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Athlon Archive: Nebraska Joins New Frontier in Big Ten


Five years ago this week, Nebraska became the first domino in a wave of conference realignment. The Cornhuskers broke from their traditional Big 8 roots and became the 12th member of the Big Ten.

The move gave us the Legends and Leaders divisions and disrupted college football summers for two years to come.

Here’s how and why Nebraska made the move.

Originally published in Athlon 2011 Big Ten annual

By Mike Babcock

Tim Marlowe was already thinking about tickets to the Nebraska-Ohio State football game in the spring, even though the game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln won’t be played until Oct. 8.

Marlowe, a junior wide receiver and kick returner for the Huskers, is from Youngstown, Ohio, and he needs tickets for family and friends —as many tickets as he can get. Players are allotted four tickets for each game. But they can trade among themselves. And that’s what Marlowe plans to do.

“There’ll be a lot of fighting in the locker room come October,” he says.

Not because of the number of Huskers from Ohio, however — Marlowe is among only a handful — but rather because of Ohio State’s tradition, and because it is now a conference opponent.

On June 11, 2010, Nebraska applied for membership in the Big Ten. And later that day, the Big Ten unanimously accepted its 12th member, commencing on July 1, 2011. 

Marlowe might have been the happiest Husker when the official announcement was made. 

“I’d say so,” he says. “At first, I was thinking it was just a rumor. I didn’t want to get too hyped up on it. But then when I saw that it was really getting serious, I’m getting real excited, calling all my friends, setting dates when we’re going to play them.”

Talk of a possible change in conference affiliation went from speculative to serious because of Nebraska’s concerns about the stability of the Big 12 Conference, which University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman said “probably wasn’t going to hold together.”

The rumors had several schools leaving the Big 12. There was talk of a group of teams — including Texas and Oklahoma — going to the Pac-10, where Colorado did go. Missouri was rumored to be headed to the Big Ten, either instead of Nebraska or in addition to the Huskers.

Also at issue was concern over a disproportionate South Division influence, in particular that of Texas. From the Big 12’s first season in 1996, the focus of the conference began gravitating to the south, symbolized by its offices being moved from traditional home Kansas City, Mo., to Dallas. 

“There’s a little bit of nostalgia because you realize some of the history’s going by the wayside,” Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne said the day the move was announced.

“It isn’t that we weren’t sensitive (to tradition). Believe me, I agonized about this.”

From the point of view of many Nebraskans, however, the disconnect had begun when Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor joined the former Big Eight, setting tradition aside.

For example, the formation of the Big 12, with its divisional alignment, meant that the Huskers would no longer play Oklahoma annually but rather twice every four years. The schools had been members of the same conference since 1921 and had played each other in football every season since 1928. Nebraska-Oklahoma was the Big Eight’s signature rivalry. 

Nebraska’s association with Missouri, Kansas, Iowa State and Kansas State goes back even further. Missouri and Kansas were first on Nebraska’s schedule in 1892, though Missouri forfeited rather than compete against an African-American player, Nebraska’s George Flippin.

Later they were members together of the Missouri Valley Conference, which preceded the Big Six (formed in 1929). With the addition of Colorado, the conference began competition as the Big Seven in 1948, and with the addition of Oklahoma State, the league became the Big Eight in 1960.

Despite that history, however, Nebraska had to make the move for what Osborne called “the long-term trajectory of the athletic program and the university.”

Affiliation with the Big Ten has significant academic and research implications as well. Athletic revenue was also a factor, as was exposure on the Big Ten Network, which will help offset travel considerations for Husker fans. Big 12 campuses were more accessible, in general, for team travel and fans in the state’s most populous areas, Lincoln and Omaha. 

Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State and Missouri are within reasonable driving distance, as is Colorado for fans in the central and western parts of the state. Even Oklahoma and Oklahoma State weren’t that far. Now, the closest to Nebraska’s campus is Iowa, at 300 miles. Next is Minnesota, at 430. Every other Big Ten school is at least 450 miles from Lincoln.

Nebraska does, however, fit the culture of the Big Ten. “It’s a comfortable fit,” says Osborne. “I do think that there’s a lot of similarity, an emphasis on work ethic; a lot of people are fairly blue collar, pretty good values throughout the Midwest, so I think that’s going to help.”

Also, Nebraska has some history with Iowa and Minnesota. Iowa was its first out-of-state football opponent in 1891, and the Huskers played Minnesota regularly, though not annually, from 1900 through the early 1970s. In fact, Minnesota leads the all-time series 29–20–2, despite losing the last 14 games.

The Huskers are in the Big Ten’s Legends Division for football, along with Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern. Penn State is Nebraska’s designated cross-divisional rival, which means those teams will play every season.

The Big Ten designated four college football “brands” in aligning the divisions, with two in each division. Nebraska and Michigan are in the Legends, Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division. The Huskers’ other cross-divisional opponent in the first two years is Wisconsin. Welcome to the Big Ten. “The schedule will be challenging,” Osborne said when it was announced.

“I think it will be cool going to Michigan and Penn State, even though we’ve got them back-to-back,” says senior safety Austin Cassidy. “Playing in front of 100,000 people, that’s not something very many people get to say that they’ve done in their lifetime.”

Cassidy went to high school in Lincoln but grew up in Texas.

“Do we play Michigan State away?” Alfonzo Dennard, a senior cornerback from Rochelle, Ga., asked at the start of spring practice. “I haven’t looked at the schedule really. … Oh yeah, Michigan. I want to play at Michigan because (of) how big the stadium is. I want to, like, experience that.”

Only a few Huskers are from Big Ten country, senior wide receiver Brandon Kinnie among them. Though Kinnie graduated high school in Kansas City, Mo., he was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Ind., where much of his extended family lives. A cousin, Dre Muhammad, plays for Indiana. And even though he and Muhammad, also a senior, will be finished before Nebraska and Indiana are scheduled to play in football, “I’m excited about it (the move),” Kinnie says.

Nebraska’s coaching staff has a pronounced Big Ten background. Coach Bo Pelini, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini and first-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck are all (like Marlowe) from Youngstown’s Cardinal Mooney High School. So they’re returning home, sort of.

During a news conference to announce the Big Ten’s acceptance of Nebraska, Bo Pelini was asked about the move. “I’m not a real emotional guy,” he said with a wry smile.

The comment drew laughter. The Huskers’ fourth-year head coach is emotional, all right. If you don’t think so, watch him on the sideline. He’s just not sentimental about such things.