Three part series on PSU's joining of Big Ten from a paper in Central PA.
Part 1 today: http://www.centredaily.com/sports/story/101688.html
(First of a three-part series)
The idea wasn't new.
When Bryce Jordan became Penn State's president in 1983, talk of the university joining the Big Ten Conference had been trickling into administrators' ears for a few years.
But before he settled in full-time, as he was still commuting from Austin, Texas, to State College, Jordan had a talk with football coach Joe Paterno, who had recently tried to spearhead an eastern all-sports conference. The idea was strong in Jordan's mind, and he knew the topic was of great interest to the coach.
"We ought to consider becoming a part of the Big Ten," Jordan told Paterno.
Less than a decade later, Paterno's football team, 22 of Penn State's other 27 varsity teams and the university itself were members of the oldest and arguably most distinguished major athletic conference in the country.
The in-between was a quick and mostly pain-free transition that changed both the sporting landscape Penn State had left and the one it had entered, and more than 15 years of competition have elapsed since. Coaches have come and gone, Big Ten titles won and lost, rivalries ended and established.
During the next three days, the CDT will examine Penn State's history in the conference -- the challenges it has faced and will face, the ways the move re-shaped the athletic department and the conference itself -- and look at what lies ahead.
Football, as it has and continues to in so many ways at Penn State, triggered the transition. The program that generated the revenue for essentially every other team at Penn State had always been an independent, even when the basketball programs and a handful of other teams had joined the Atlantic 10 Conference in the early 1980s.
Paterno saw the future even before the NCAA reduced the number of scholarships during the early 1990s and parity sprang up across the nation, before the multi-million dollar Bowl Championship Series made its debut in 1998. He knew that joining a conference would provide his team with scheduling stability, increased national exposure, additional revenue and an expanded recruiting turf.
Of course, not just any conference would do.
Paterno, who also served as Penn State's athletic director from 1980-81, had attempted to forge an eastern all-sports conference in the early 1980s that would have consisted of Penn State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers and Temple, among others. Not enough of those universities came on board -- Pitt joined the Big East in basketball -- and the vision never came to pass.
So instead of looking north and south and east for new alliances, Penn State looked west. And the West looked back.
Stanley Ikenberry served as Penn State's executive vice president for administration from 1971 until he became the University of Illinois' president in 1979. In 1989, he was the chairman of the board of Big Ten presidents, known as the "Council of Ten."
Ikenberry knew Penn State. He knew that in terms of size, academic reputation and athletic tradition, it matched up well with the existing Big Ten schools.
"I knew the university and the people," said Ikenberry, now an education professor at Illinois. "There was a level of trust on their part and my part that might not have otherwise been available."
Sometime in late 1989, Paterno, Penn State athletic director Jim Tarman and senior vice president of finance and treasurer Steve Garban boarded a private plane and flew to Champaign, Ill., where they drove to Ikenberry's home for dinner and discussion about Penn State's potential future.
A good portion of the initial talk concerned academics.
"I wanted Penn State to be among its equals," said Jordan, who was Penn State's president from 1983-1990. "Some of the institutions we were playing regularly prior to that were simply not Penn State's equal academically."
Membership in the Big Ten meant membership in the Association of American Universities as well as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.
"The academic wing of the Big Ten," Jordan said. "One doesn't hear much of it but it's an important aspect of the conference."
Penn State would have access to materials in all of the Big Ten's other libraries. Its academic leaders would have easier and more frequent contact with their conference counterparts.
The Penn State contingent liked the fit, but also realized the importance of being welcomed with open arms. Ikenberry told Jordan that he would individually contact the other Big Ten presidents to get their initial reactions to the proposed expansion.
"We didn't want to raise this publicly unless there was a relatively high level of confidence that it was going to go through," Ikenberry said.
During that round of phone calls, Ikenberry said, the "reactions were almost uniformly positive." He then called Jordan back and asked if the Penn State president wanted to formally put the wheels in motion. He did.
At a press conference held in the Kern Building of the Penn State campus on Dec. 19, 1989, Ikenberry officially extended the invitation to join the conference.
To gain admittance, Penn State needed votes of approval from seven of the 10 university presidents. The Council of Ten convened in Iowa City on May 3, 1990, talking late into the night about the pros and cons of adding an 11th member.
The next morning, Ikenberry called Jordan.
"I told him that at that point I did not have the necessary seven votes," Ikenberry said. "And that he should prepare himself for the possibility that this thing might go down."
After two more hours of discussion that morning, Ikenberry called a recess. Wisconsin chancellor Donna Shalala took him aside and said she believed Northwestern president Arnold Weber was hesitating because of his belief that Penn State's entrance into the conference would lead the Big Ten to ask Northwestern to leave.
That was not anyone's intention, said Ikenberry, and when the meeting resumed, the council instituted a three-year moratorium that would freeze the number of teams in the conference at 11.
Northwestern was satisfied. Penn State had its seven votes, and was formally accepted into the conference on June 4, 1990. But not everyone celebrated.
The most outspoken detractors were Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight, who made half-kidding remarks about the difficulty of traveling to State College, and Minnesota athletic director Rick Bay who, according to Jordan, was "almost vitriolic in his opposition." Opposition also came from Penn State alumni, who were doubtful that the Nittany Lions would be able to establish the same sort of rivalries they had forged with in-state and Eastern foes with their Big Ten brethren.
And though the majority of university presidents were pleased with the outcome, several of their athletic directors quietly grumbled about it, as much about the fact that they hadn't been consulted as about the decision itself.
"Mostly it was a proxy for what was then occurring, which was a change of governance leadership," said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who had been on the job for less than a year when Penn State received the initial invitation. "It was evidence of greater involvement by university presidents (in athletic affairs), a de facto statement of who was in control."
Those who had put the process in motion were patient with the doubters.
"It was tough at the time," Ikenberry said, "but it was pretty obviously the right fit."
Dec. 19, 1989 --Big Ten extends invitation to Penn State to become the 11th member of the conference.
June 4, 1990 -- Penn State is formally accepted into the Big Ten by member universities.
Sept. 8, 1991 -- Men's soccer becomes the first Penn State team to play a Big Ten conference game when it faces Indiana
Nov. 28, 1992 -- The women's volleyball team clinches a share of Penn State's first Big Ten championship by defeating Northwestern. The Nittany Lions will win the school's first outright Big Ten title a year later.
Sept. 4, 1993 -- Football begins Big Ten play with a 38-20 win over Minnesota in Beaver Stadium.
Sept. 18, 1994 -- Penn State's women's soccer team plays its first Big Ten conference game. The Nittany Lions have won each of the last nine Big Ten championships.
March 12, 1994 -- The women's basketball team wins the first of its five Big Ten titles.
Nov. 26, 1994 -- The football team defeats Michigan State 59-31 at home to cap an 11-0 regular season and its first Big Ten championship.
(Big dreams series continues Monday and Tuesday.)