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Sunday, August 14, 2022

UCLA, USC join Big Ten to generate TV ratings, revenue: Dan McGrath

With Thursday’s stunning disclosure that the University of Southern California and UCLA are Big Ten-bound, perhaps as soon as 2024, the Pac-12, a storied institution Bill Walton grandly refers to as the “Conference of Champions,” has lost its football and basketball anchors.

The similarly jilted Big 12 has known the feeling since Texas and Oklahoma decided to elope to the mighty Southeastern Conference, which had already pilfered Texas A&M and Missouri. 

Thus the Power Five fault line on which big-time college sports has been teetering is about to become the Power Three. The Pac-12 without USC and UCLA? The Big 12 without Texas and Oklahoma? Think of the American League without the Yankees or the NFL without the Bears.

Bulky and inefficient at 15 teams, the Atlantic Coast Conference is the least powerful of the remaining three, and that’s fitting in a way because it was the ACC that escalated this relocation frenzy when it raided the Big East for Boston College, Miami, Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

Boy, nothing whispers of soft Atlantic breezes or romps along an ocean beach like Pittsburgh … unless it’s Syracuse.

Geographic rivalries? Tradition? Hang them in the closet next to your raccoon coat. It’s all about TV sets, baby. TV sets that translate into ratings, and ratings into cash money.

Jim Delany, who became college sports’ ultimate power broker while running the Big 10/12/14 as its commissioner, saw a “survival of the fittest” mentality taking over college sports and was determined to keep his group relevant by expanding its footprint. He grew tired of waiting for Notre Dame and Texas, but Penn State made sense as a football powerhouse from an adjoining state, as did Nebraska for much the same reason.    

But Rutgers? Maryland? Delany was candid about his intentions: He wanted in on the New York and Washington TV markets … even though most people in New York don’t know where or what Rutgers is.

Had he known USC and UCLA might one day be available, you think Delany might have asked for a do-over on Rutgers and Maryland? Flashy new members aside, the Big Sixteen looks like a sloppily overstuffed chair, unwieldy and not especially comfortable. 

But a football roster of Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin, UCLA, Michigan State, Purdue and Nebraska should provide plenty of good games. Kevin Warren, who succeeded Delany in 2019, has outdone him as a driver of manifest destiny. And ten teams—what a concept! Somebody ought to start a league!

Notre Dame would be a terrific fit in this mix, but the Irish made a deal that commits them to five yawner-heavy ACC games annually in exchange for full conference membership for other ND sports. Sometimes the smartest guys out-think themselves. 

Let us pause to remember the Rose Bowl, which has pretty much been without its Big Ten-Pac-10 cachet since the Bowl Championship Series took over college football’s postseason. Now it’s probably gone for good, and that’s sad.

To us numb Midwesterners hunkered down in search of warmth each frigid New Year’s Day, the Rose Bowl meant bright skies, shirt-sleeved crowds, the beauty of the San Gabriel Mountains, the allure of sunny California and a quite often a blowout win by a Pac-10 team that had discovered this gimmick called the forward pass …  

Despite that history, in my years out West the Rose Bowl was the one event I tried to see in person each year, even though the result was usually predictable and occasionally amusing. After USC held a powerful but plodding Michigan team to 10 points in the 1979 game, the L.A. Times’ Jim Murray wrote that the Wolverines “were so committed to the ground they went back to Ann Arbor by bus.” 

It was a simpler time. 

Crain’s contributing columnist Dan McGrath is president of Leo High School in Chicago and a former Chicago Tribune sports editor.

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