Ron Zook Discusses Big Ten Expansion

Big Ten officials met for two days this week, and Commissioner Jim Delany gave a brief summation to the press afterward. Most questions centered on the hot topic of Big Ten expansion, but Delany gave only generalized responses. Illini football coach Ron Zook was at those meetings, but he knows little more than what Delany shared with the public.

Illinois coach Ron Zook met his local media Thursday to discuss his upcoming USO tour. But questions quickly centered on what the Big 10 Conference might do about expansion.

"He (Jim Delany) probably told the media as much as he told us. I said this to Coach (Ron) Guenther, it was amazing. We had all the national media there. I think inevitably expansion is gonna happen, but I still think we're a ways away. They're doing their due diligence, a lot of research on what makes the best sense for the Big 10 Conference."

The Big 10 Faculty Representatives will make the final decision without input from football or basketball coaches. Zook says this is no recent decision. They have been considering adding additional schools for a long time.

"One of the first things Commissioner Delany said was, we've been going through this question about expansion since 1991. I guess it was 1990 when Penn State came in. He said there was a two year moratorium in 1992 and 1993 where there wasn't gonna be expansion for at least two years."

Complicating the question of expansion is the changes required for upcoming schedules, whether there would be a playoff game, etc. But the bottom line is much more basic than that according to Zook.

"All the decisions, whether you talk about expansion or a championship game or how many games you play, it revolves around money."

Zook took part in the first ever college playoff game as defensive coordinator at Florida. If expansion occurs, Zook believes a playoff game is inevitable.

"I think if they expand they will eventually get to that. I was talking to Commissioner Delany on Monday. We played in the first one in 1992 against Alabama in Birmingham, and it was like $14-15 million. It was a money thing. Now you're talking about $150-160 million, and it's still a money thing."

He would be concerned about the negative ramifications for the student-athletes in terms of their academic needs and the wear and tear on their bodies. Not that he would have a voice in the decision.

"I would probably vote against it, to be honest with you. But we're gonna do whatever they tell us to do anyway.

"I remember, it might have been my first or second year I came into the Big Ten, we brought up about going to 12 games a year. Now, if you have a championship game, you're going to 14 games a year with a championship game and a bowl game."

Zook knows no specifics, but he believes expansion will be a much bigger deal than adding one additional school. If so, a championship game will have to follow.

"I think it's inevitable it's gonna happen. I think probably the expansion will be more than what people think, possibly 16 teams. If it got to be a big thing, then you would probably see a championship game because you wouldn't play everybody. You'd wonder who the best in the conference was.

"We're gonna do whatever they decide we're gonna do. I've heard talk of 16 with four four-team divisions, and it would rotate like the NFL."

A championship game would bring in much additional money for the conference. But the real money-maker, the main reason for expansion, is the Big Ten Network.

"I don't think a playoff game is the big thing (behind expansion). I think the Big Ten Network is really the thing that's gonna drive this thing, more than a championship game."

There has been speculation about the conference expanding both East and West. Delany mentioned the South as a possibility because of its increasing population density.

"Some people have mentioned Vanderbilt," Zook adds. "Atlanta is easy to get in and out of. I've heard Maryland, obviously Virginia. I would have to believe it's gonna be a school that's an accredited institution. That's big with the faculty reps, who kind of run the conference. So that's gonna have a big thing to do with it as well."

Even schools as far away as Texas are possibilities. Distances are great, but Zook doesn't believe that would be a deal-breaker. He believes college athletics could be in for major changes if this all comes about.

"It's a long way to Penn State too. The biggest thing as you look at expansion, it will change the landscape of college athletics. Not the Big Ten necessarily, but say it goes to 16 teams. Some of these conferences are changing. Whether it be the Big East or ACC or SEC or Big 12, somebody's gonna change."

Zook was also asked about going to a nine game conference schedule. An odd number of conference games would mean having only four home games on alternate years. However, nonconference opponents are demanding increasing revenue in return for scheduling games with the Big Ten.

"This was never brought up one time these last two days with the football coaches, but I wouldn't be surprised if they go to nine games. So now you can set prices. Some of the prices the 1-AA teams are asking, they're going to the highest bidder. I'm sure in the back of the athletic directors' minds, they'd rather give it to the conference as opposed to giving it to somebody else."

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