February 21, 2018

Run Big

The Big Ten 10k challenges runners to don the colors of their favorite Big Ten school and run six miles along Chicago’s lakefront in the very early morning and rewards competitors with bananas, beer, bratwursts and at least a few jokes about Notre Dame.
Those jokes went something like this: “Sure I got into Notre Dame.  No you didn’t.”

As the thousands of runners stretched and chatted in the corrals before the race began they were encouraged by an energetic chap with a megaphone to shout their school spirit: “Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State!”  Joyous cheers erupted each time except for when some obnoxious sort shouted “Rutgers and Maryland” and was slapped with a wet sock.

If the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins have any fears about joining the Big Ten, which now has 14 schools, they would have been allayed by watching this collection of pasty kids traverse Chicago’s streets like farmers at a casino.

Big Ten fans run like Big Ten teams play.  They.  Plod.  Deliberately.  Intensely.  Constantly.  Watching Big Ten fans run is like listening to SEC fans read.  They’ll get there, but it’s painful.

Speaking of the SEC, the running times for the Big Ten 10k might have been a bit more impressive if the SEC 10K had been taking place directly behind it.  Alas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, LSU and, for that matter, Stanford, USC and the ghosts of the Rhein Fire don’t dwell in the Big Ten’s world.  They run their course and play their game in the faraway, magical and very, very fast and unforgiving land of Saban and Clowney.

The SEC is Jennifer Aniston. The Big Ten is Lisa Kudrow.

No, that’s not right.

The SEC is Bar Refaeli and the Big Ten is that fat kid who got to make out with her during that disturbingly tantalizing Super Bowl commercial.  Few people know that the super model and the fat geek had sex after that commercial and made a baby named “Arena.”

There was a time when Big Ten football teams were on par with, or maybe even superior to during a given season, schools from the Southeastern Conference.  There was also a time when the sun never set on the British Empire and Johnny Manziel went to church.

The SEC has won every football National Championship since the 2006 season and the smart money says an SEC school will light a cigar again this January while the rest of the college football world is consoled by its job placement and complete sets of teeth.

What can the Big Ten, Notre Dame, Texas, or the Arizona Cardinals do to end the SEC’s stranglehold on amateur football supremacy?  Do they need faster players?  Angrier coaches?  Better facilities?  Fatter boosters?  Slimmer cheerleaders?  Looser rules?

The answer was not found on a summer morning in Chicago.  There was sweat, shiny medals and charming Midwestern merriment but no ladders to climb the wall, no slingshot to topple the giant and no mustard for the bratwurst.

But it’s still only summer.



The Getting Bigger Ten

Thanksgiving should be about being appreciative of family, friends and freedom.  Instead, it’s more about food and football.

That’s perfectly fine, not just because “f” is everyone’s favorite letter, but also due to the fact that the Big Ten epitomizes the modern spirit by gorging itself on ripe little football schools that, to most observers, would not appear to be terribly appetizing.  However, Maryland and Rutgers went down nicely with a little butter and gravy and are now part of an expanding collegiate sports empire as the Big Ten pats its stomach, lights a cigar, and farts all over tradition and convention.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a conference called the “Big Ten” having 14 teams but there is something increasingly odd and incongruous to it.  When Penn State joined two decades ago it seemed weird to have a decidedly Eastern school sitting at a table of Midwesterners but hey, it was Penn State, back when those two words translated into “great football” and not “ugly scandal.”

It was the same when Nebraska joined the party, but at least Nebraska is considered by some to be part of the Midwest (but try telling that to someone from Kalamazoo and you might be subjected to a randy Haiku and a cheek-pinch so be careful) and it’s tough to misstep by welcoming a school that has a trophy case full of Heismans, National Championships and autographed photos of Max Baer.

But now Maryland and Rutgers want to play, and it feels like Thanksgiving, 1997 when you walked into the dining room and were greeted by two homeless guys your parents got talked into inviting after a drunken night of bingo and charades in the church basement.

When it comes to football, Maryland is best known as a school that used to be good in basketball.  The Terrapins are 4-7 this year, were 2-10 last year, 9-4 in 2010 and 2-10 in 2009.  Hey! They are a Big Ten team!

Rutgers is 9-1 this season and has a had a winning record nearly every year this decade but there’s still the troubling matter that the football team stole its nickname, “The Scarlet Knights,” from a character on a 1980s prime time soap opera.

What Maryland and Rutgers lack in pigskin legacy they provide in geographic opportunity.  The Big Ten now gets to stretch its recruiting fingers and sponsorship possibilities for the lucrative Big Ten Network from the plains of Nebraska, to the shores of Maryland, to the golden roads of New Jersey.

It has been documented several times, including in an article posted this week on “Grantland,” that the Big Ten, despite being a punching bag on the football field compared to the SEC, annually brings in as much money if not more than the mighty conference down south, much of that thanks to the BTN.  Now, with ad dollars coming in from two more large metropolitan areas, the Big Ten will continue to roll in the coin even while getting eaten alive in the Rose Bowl.

What’s next for the conference of on-campus farms, stately fraternity houses and the pastiest cheerleaders outside of Northern Europe?  Will the Big Ten absorb Notre Dame?  Texas Tech?  Newfoundland?  Perhaps the conference that Hayes built and Schembechler ruled will adhere to manifest destiny and welcome Boise State, Stanford and Guam A&M.

May the sun never set on Big Ten football.  May mediocrity and polarity proliferate.  May Brent Musburger be at the call for fullback dives and snowglobe homecomings. Ride the expansion wave.  Pick your teeth with the past and then go back for seconds.