It all seemed so neat and tidy last December—so final. The presidents of the Big Ten universities invited Penn State to become the easternmost member of what would presumably be called the Big Eleven. Flushed with gratitude, the Nittany Lions accepted. Press releases were distributed, toasts drunk, and fond visions entertained of a certain bespectacled Italian-American coach, pants rolled up to midshin, pacing a sideline at the Rose Bowl.
Today, 17 weeks later, this scenario is far less certain to become a reality. According to sources in the Big Ten, the admission of Penn State into the venerable conference is now only slightly better than a 50-50 proposition. "The announcement conveyed that this was a done deal," says Michigan president James Duderstadt. "It is not."
"I'm assuming it's a done deal," says Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. "They made an invitation, and we accepted in good faith."
Between these disparate perceptions lurks the potential for profound disappointment for Penn State, and embarrassment for the Big Ten, wrought of a power struggle between its members' presidents and athletic directors.
"We certainly didn't mean to walk Penn State out on a limb," says Duderstadt, although that is precisely what the presidents have done. Penn State officials are indignant about the Big Ten's waffling, but not enough to say, "Let's call the whole thing off." Outwardly at least, Paterno, the man most prominently identified with the Nittany Lions, has been a model of patient understanding. "I have complete empathy for the people who have to implement this," he says. "The Big Ten hasn't changed in 35 or 40 years [its current members have been together since Michigan State was added to the Big Nine—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin—in 1949], and all of a sudden here comes Penn State, and they've got to absorb us."
Or do they? The presidents of the Big Ten—or you may refer to them by their lofty collective title, Council of Ten—are now claiming that what they extended to Penn State last winter was merely an invitation "in principle," pending further review, although this review was barely mentioned at the time. Since the council proferred the invitation, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has appointed a 17-member transition-and-expansion committee comprised of athletic administrators and faculty members from all the conference schools, as well as conference staff, to study the feasibility of establishing a Big Eleven. The committee will issue its report in early June, at which time the presidents will either make the invitation official, postpone any decision until their semiannual meeting in December or scrap the idea altogether.
But it seems clear that the committee is belatedly studying what had already been decided and that the presidents may be backtracking on their commitment to Penn State. If you find this process vaguely boneheaded, you have several supporters among Big Ten athletic directors; "bassackwards" is how Minnesota athletic director Rick Bay describes the presidents' handling of the situation.
What Bay and his counterparts at most other Big Ten schools are especially ticked about is that the presidents acted without consulting them. On Dec. 3, the day before the council issued its invitation, outgoing Michigan State athletic director Doug Weaver met with the presidents. "I never did hear the words
," recalls Weaver. Ohio State athletic director Jim Jones learned of the conference's overtures to the Nittany Lions from the sports editor of his local paper. After the news broke, Michigan's lame-duck athletic director and football coach, Bo Schembechler, said, "This confirms the worst fear I have of presidents' getting too much control in athletics.... Not one athletic director was consulted on this matter. How can they do that?"
The haste with which the presidents acted has also rankled a lot of Big Ten faculty representatives (who represent the academic point of view in league affairs). Like the athletic directors, they have experienced a certain left-out feeling. Until recently, faculty reps were accustomed to having considerable say in important decisions, reflected in the fact that until 1987 the Big Ten was formally known as the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives. That year the presidents incorporated the conference and vested absolute power in themselves as part of a long-overdue move by university presidents across the country to take control of their athletic departments. But in asserting themselves, the presidents—and not only those in the Big Ten—have met with stubborn resistance from athletic directors and faculty reps jealously guarding their turf. Thus, Penn State finds itself caught between rival forces, nervously awaiting the outcome of the Big Ten's intramural struggle.
Given how the athletic directors and faculty representatives were bypassed in December, it isn't surprising that the transition committee has unearthed a number of impediments to the proposed addition of the Nittany Lions. The strongest complaint is one that has been voiced to the press by Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight: " Penn State's a camping trip. There's nothing for about 100 miles." Knight isn't entirely wrong. State College, Pa., is 1,468 miles from Minneapolis, the westernmost city in the Big Ten, 1,030 from Iowa City and 522 from East Lansing, Mich. Since athletes in nonrevenue sports (in the Big Ten, everything except football and basketball) usually travel by van or bus, even outsiders might wonder how, in an era of academic reform, the Big Ten could justify making, say, the cross-country or wrestling team spend three full days away from classrooms journeying to a meet a thousand miles away.