INDIANAPOLIS — Pat Fitzgerald was a hard-nosed linebacker at Northwestern in 1995 when the Wildcats ended an unlikely season against Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
It represented a traditional matchup between the champions from the Big Ten and the Pac-12, then known as the Pac-10.
But in a couple of years, the schools will be apart of the same conference after the Big Ten added USC and UCLA last month in a drastic round of expansion.
Fitzgerald, who now enters his 17th season as the coach at Northwestern, sees the additions as the latest in a series of shifts within the sport from loosened transfer restrictions to expanded opportunities for players to make money through name, image and likeness.
“Change,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s college football right now.”
Increasingly accustomed to an evolving landscape, Fitzgerald was among the majority of coaches who sounded enthusiastic about the impending arrivals of the Trojans and Bruins in 2024.
“We’re not going backwards,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re not going back to 10 teams. We’re not going back to eight league games. So wherever we’re going to go, we need to embrace it and create plans as coaches to be efficient and successful.”
The Big Ten has been expanding for decades, first moving beyond 10 member schools in 1993 with Penn State joining the league.
Then Nebraska followed in 2011, and Maryland and Rutgers in 2014.
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But even as it went beyond its Midwestern roots, each step was relatively modest, keeping the conference’s geographic footprint within contiguous states.
There is little proximity to USC and UCLA, which are based in Los Angeles and separated by more than a thousand miles from the closest Big Ten school.
“Coming to Iowa is going to be a home game for those guys,” said Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes’ coach, “as opposed to going all the way across the country.”
Ferentz, the longest-tenured coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, seemed the most apprehensive about expansion, noting the conference’s waning geographic ties.
“The clear message to me is that geography and tradition don’t mean nearly as much as some other things,” Ferentz said. “TV would probably be at the front of that list. That’s just the way college has failed.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh also reminisced about the declining regionalist flavor to the sport.
“I’m an old-school guy,” Harbaugh said. “I kind of like a strong West Coast conference, a strong Southeast conference, a strong Midwest conference, a strong East Coast conference, but things are different now. Things have changed. And it’ll probably not be the last, either.”
The formation of a 16-team super conference, though, strengthens the Big Ten in an ever-changing environment.
It keeps the league on par with the SEC, which is scheduled to bring in Oklahoma and Texas by 2025 in order to also move past 14 teams.
In the most significant development, expansion positions the Big Ten for a financial windfall as a new media rights deal takes effect next year.
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The final terms of the agreement are still being finalized, commissioner Kevin Warren said at media days.
But once settled, it could be worth more than $1 billion and distribute at least $100 million to members each year, especially with the conference now situated in the three largest TV markets in the US between New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
“Everybody can see the landscape changing,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said, “and this move pretty much ensures that we’re out in front of it and relevant in college football no matter where it all ends up.”
Having a foothold in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city, got several of the coaches’ attention.
“The first thing that came to my mind was LA, are you kidding me? That’s perfect,” Minnesota’s PJ Fleck said. “The Big Ten is now represented from the West Coast to the East Coast. You look at the major media markets, that’s incredibly positive.”
“Our footprint spreads from New York to LA,” Rutgers’ Greg Schiano said. “It doesn’t get a lot better than that.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day referred to the Big Ten as a national conference.
“It’s big moving forward,” Day said.
There are practical considerations for a coast-to-coast league. Largely travel. Teams will crisscross much of the country in order to play at USC and UCLA.
None will travel further than Maryland or Rutgers, the two schools in the conference situated on the East Coast.
But Terrapins coach Mike Locksley said “it is what it is.”
“We’ll play the games that end up on our schedule,” Locksley said. “We’ll manage it and come up with a way to hopefully allow us to get out there to play our best.”
“You know, you do it,” added Schiano. “You figure it out.”
Football schedules are not as condensed as those for other sports. There are six or seven days between games.
As a result, teams have long taken cross-country flights for non-conference or neutral site games.
Fitzgerald pointed out his team is taking a transatlantic one to open this upcoming season as Northwestern and Nebraska meet in Ireland next month.
“So it won’t be that big of a deal,” Fitzgerald said.