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Winning Respect: Despite early concerns, Penn State's entry to the Big Ten has paid dividends on and off the field

by on August 31, 2017 12:16 PM

The Penn State football lifer doubted moving to the Big Ten.

Brad “Spider” Caldwell has always breathed football in State College, once as a student, then as a longtime equipment manager, and now as a facilities coordinator.

The promise and yet uncertainty of joining a league shook him, as it did many others, nearly three decades ago.

“Just for the attitude, I liked being an independent,” Caldwell says, remembering back. “Did we really need to be part of this? I felt like we were the fifth wheel. We were the 11 in that logo and felt like the oddball out. It really was an unknown.”

Caldwell would learn of Penn State’s vast economic gain from joining the Big Ten. He knew of the tradition and even the stability of joining such a league during tenuous times.

He even gradually became friends with staff members from across the Big Ten, sharing protocol, problems, and experience. He knew it was probably the right decision for his university overall, one being honored as the Nittany Lions begin their 25th football season this fall in what has become arguably the most prestigious conference in America.

But he didn’t truly feel it until six years ago.

Caldwell points back to when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke and his head coach, Joe Paterno, was fired.

During those ensuing football road trips over the next two seasons, opposing staffs regularly reached out to him and his team upon arrival. He will never forget the scene at Ohio State in 2011.

He had tears loading the equipment truck that day. Everyone from the Ohio Stadium ushers to the equipment worker to the chain crew on the sidelines, “they were all sympathetic, and we beat them,” Caldwell says, still sounding a bit stunned. “They were patting us on the back after the game. ‘I can’t believe you guys came in here and beat us after what you went through.’ Nothing but respect.

“When you’re getting so many negative things, so much finger-pointing … and one of your enemies, your football rivals, greets you with open arms and gives you a guy hug and feels bad instead of joining in the with the finger-pointing? “That’s when I felt like, man, we really do belong.”

***

Penn State still stands as a powerful beacon in the ever-shifting world of college athletics.

The meeting that energized the dramatic change to come happened in the winter of 1989.

There, in a conference room at The Toftrees Resort and Conference Center, a handful of athletic officials, including Paterno and basketball coaches Bruce Parkhill and Rene Portland, met for hours discussing the possible historic shift to the Big Ten.

Penn State’s cash cow football program was finding it increasingly difficult to assemble a schedule as an independent. Its flexibility and power was in flux. Its revenue-producing strength, especially from TV, appeared unsteady.

Penn State needed a football conference.

Even though the Big Ten announced a shaky pro-Penn State vote in June 1990, those like Budd Thalman, former sports information department leader, felt it was the right decision, without question.

“There were benefits that went far beyond what it appeared on the surface,” says Thalman, now retired in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

He ticks off the usual factors such as increased publicity, shared revenue streams, joining a dynamic academic coalition, lower-profile sport and facility improvements, and bedrock stability amid the oncoming rush to align with conferences.

Plus, there’s this: “The money is nuts,” Thalman says.

Certainly, no place like in the Big Ten. Thanks to its recently-announced media-rights contract with ESPN, FOX Sports and CBS, and through Big Ten Network programming, each member school expects to earn more than $51 million in 2017-18 – up from about $35 million this past year.

Jim Delany was a new Big Ten commissioner when Penn State made its move. He said this as part of a Penn State sports information story two years ago:

“My view was that it was a tremendous fit for both sides. And history has proven that,” Delany said. “With all the other expansions around the country, I’m not sure there was one that benefitted both institution and conference as much as this did ...”

While football fans immersed themselves in debates over longer road trips and competing against Ohio State and Michigan, the surprising announcement in 1990 got plenty of other wheels turning.

Two Penn State coaches, Russ Rose with women’s volleyball and Char Morett-Curtiss with field hockey, say they knew their worlds would shift dramatically.

Joining the Big Ten made each sport fully-funded, adding assistant coaches and scholarships. More far-flung travel would mean flying instead of busing. Better competition and league cohesion would eventually upgrade their teams.

Women’s volleyball won Penn State’s first Big Ten title in 1992 – the first of 16. They’ve won seven national titles since 1999.

“We became mentally tougher because we had to play (stronger) teams on back-to-back nights, home and away,” Rose says. “We never would have achieved the success we have

achieved (without the Big Ten).”

Women’s soccer, meanwhile, has won a stunning 18 Big Ten titles, including 15 straight at one point, since becoming a varsity sport in 1994. Field hockey has earned a Big Ten-best seven league championships. Since hiring wrestling legend Cael Sanderson as head coach in 2009, Penn State has won six of the last seven national titles.

Penn State also recently checked in at No. 10 nationally in a Forbes.com list of the “25 schools that dominate athletically and academically,” just ahead of Notre Dame and just behind Princeton.

Joining the Big Ten also made Penn State a league partner in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, one of the world’s elite research consortiums. The organization was renamed The Big Ten Academic Alliance last year and boasts an annual research expenditure of more than $10 billion – more than the Ivy League and University of California system combined.

Certainly, the league’s profile has broadened and publicity has revved higher since the Big Ten Network was launched with the 2007 football season.

Exposure for lower-profile sports, in particular, has been huge, coaches say. The network’s national reach has ballooned from 17 million viewers in ‘07 to an estimated 65 million last year. Those numbers run on par with the ESPN-based SEC Network, the NFL Network, and the MLB Network.

The Big Ten Network has been so successful, in part, because of Penn State’s reach. Morett-Curtiss says that exposure has proved invaluable for helping promote field hockey in the Midwest, which in turn, helps the league.

Often, the Nittany Lions play live on BTN on fall Fridays. “It’s giving younger kids an opportunity who usually don’t see the sport played at a high level,” Morett-Curtiss says. “They’re watching Monday Night Football and Saturday afternoon football and now they’re watching field hockey live. The younger kids have the exposure to our sport that gives great recognition.”

Dave Baker is now Penn State’s associate athletic director for business operations. When Penn State’s Big Ten vote was announced in 1990, he was in Minnesota representing the university at an athletic concessions conference. He’s been at Penn State for 45 years.

“At the time, I don’t think a lot of people realized some of the things the Big Ten prided itself on like revenue sharing,” Baker says. “Eventually, schools realized we were bringing something to the conference beyond another traditional football power.

“I think our fans have come around to realize this is probably a good thing.”

Baker also points to the information-sharing and business network among Big Ten schools, from police chiefs to library workers to ticket managers. Chief financial officers throughout the league hold annual meetings and monthly phone calls. “You beat up on somebody in competition but then we sit down and talk best practices,” Baker says.

Increased Big Ten revenue has allowed Penn State to increase offerings to its students, from building the new Morgan Academic Center to adding “fueling stations” for athletes to get quick, healthy meal-replacement options, from yogurt to sandwiches to protein shakes.

Big Ten money also will be saved to help fund its 20-year “Master Plan” to build and update facilities. The first phase is expected to include a new epicenter for athletes, a multi-purpose indoor practice facility, and new swimming and indoor tennis homes.

Along the way, the premier but dated football facilities have undergone much-needed facelifts, from the weight room to the Lasch building headquarters to Holuba Hall, the massive indoor practice building.

Beaver Stadium major work should begin in five or six years.

***

Many Penn State coaches and administrators talk about the move to the Big Ten now in terms beyond finances and scheduling, even competition.

They point to the relationships developed between those from other like-minded institutions and all of the benefits that result.

They maintain the success and struggles of Penn State’s transition have paved the way for smoother additions of Nebraska in 2010, and Maryland and Rutgers two years later.

“You really do get a camaraderie with those guys. They’re your counterparts,” Caldwell says about other Big Ten staffs. “It was fun to watch their games and route for Big Ten teams. We never had that family feeling with other teams (as an independent).”

Caldwell remembers how Penn State’s unofficial welcome to the league was wearing a Big Ten patch on its Blockbuster Bowl uniforms – “the first (uniform) patch in Penn State history” – to end the 1992 season.

At the time, he admits to not knowing where such a drastic change was truly headed. He says he is stunned by how far it has all come for Penn State.

“It was arrogant of me to think we were coming in as an independent and would dominate. The Big Ten is a monster conference that just pounds and pounds you every week,” Caldwell says. “I didn’t have that respect early on and I have it now, big time.”

Frank Bodani has covered Penn State sports for the York Daily Record/York Sunday News since 1994.

 



Frank Bodani, a beat reporter for the York Daily Record, has covered Penn State since 1994.
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