opposed to going across the country.”
Ferentz, a long-time coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, seemed wary of expansion, noting the conference’s declining geographic ties.
“The clear message to me is that geography and tradition don’t mean nearly as much as some other things,” Ferentz said. “TV is probably at the top of that list. The college has collapsed.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh also remembers the sport’s declining regionalism.
“I’m an old-school guy,” Harbaugh said. “I love a strong West Coast conference, a strong Southeastern conference, a strong Midwest conference, a strong East Coast conference, but things are different now. Things have changed. And it probably won’t be the last one.
The formation of a 16-team super conference, however, would strengthen the Big Ten in an ever-changing environment.
That would put the league on par with the SEC, which is scheduled to surpass Oklahoma and Texas by 14 teams by 2025.
In the most significant development, the expansion Big Ten is poised for financial ruin as a new media rights deal takes effect next year.
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Final terms of the deal are still being finalized, Commissioner Kevin Warren said at media days.
But once established, it could be worth more than $1 billion and distribute at least $100 million to members each year, especially now that the three largest TV markets in the US are now converging between New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
“Everybody can see the landscape is changing,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said, “and this move confirms we’re ahead of it and that’s what college football is all about.”
Getting a foothold in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest city, has caught the attention of many coaches.
“The first thing that came to my mind was LA, are you kidding me? It’s perfect,” Minnesota’s PJ Fleck said. “The Big Ten is now represented from the West Coast to the East Coast. You look at the major media markets, it’s very positive.
“Our footprint stretches from New York to LA,” said Rutgers’ Greg Schiano. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day calls the Big Ten a national conference.
“It’s big going forward,” Day said.
There are practical considerations for a coast-to-coast league. Mostly travel. Teams travel across much of the country to play at USC and UCLA.
No one travels more than Maryland or Rutgers, two schools in the conference located on the East Coast.
But Terrapins coach Mike Locksley said “it is what it is.”
“We’ll play games that end up on our schedule,” Locksley said. “We’ll manage it and come up with a way that hopefully allows us to go out there and play our best.”
“You know, you do it,” Schiano added. “You figure it out.”
Football schedules are not as compressed as other sports. There are six or seven days between games.
As a result, teams have long taken cross-country flights for non-conference or neutral site games.
Fitzgerald indicated his team will cross the Atlantic to open this upcoming season, as Northwestern and Nebraska meet in Ireland next month.
“So it’s not a big deal,” Fitzgerald said.