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One might call it the Bigger Ten, while understanding it just might swell again at any given moment.
Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner, pondered Tuesday what it would have felt like to sit among the seven college presidents meeting in 1895 in a Chicago hotel called the Palmer House to discuss the formation of what would become the Big Ten.
It couldn’t have been any zanier than this.
Warren indicated during Big Ten football media days inside Lucas Oil Stadium that a conference on the verge of stretching from coast to coast may not be done growing. The Bruins and Trojans are scheduled to come aboard in August 2024, but other attractive prizes could also be snagged in the coming years.
Notre Dame? Stanford? Oregon? North Carolina? Virginia? The list of possibilities swirls like clouds in a Midwestern thunderstorm.
“I get asked every single day, ‘What's next?’ ” Warren said while standing atop a platform perched above artificial turf. “It may include future expansion, but it will be done for the right reasons at the right time with our student-athletes, academic and athletic empowerment at the center of any and all decisions that we will make regarding any further expansions. We will not expand just to expand.”
In a win for the athletic department coffers of its newest additions, Warren said UCLA and USC would receive full revenue shares upon their Big Ten arrival, unlike predecessors Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers. That figures to be a massive infusion of cash for each school given that the Big Ten’s new media rights agreement is expected to top $1 billion — a deal that Warren said would be announced “sooner than later.”
“They bring a lot of value to our relationship, a lot of panache to our relationship,” Warren said of the Los Angeles schools, presumably referring to their location in the nation’s second-largest media market as well as the accompanying glitz of Hollywood.
Warren made one stumble during his lengthy lauding of the schools, referring to director Steven Spielberg as an alumnus of USC when he is a huge benefactor of the university’s film school but in fact attended Long Beach State. But plenty of Big Ten alumni reside in Los Angeles, Warren noting that it’s the Big Ten’s largest base of graduates outside of the Midwest.
When he contemplated Big Ten expansion possibilities before taking his current job in 2019, Warren said USC and UCLA were among the schools he considered attractive prospects, citing their strong academic and athletic profiles as well as a lengthy list of prominent alumni.
The new Big Ten configuration will give the conference a presence in each of the nation’s three biggest media markets, Warren pointed out, while providing programming opportunities spanning “from the morning into the night.” Warren alluded to the exclusive late-night broadcast window of the West Coast as a positive historically but did not say whether he would utilize it for UCLA and USC home games.
“I'm looking forward to building a brand to be fortified and strong from Los Angeles to New Jersey and everywhere in between,” Warren said.
Several Big Ten coaches dismissed the travel concerns that had been raised about a conference requiring five-hour flights. Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald pointed out that his team is opening its season against Nebraska in Dublin. Nebraska coach Scott Frost said that as the Big Ten’s westernmost team, the impact will be lessened.
“For us in the middle of the country there’s not much difference between New Jersey and California, to be honest,” Frost said. “So another 45 minutes or an hour on a plane doesn’t matter, we’re just excited to have them in the league.”
Even though the Big Ten has been a staple of the College Football Playoff — participating in six of its eight years — Warren said he fully supported expansion of the four-team event while embracing additional media partners besides ESPN, which has enjoyed a stranglehold on coverage. The Big Ten’s partnership with Fox is believed to be chief among the reasons it did not vote for an expanded playoff earlier this year.
As for the murky future of the Rose Bowl given the likelihood of a significantly weakened Pac-12, Fitzgerald was among those who voiced hope that the Big Ten’s connection to the vaunted game could be salvaged.
“There’s nothing more special than coming out of the tunnel in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 — or whatever day it is now that we play — and seeing the San Gabriels,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s something really special about that and I really hope we don’t lose that.
“But I think the commissioner said it right — the word for right now in college football is ‘change’ and when that merry-go-round is going to stop, I don’t know, and I don’t know what the destination is. It’s exciting, it’s scary, it’s interesting.”
Warren repeatedly emphasized the Big Ten’s forward-looking mentality, using words such as “bold,” “creative” and “aggressive.” He told a story of driving to Chicago when he was in law school at Notre Dame and seeing the iconic Sears Tower and cherishing the times when he could order birthday presents out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog, which no longer exists.
“I don’t want to be Sears and Roebuck,” Warren said. “And I want to make sure that we not only make the right decisions that what’s right now for our student-athletes and for our games and our competitions and our academic opportunities and our fans, but I want to make decisions that, when we look back 30 years from now, that people will say that the Big Ten Conference was ahead of the curve.”
As Warren spoke, a slogan in giant letters glowed on a video board overhead: “Big Life. Big Stage. Big Ten."
It’s big, and getting bigger, with no telling how big it might ultimately get.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.