The Big Ten and Midwestern Identity

Why college sports should stop messing with the Big Ten


In the Midwest, we don't have damp, blustery fall days: We have Big Ten weather. We don't have mammoth land-grant universities: We have Big Ten schools. You may insult our climate, our politicians, or our Miss America contestants, but not the Big Ten.

Right now, people in high positions are talking about expanding the nation's oldest collegiate athletic conference. What they may overlook is that it's not just a sports association. It's an identity in a region that needs one.

New Englanders know where New England starts and ends. Southerners have been sticking together since before the Civil War. The residents of Seattle and the people of San Diego all have the Pacific Ocean in common.

But the Midwest is harder to define. Midwesterners have a vague sense of it, which is reflected in, and validated by, the historic reach of the Big Ten.

There are few things that create a sense of common cause in this part of the country. From Manhattan or Malibu, it may look like an unvarying mass of stolid, overall-wearing meatloaf eaters, but underneath our placid exterior, deep differences abound.

The inhabitants of Madison, Wis., don't vote like the citizens of Terra Haute, Ind. The accents in northern Minnesota bear no resemblance to those heard in southern Illinois. Parts of Michigan get 20 feet of snow in a typical winter, while Cincinnati is lucky to get two.

You will not find many parents in Council Bluffs, Iowa, sending their children to receive a higher education in Columbus, Ohio. But on a fall afternoon, a lot of them can tell you whether Ohio State won or lost.

Other Americans want nothing more than to go to heaven. A Midwesterner is someone who would trade it for a trip to the Rose Bowl.

The advocates of conference realignment, however, are willing to blow up this comfortable, unifying framework. In pursuit of more television exposure and revenue, they are casting their eyes far beyond our region to identify potential new members.

Among the schools mentioned as possible additions are ones where most students couldn't find Minnesota on a map, such as Rutgers, Syracuse, Connecticut, and Texas. Any of these additions would be as natural as the Tea Party nominating Nancy Pelosi. The first three belong to the Eastern seaboard. The Big Ten is the heartland.

Texas? Why, of course. And while we're at it, let's grant statehood to Guam. Bringing in the Longhorns would be like releasing alligators in Duluth, Minn.: not comfortable for either party.

The Big Ten already has some experience with trampling over its natural boundaries, from admitting Penn State in 1990. Nothing against the Nittany Lions, but it was a mistake.

Penn State is now and will always be the equivalent of your cousin's ex-husband who keeps on coming to the family reunion 20 years after the divorce. He's greeted politely then but forgotten any other time. But what good could have come from squeezing 11 schools into a conference with "Ten" in its name?

The battle to keep the Big Ten at 10 is lost, but a few rules should guide any expansion. If your students can harvest oysters without leaving the state, you are not a Big Ten school. If they can leave class and be standing in a cornfield within 20 minutes, you are.

Does summer smell like salt water? Out. Is it fragrant with cow manure? In. Mountains and beaches? Let's think about this. Flat vistas that go on longer than the Academy Awards telecast? Now we're talking.

The University of Missouri is located in a state that had slavery, which is not a Midwestern thing, but it stayed in the Union, which is. Lots of people in Iowa and Illinois already feel an affinity because they root for the St. Louis Cardinals and share the Mississippi River.

Nebraska and Iowa State? Their athletes wouldn't need cultural orientation classes to prepare for trips to West Lafayette, Ind. Notre Dame, as everyone else knows, is a Big Ten school that just refuses to accept its obvious destiny.

In the end, there is something inseparable between the conference and the region where it grew up, and we tinker with it at our peril. So my advice to university presidents: If your students are happy to be called Midwesterners, you belong in the Big Ten. If they would take it as an affront, look elsewhere.