Neutral Site Big Ten Games Open Up Old Wounds for Maryland & Rutgers


Recent reports have stated the Big Ten is considering neutral location regular season conference games in Washington D.C. and at Yankee Stadium in New York City between their three eastern most programs. These three programs are Maryland, Rutgers, and Penn State. For “traditional” Big Ten fans most will likely gripe over another move by Delany in his eastern push to stake the Big Ten flag firmly in the Northeast. They will also breathe a sigh of relief knowing that their programs won’t be affected by this move. However Big Ten fans should be concerned about these discussions because it opens old wounds that threaten the foundation the conference was built on. As a Midwest conference with Penn State as their only Northeastern school, the Big Ten has never had to be conscious of Penn State’s history with their Northeastern peers. Delany needs to realize that by acquiring two more Northeast schools, he has also injected the darker side of Penn State’s history into the Big Ten.

To Big Ten fans, Penn State was a 1990s addition that had a storied history of independence. But what Big Ten fans never learned about Penn State until now is that the school has a past and current history of bullying other schools. This has never been a problem for the Big Ten as the conference would never allow Penn State the opportunity to inject preferable treatment and school infighting into the conference. However for non-Big Ten members, Penn State is an arrogant school that is incredibly difficult to deal with. Penn State is to Northeastern schools as the Texas Longhorns are to other schools in Texas. In the past, Penn State was notorious for bullying their Northeastern counterparts, and more often than not Rutgers and Maryland were on the receiving end of this.

1980s: Failure to form a Northeast football conference.

The reasons behind this can be traced back to a certain head coach who ran State College for 57 years. There will never be another football coach quite like Joe Paterno. Paterno was a one of a kind who wielded more control over a university than any other coach in the modern era. For Paterno had ambitions, it wasn’t enough to be both the head football and acting athletic director of Penn State (PSU) at the same time, a feat accomplished by Paterno in the early 80s, Paterno wanted to be a conference commissioner of a PSU centric conference.

Commonly referred to as the “Paterno League,” the hypothetical eight-team conference proposed by Paterno in the early 1980s would of included:

Boston College
Penn State
West Virginia

Big East members Boston College and Syracuse were uninterested in giving up their basketball association with the Big East. The prospects of a “Paterno League” were still decent until they were struck by a deathblow when Pittsburgh (Pitt) joined the Big East. Joe Paterno was quoted on the move stating:

“One of the most disappointing things in my life that happened at Penn State was that. … It was a bitter pill to swallow. I was disappointed. There’s a little frustration on my part.” (1)

This is where the egocentrism of Paterno is displayed in full force. Paterno was filled with resentment against Pitt for joining the Big East and made numerous comments similar to this over the years. However what any conference realignment junkie will quickly point out, is that Penn State had made a failed attempt to join the Big East shortly before Pittsburgh joined that same conference. It is at best hypocrisy of the highest level; it is at worse an attitude of self-entitlement that Penn State should rightfully dictate the affairs of other regional schools.

The story goes that Northeast football independents rejected the “Paterno League.” However the real storyline involves a reluctance on Penn State’s part to play well with others. The prime example of this was Paterno demanding a revenue sharing model that had equal sharing of basketball TV revenue, but each school kept both football gate revenue and football TV revenue. By todays standards this plan may not seem all that bad, but keep in mind that this was the early 80s. In this era basketball and football were of near equal TV value. Gate revenue for football made up a larger chunk of the total conference revenue and it was not uncommon for power leagues to share this revenue.

When factoring all this together you find the most insanely imbalanced revenue sharing model for a power conference while being tailored perfectly to give Penn State a maximum revenue advantage. Paterno had effectively asked for a cut of everyone’s major revenue streams while keeping his own major revenue streams all to himself.

1990s: Northeast programs and Penn State sever ties.

So how does this relate to today? Well the attitudes PSU displayed in the 80s carried over into the early 90s and quickly reached a breaking point where the remaining Northeastern schools collectively told PSU to go pound sand. To explain why this happened, one first needs to address a major conference realignment misconception: That Penn State’s historic rivalries were lost due to their move to the Big Ten.

Rewinding the clock, Penn State along with Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia had formed the Big Four, an association of football independents, which included scheduling agreements and prior to 1972 rules regulating roster size, redshirting, and recruiting. This collection of schools made up the foundation of Penn State’s schedule prior to joining the Big Ten.

Looking at Penn State’s Big Four rivalries plus the newest Big Ten additions:

Pittsburgh: 96 total games. Played every year from 1900-1992 with a four-year hiatus in the 1930s. Four games played since 1992.

Syracuse: 71 total games. Played every year from 1922-1990 with a one-year hiatus due to World War II. Three games played since 1990.

West Virginia: 59 total games. Played every year from 1940-1992 with a two-year hiatus due to World War II. Zero games played since 1992.

Maryland: 37 total games. Missed each other only three times from 1960-1993. Zero games since then.

Rutgers: 24 total games. Played every year from 1977-1995. Haven’t played since. One thing to note is that Rutgers (RU) has had periods of deemphasized sports. Playing since 1977 is more significant than what originally meets the eye as PSU has basically been playing RU for as long as they have had emphasized sports.

As you can see Penn State had extensive history with these programs. Penn State clearly enjoyed playing the Big Four and gave them fair scheduling agreements. The same however could not be said for programs like Rutgers and Maryland. As Penn State’s program grew during the late 1970s and throughout the 80s, so did Penn State’s arrogance. Rutgers and Maryland soon found themselves facing increasingly less favorable scheduling agreements with Penn State. During the 17 games Rutgers and Penn State played from 1977 to 1995, 11 of them were at State College (PA). During the 80s Maryland found themselves having to either work in an extra home game for Penn State, or play at a neutral site in Baltimore.

However when Penn State announced their entry into the Big Ten, it was soon decided that all schools looking to play Penn State would have to give PSU two home games for every visit PSU made to their school. Not even their in-state rival Pittsburgh was spared of this requirement.

The response was what you expected, West Virginia (WVU), Maryland (UMD), Syracuse (SU), and Pittsburgh collectively told Penn State to go pound sand. Rutgers who had been subjected to this policy for the previous two decades kept their series going for just three more seasons before that series was ended. Only 11 games have been played between Penn State and these six programs since PSU became a Big Ten member. Of which only three games (all with Syracuse), have been played since 2000.

It is no secret that conference realignment has killed off numerous rivalries over the years, but was PSU really justified in doing this? On one hand Penn State did have only three out of conference (OOC) slots to work with. It isn’t unreasonable to want two OOC home games plus a certain degree of variation in their OOC opponents. But on the other side, plenty of programs in the past have kept their in-state rivalries going OOC and/or worked in other home and homes as well. PSU easily could have at the very least kept playing their two most historic rivalries (Pitt & SU) each year and still have two OOC home games. Or they could have kept just Pitt as a yearly rival and rotate games with some of their other rivals.

The Big Ten move would of without a doubt meant the ending of some rivalries while making others skip years. But the fact is that for PSU to end all of these rivalries, including their most historic ones, was completely unjustified. Especially when it involves telling regional schools who have very strong programs as well, to play you on a 2 for 1 basis can be described only as arrogant. There is no argument to say that PSU couldn’t work more home & home matchups with these programs, especially after the regular season expanded and a fourth OOC game opened up for Penn State to work with.

Penn State fans may be quick to point out that other schools use these tactics as well. But the difference is that Penn State did it so frequently and against schools that are their historical rivals and these schools have highly respectable programs as well. Only a handful of other FBS schools have done anything remotely comparable.

2000s: The consequences of Penn State’s past.

Mentioning the past like this would normally be unwarranted and just a way to alienate a fanbase, however I am justified in bring this up because this philosophy still existed for PSU even in recent years. It seems that the only change in Penn State’s stance has been shifting their attitude to “We don’t want a second home game, but we do want an extra neutral site game at a location of our choosing.”

When Penn State started a series with SU from 2008-2013 it was on a home/away/neutral matchup. Over the 2011-2013 time period, several reports surfaced of a possible BYU series with at locations at Provo, State College, and Pittsburgh. It is hard to let go of the past when Penn State from time to time shows flashes of continuing to hold attitudes comparable to its arrogant past despite all the gains they have made since 1990.

This is why Delany needs to tread carefully. Do we really expect to believe that this idea of neutral site games was forged between the Athletic Directors of Rutgers and Maryland and presented to the rest of the conference? Maybe, but extremely unlikely considering the Eastern push into the NYC and DC markets has been the work of Jim Delany. At best this is just a silly coincidence, at worst it is Penn State continuing to belittle RU/UMD, and even more disturbing, something that the Big Ten is allowing, and/or even encouraging to happen.

The foundation of the Big Ten has been having all their members work together. This is what made the Big Ten strong, this is what made the Big Ten so successful, and this is what made the Big Ten great. While the SEC and ACC allowed infighting between their membership to escalate into schools leaving, the Big Ten has yet to lose a member other than Chicago who did so because they dropped football. While the Big 12 and Pac-10 had yet to implement equal revenue sharing for their total tier I & tier II rights revenue, the Big Ten shared these two tiers equally. In 2006 the Big Ten took the unprecedented step of pooling their tier III TV rights and distributing the revenue equally through a conference network.

The Big Ten has historically been the one conference that college football fans can rely on to be above conference infighting and handing out special treatment. What Delany is allowing to happen is conduct unbecoming of what the Big Ten stands for. Once a conference goes down this path there is no turning back. If one school can get away with it, then others will soon test the waters. This may not even have been intentional, but Delany wanted the Big Ten to become a conference of the Northeast and Midwest. It was a smart move to make, but like the Browns drafting Johnny Football they also acquired his excess baggage in return, if you want RU/UMD to be in your conference along with Penn State your also acquire a historical past of infighting between these universities.

When RU and UMD announced their move into the Big Ten, of the many thoughts I had, one was “Wow PSU will actually be forced to play fair with RU and UMD.” I legitimately thought that the Big Ten would keep Penn State in-line and the net result would be PSU, UMD, and RU sharing the same relationship any other trio of Big Ten programs share. But here I am two years later realizing that Penn State is back to its old tactics. This setup is essentially a conference-play version of the home/away/neutral OOC series that PSU requested out of Syracuse and BYU. Rutgers, Maryland, and the Big Ten may have all either agreed to this or have been talked into it. But this move gives Penn State exactly what it wanted, forcing two Northeast schools to abide by a demand that PSU once made 24 years ago.

Delany wanted to become a national conference and expand the Big Ten into the Northeast. For all the advantages he gained in doing this, he also gained the disadvantage of having membership with past antagonistic relationships between each other for the first time. This means that decisions such as neutral site games in D.C. and NYC are not as simple as they appear.

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© sportspolitico July 31, 2014

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