AN OPEN LETTER TO BIG TEN COMMISSIONER JIM DELANY
August 25, 2010
Mr. James E. Delany
Big Ten Conference
1500 West Higgins Road
Park Ridge, IL 60068-6300
Re: “What would Bo and Woody do?”
Dear Mr. Delany:
With all the rumors going around, I am writing to tell you how distraught I am that you are even thinking of putting Michigan and Ohio State in separate divisions and moving The Game to earlier in the season. I have been a season ticket holder for 16 years and a huge Michigan fan since I was a boy. That said, I will spare you the talk about tradition and try to persuade you that, solely from a national interest and marketing perspective, Michigan and Ohio State should be placed in the same division and The Game should continue to be held on the final week of the regular season (or as close thereto as possible).
Michigan-Ohio State has developed over the past 40 years into THE college sports rivalry. No one sat down and came up with a formula or marketing plan to make it happen. It started with Bo and Woody in 1969 and grew organically into something extremely special. Alabama-Auburn doesn’t have it. Florida-Tennessee doesn’t either. Notre Dame-Southern Cal comes close, but still falls short. Even Texas-Oklahoma, albeit a significant national game very recently, has not held close to the same national interest historically. You cannot create a rivalry like The Game by trying. It just happens. And the idea that the B10 now thinks it can “tweak” the rivalry for marketing purposes is, well, so obviously a bad one, I cannot believe it is not immediately apparent to everyone.
If the goal is to have two Michigan-Ohio State games each year, please reconsider how “great” an idea you actually think that is. First of all, a Michigan-Ohio State rematch might not happen very often (see Miami-Florida State). If that is the case, then you will have substantially reduced the national significance of The Game for no benefit whatsoever. I am not speaking about regional interest, which will always exist, but national interest. The Game will become just another Alabama-Auburn or Cal-Stanford. Second, if a rematch happens too frequently, everyone will bemoan the fact that the two teams are playing twice far too often. Due to the frequency, the novelty of the rematches will wear off rather quickly. Moreover, the regular season game will lose much of its significance because the implications of the B10 Championship game will be far greater (i.e., the winner will go to either the Rose Bowl or BCS Championship). Thus, from a national perspective, the whole idea of trying to double the value of The Game by setting up two Michigan-Ohio State head-to-heads each year is fundamentally flawed from the start.
Additionally, consider the three modern examples of how major rivalries have fared as conferences have moved to divisions over the past 20 years. One (Texas-Oklahoma) has been successful while the other two (Oklahoma-Nebraska and Miami-Florida State) have failed miserably. The Texas-Oklahoma rivalry works because every year the two teams have to go through each other to reach the B12 Championship game. It is a battle to the death for the B12 South. If anything, that rivalry has thrived by having both teams in the same division. In contrast, the Oklahoma-Nebraska and Miami-Florida State rivalries are all but dead except for whatever regional attraction they still hold. The only thing I can think of that could possibly enhance the current Texas-Oklahoma rivalry would be if they moved it to the final week of the B12 regular season. With the B12’s new round robin format, I would not be surprised to see that conference attempt to do something along those lines in the next few years. How ironic would it be to watch The Game lose much of its luster and the Red River Rivalry take its place in part because the B12 successfully copied some of the key elements of The Game and the B10 abandoned them?
My strong suggestion would be to leave Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State in the Eastern Division along with Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana. Yes, this is the plain old geographic solution (not intentionally and, if need be, the bottom three teams of each division could be moved around to optimize rivalries), but sometimes the simplest answers are actually the best. The combination of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa in the Western Division should be, in most if not all years, sufficient to provide the heft and gravitas necessary to guarantee that every B10 Championship game will be competitive. Moreover, over the past 10 years, it cannot be denied that the trio of Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota have been a stronger “bottom three” than Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana. Should Illinois rebound even partly from its recent slump, the Western Division actually could develop into the tougher of the two divisions from top to bottom. Under this relatively uncomplicated divisional alignment, the B10 would still have The Game, unadulterated, not watered-down, possibly even during the final week of the regular season, and the B10 also would have a great new B10 Championship game that would frequently showcase the winner of The Game as the representative of the Eastern Division.
Finally, and this is not a threat but a sincere caution, if the B10 chooses to drastically change The Game and that decision turns out badly, like it or not, whatever else you do will be largely viewed through the prism of that legacy. You will not be remembered primarily for enhancing the B10 academically or athletically. You will not be remembered primarily for having the courage and foresight to launch the Big Ten Network or for expanding the B10 with the brilliant addition of Nebraska. You will be remembered primarily as the key decision-maker who thought he was smarter than everyone else and who, as a result, inadvertently destroyed the greatest rivalry in college sports in a misguided attempt to make the richest conference in the country just a little bit richer. I do not think I would want to risk that as my legacy if I had any other reasonable option. I am absolutely certain I would not want to try to explain it to Bo and Woody when the time comes.
In sum, the far more responsible and less risky decision is to leave Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State together in the Eastern Division. If the B10 does that and it turns out that one division is consistently stronger than the other, no one will blame the conference for revisiting the decision and rebalancing the divisions in five or six years (or whenever conference expands again). However, if geographic divisions work reasonably well, the B10 will have avoided the risk of splitting Michigan and Ohio State and moving The Game – something that carries dubious marketing value at best and unquestionably goes against all sense of tradition and history. Notwithstanding the best intentions, by substantially playing around with the magic that is The Game, the B10 risks irrevocably damaging its unparalleled national appeal and could actually kill the goose the laid the golden egg. Such a drastic step should be considered only as an unavoidable last resort.
Michigan Law ‘91