Friday, May 1, 2009

JoePa's good idea (seriously)

I can't say I was entirely surprised when Joe Paterno awoke from his old-man slumber Thursday and revealed that he didn't do any real coaching during Penn State's run to the Rose Bowl last year. Anyone who saw JoePa sitting in the press box for much of last season -- often not even wearing a headset -- had probably come to the realization that he is, at this point, basically just a figurehead.

But what was very interesting was Paterno's sudden outspokenness about the Big Ten's need to add a 12th team, something that's come up occasionally but has never (to my knowledge) been a serious topic of discussion.

The reason usually cited for a possible expansion is money; the addition of a 12th team would allow a conference championship game, something every conference wants because it creates a boost in revenue without raising any ticket prices. But JoePa's reasoning was a bit different:
"We go into hiding for six weeks," Paterno said, referring to the hiatus between the end of the Big Ten regular season and the BCS bowls."Everybody else is playing playoffs on television. You never see a Big Ten team mentioned. So I think that's a handicap."
First, let me say this: He's 100% right. Ever since November of 2006, when Michigan lost to Ohio State and then remained No. 2 for two weeks -- only to be jumped by Florida after Gary Danielson's embarrassing tongue-bathing of all things SEC during that conference's championship game -- it's been obvious that the Big Ten's rule requiring teams to be finished before Thanksgiving is exactly what Paterno said it is -- a handicap.

You can't sit on the sidelines for two weeks while everyone else is facing off in marquee games and realistically expect to maintain your spot in the polls. It's just human nature that the team that's been most impressive MOST RECENTLY will get a majority of the attention, and the Big Ten will always be at a disadvantage in that regard because of its scheduling regulations.

So it's good that a guy with as much respect as JoePa finally spoke out, because you'd assume that something might actually get done. Even if it's not expansion, maybe the conference presidents would at least look into extending the schedule ... right?

"You know, it's a conference that's dominated by a couple of people," Paterno said. "If I start talking, they're polite, but they snicker. They don't know I know they're snickering, but they're polite. ... I wish I were younger and going to be around [another] 20 years."

Wow. To me, the fact that even a guy like Paterno gets nothing but "snickers" for an expansion suggestion shows that the Big Ten isn't taking the idea seriously at all. It's not like he's calling for something wild and controversial here -- we're to the point where half (three of six) of the BCS conferences have championship games.

Do I want a championship game? Not really, since the entire concept is built on money. But the championship game isn't the issue -- it's whether the fans and school presidents want a highly ranked Big Ten team to receive equal consideration to the top teams from other conferences late in the season.

There are two options here (well, three if you include keeping the status quo):

  1. Try to pry away a fairly prominent school from another conference (Pitt, Rutgers and Notre Dame are most commonly mentioned), divide into two divisions and play a title game.
  2. Scrap the rule that requires all Big Ten games to be played before Thanksgiving.

The whole "which team should join the Big Ten" discussion has been played out ad nauseum on numerous sites, but let's be realistic. The Big East would fight tooth-and-nail to keep its eight teams (any fewer and it would lose its BCS auto-bid, if I'm not mistaken), and because of the money Notre Dame brings in through its NBC deal and BCS contract, the Irish will never, ever, ever join a football conference.

And really, once you get past those teams, you're really digging deep for an Iowa State or some other mediocre school that doesn't bring much of anything to the table.

My feeling is this: If the conference isn't serious about going after one of the big-name schools as part of an expansion plan, the Thanksgiving deadline has to go.There's no real reason that Michigan-Ohio State and Penn State-Michigan State can't play on the last Saturday in November -- in fact, it'd probably be beneficial to those teams to have the option of scheduling bye weeks.

Big Ten teams don't currently have that option, as there are only 12 weeks available in which to schedule 12 total games. USC, on the other hand, can schedule about three bye weeks per year, give the players a break at appropriate times and wrap up on the last weekend of the regular season. That's the way it should be done.

Either way, though, something has to happen in order for Big Ten teams to have a realistic hope of maintaining their place atop the polls late in the season -- even a guy who's almost 90 can recognize that.

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