'Too good to pass up': Ohio State AD Gene Smith said Big Ten expansion not a response to SEC
When the Big Ten’s presidents and chancellors voted to admit Southern California and UCLA as members this week, it positioned itself as the second megaconference in college football.
Last summer, the Southeastern Conference poached Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 to become the first Power Five league with 16 teams.
But Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said the addition of the Los Angeles-based schools was not a counteraction.
“We weren't doing it in response to the SEC,” Smith said. “We were doing it for our needs.”
In a joint news conference held with university president Kristina M. Johnson on Friday morning, the school leaders confirmed negotiations between the Big Ten and USC and UCLA did not begin with their league.
Johnson said the Pac-12’s flagship programs approached the Big Ten about membership before submitting formal applications on Thursday.
Why is UCLA and USC leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten?
Financial issues related to the Pac-12 Networks had long plagued the conference and left USC and UCLA with depressed media rights payouts despite being situated in the second-largest television market in the U.S.
Their applications were essentially fast-tracked. Commissioner Kevin Warren called for a teleconference of member schools to consider their bids and review the league’s admission criteria. A vote was held hours later. It was unanimous.
“With two institutions that culturally fit us,” Smith said, “it was too good to pass up.”
USC and UCLA two of the most successful west coast programs
The Trojans and Bruins are among the nation’s winningest athletic programs, especially in the top-two revenue-generating sports. USC is considered a traditional blue-blood in football, while UCLA has won a record 11 NCAA championships in men’s basketball.
Johnson also pointed out that they are among the 65 research schools within the Association of American Universities, a status that has often been a priority for the Big Ten when considering expansion candidates.
All Big Ten schools belong to the AAU with the exception of Nebraska, which lost its membership in 2011 after being admitted to the conference months earlier.
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“I don't think everybody realizes sometimes that the Big Ten, in addition to a great athletic conference, is a great academic conference,” said Johnson, who felt the new schools added to Ohio State’s research peers.
The annexation of USC and UCLA comes at a critical juncture for the Big Ten, which is in negotiations for a new television agreement after its current deal expires next year.
The media rights payouts for schools such as Ohio State will increase substantially, part of a deal that is expected to rival the SEC’s existing deal with ESPN.
In addition to growing revenues, Smith said the move to 16 schools puts the conference in a better position to send more teams to the College Football Playoff.
“Those outcomes are real,” Smith said. “Certainly it aligns us more with the SEC. That’s an outcome. But it wasn’t a driving force.”
Smith felt too that the Big Ten and SEC had already established themselves as the premier conferences in college football over other Power Five leagues.
One of the biggest implications of expansion remains the decline in regionalism as a tenant within college football.
For much of the sport’s history, conferences were confined to certain pockets of the country and rarely featured more than a dozen schools.
Now as soon as 2024, the Big Ten will span coast to coast.
It was a seismic shift that weighed on Johnson as she voted in favor of extending membership to USC and UCLA on Thursday night.
“We understand how game-changing this is,” Johnson said, “so it wasn't taken lightly. The presidents had a great discussion. At the end of the day, we think this is the best thing for our student-athletes and it's the best thing for the Big Ten.”
Speculation over future expansion possibilities has only continued in the wake of the latest moves, a possibly neither Johnson nor Smith ruled out.
“I’d be surprised if this was the last move made nationally,” Johnson said, “but it’s too early to tell right now.”
When asked about the future options for the Big Ten, Smith lamented not having a crystal ball.
“I think we’re obviously in an unbelievably crazy time in college athletics,” Smith said, “with many parts and things to be decided.”
Some have surmised Pac-12 schools such as Oregon, Stanford and Washington might be potential additions since they’d give USC and UCLA other partners on the West Coast to help with travel logistics.
“I don’t know,” Smith said. “I really don’t. Obviously the landscape will continue to change.”
Would Notre Dame be a possibility?
The Big Ten has before previously targeted one of college football’s most storied programs.
But the Fighting Irish have prized their independence and kept from joining any league as a full-time member.
Still, by scooping up USC, it would present Notre Dame a chance to link with its biggest rival.
“I’ve always thought they should be in a conference,” said Smith, a former defensive lineman for the Fighting Irish in the 1970s. “I hope that they’re considering that. I don’t know what a next step would be, but I hope they consider the opportunity and I hope it’s the Big Ten.”