July 28, 2011

New era dawns for Big Ten

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CHICAGO - Welcome, officially, to the new Big Ten.

The name hasn't changed - it never will - but the configuration has with the addition of Nebraska, pushing the Big Ten to 12 teams and two divisions. The league had its first event as a 12-team conference Thursday with the start of Big Ten Media Days.

With the addition of the 12th team comes a league title game.

"I think it will mean more pressure for coaches," Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said. "It used to be Michigan-Ohio State. Now, just to win your division, you have to be a really good team."

In addition to coaching Indiana (2002-04), DiNardo led programs at Vanderbilt (1991-94) and LSU (1995-99) in the 12-team, two-division SEC, which set the template for modern conference alignment.

"When the Big Ten split into two divisions, it said there were four programs that historically have been the best," DiNardo said. "They took Ohio State and Penn State and put them on one side and Michigan and Nebraska on the other. The question to the fan bases: How often would you expect your school to win its division?

"Fans will say: 'Do you mean we can't be the best of six?' It's an entirely different mind-set. Once that mind-set is ingrained, I think the only way you can win your division on a regular basis is to out-recruit your division."

As with DiNardo, Illinois coach Ron Zook is well-versed in 12-team, two-division football, having been an assistant (1991-95) and coach (2002-04) at Florida.

"I think the whole thing is exciting for the league, exciting for all the fans," Zook said. "It used to be one of your primary goals was to win the Big Ten Conference. If you win, you're going to have an opportunity to play for it all. That's the way the conference is.

"Now with the championship game, obviously your first goal is to get to the championship game. You cannot win the Big Ten Conference unless you get to the championship game and obviously win the championship game. Those things, it's going to create more excitement."

Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez disagrees that this new-age Big Ten will make for a more pressure-packed environment for coaches.

"There always is pressure on these coaches," says Alvarez, who won three Rose Bowls as Badgers coach from 1990-2005. "You can see it in the turnover in the league.

"I don't think that this adds any more pressure. You can be a 9-3 team and be a pretty good squad and be a 10-2 team and not win your division."

Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason, who played at Ohio State and coached at Minnesota, doesn't buy the "more pressure" argument, either.

"I don't think it adds more," said Mason, who went 64-57 as Gophers coach from 1997-2006 and also coached Kansas when the Big 12 was born. "The teams that have traditionally played for championships and won championships, it's not going to be much different.

"I think it gives some other teams maybe a chance to get to elite status just by winning their half. I was at Minnesota for 10 years, and I would think that if Minnesota could win its half of the division that people would be pretty happy about that regardless of what happened in that next game."

But Alvarez thinks too much can be made of just winning your division and not the league title game.

"To win the league, you still have to win," he said. "If you win your division, you still have to go beat someone else. I think there is little concession saying that you just won your division and lost the championship game. You still are trying to win the championship. The ultimate is winning a championship, not your division."

DiNardo is interested in seeing how recruiting is going to go.

"We learned from the SEC when it went to two, six-team divisions that as intense as recruiting had been, it got more intense with divisions," DiNardo said. "If I am Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, I think you have to be in the top 10 in recruiting classes every year. Wisconsin and Iowa have to be in the top 15."

More pressure to win may result in coaches getting less time to win.

"I think [new Michigan coach] Brady Hoke has a tougher job than Bo Schembechler, (Gary) Moeller and (Lloyd) Carr," DiNardo said. '[Nebraska's Bo] Pelini has a tougher job than [Bob] Devaney or [Tom] Osborne.

"They all are good coaches, so the only answer is to get better players. The only way to get better players is probably to get into the hunt for some kids you didn't want to get into the hunt with in the past."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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