Today, for only the third time in almost a century, the Big Ten will officially admit another university to the league. Nebraska left the Big Eight conference to start playing Big Ten football this fall.
The Cornhuskers will receive a slice of the much bigger Big Ten TV pie, but that might not be the best reason to join.
To celebrate Nebraska joining the nation’s oldest conference, the Big Ten Network will be kicking off three days of non-stop programming. Now I’m the kind of guy who might actually watch three days of non-stop programming about the Cornhuskers, but you might have other priorities this holiday weekend.
So, I’m here to tell you what you need to know in three easy minutes.
Adding Nebraska is nothing but good for the Big Ten, which needs 12 teams to host a lucrative conference championship game. Nebraska’s football program is one of the most successful and respected in the nation, and their fans are gracious in victory or defeat. They have class.
They’re based in Lincoln, and their most famous alum is a guy named Warren Buffett, who still sits with the common folk in the cheap seats.
The Bo Schembechler of Nebraska football is Tom Osborne. He took over in
1974 1973, after his mentor retired with three two national titles in his last four three years. But Osborne had to wait a decade for his first chance at a national crown. He finally got it in the Orange Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes, the anti-matter of the conservative, corny Cornhuskers. The ‘Canes engaged in toxic levels of trash talk, and were led by Jimmy Johnson*, who now shills for a “male enhancement” product called ExtenZe.
The Cornhuskers, in contrast, celebrate their touchdowns by handing the ball to the referee. Whether ahead by thirty or down by three, Osborne looked about as animated as a flight attendant explaining how to buckle your seatbelt. When Osborne retired, he skipped pitching for ExtenZe to become a Congressman – though, given recent Congressional photo scandals, maybe that’s a wash.
But under the surface, Osborne was surprisingly bold. In the final moments of that 1984 national title game against Miami, he decided not to kick the easy extra point for a tie – which would have secured his first national title – and instead went for the riskier two-point conversion to win. It failed, they lost, and Osborne had to wait another decade to win his first national title. But recently he explained that playing for a tie would have been insulting to his players and the people of Nebraska, who appreciate good football, and he would never vote for a team that played for a tie. In my book, that’s pretty cool.
By joining the Big Ten, Nebraska will get more money, more fans, and more visitors. David Byrne of Talking Heads once wrote that no one pays money to see flat landscape – and Nebraska is so flat, you can see three state capitols just by standing on a park bench. But people will pay to see great football.
Nebraska is a solid school, but ranks in the Big Ten’s lower half academically. Fewer than half its students graduate. This gives rise to an old joke: What does the “N” on Nebraska’s helmet stand for? Knowledge.
But, in joining the Big Ten, Nebraska’s faculty is automatically admitted to the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, or CIC, which provides a big boost to the Big Ten’s big research universities. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten twenty years ago, its research income has tripled, to $780 million.
Nebraska is not the first school to leverage football to improve its academics. Chicago, Notre Dame, and Michigan State, among others, have all done it, and done it quite well.
Twenty years from now, the N on Nebraska’s helmet might stand for Nobel laureates – and the joke will be on the Big Eight schools Nebraska just left behind.
*Correction: The Miami Hurricanes were coached in that 1984 Orange Bowl game by Howard Schnellenberger, not Jimmy Johnson.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009.