OK, so what if?
What if Nebraska joins the Big Ten? Why would NU go? Why would the Big Ten want the Huskers? How soon could this come about?
Could this really, truly happen?
The answer to that last question shows some signs of tilting toward yes.
As the topic of conference realignment ricochets coast to coast — it began in December when Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said his league would consider expansion — Nebraska has emerged as a real player.
Not a lock. And not the only player. But a legitimate choice should a shake-up occur.
Recently, athletic and administrative officials who asked not to be identified told The World-Herald the following:
• Two sources said they have heard directly or been made aware of Missouri employees discussing in routine tones how Nebraska and MU would move into the Big Ten.
• One source said Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe recently spent time with a group explaining why it would be a bad idea for Nebraska and Missouri to leave.
Stone-cold facts on this topic are scarce. Educated speculation also is in short supply. Yet the appetite for knowledge is almost unlimited, so here's what the latest round of interviews with school, conference and national administrators produced:
Would Nebraska, when it comes right down to it, really go to the Big Ten?
For two reasons — and burn these into your brain — it would be almost impossible for NU to say no to such an invitation.
The first is the academic prestige. The 11-member Big Ten is the only major athletic conference in which every school is in the Association of American Universities.
That 63-school group “focuses on issues important to research-intensive universities.'' In plain language, 57 percent of all federally funded research money to colleges and universities went to AAU schools. We're talking billions of dollars.
In academics, you are known by the company you keep — your “peer group'' — and the money that research institutions amass. The Big 12 has seven AAU members. The Pacific-10 has six. The Atlantic Coast has five. The Big East has three. The Southeastern has two. Get the picture?
Nebraska is an AAU member and would benefit from a move to a league considered the nation's academic leader.
The second big reason for Nebraska to join the Big Ten would be long-term athletic stability.
As a small-population state that already went through one conference upheaval 15 years ago, NU sees a move to the 114-year-old Big Ten as the ultimate security blanket. There would be added costs in travel and changes in recruiting because of different rules.
But the conference revenue share would be better — at least double annually from around the current $10 million in the Big 12 to $20 million to $22 million in the Big Ten. And a move would keep the Huskers from looking over their shoulder every five years.
Why would the Big Ten want Nebraska?
Five years ago, it wouldn't have. The game-changer has been the creation of the Big Ten Network, and its stunning success.
When the BTN launched on Aug. 30, 2007, it became the first network in cable or satellite history to reach 30 million homes in the first 30 days. It's now available in 75 million homes.
Now that the Big Ten is in the TV business, it has to act just like Comedy Central or The Food Channel. It needs to attract more viewers, it needs more “inventory'' (live events, coaches shows, historical pieces) and it needs to sell more advertising.
That's where Nebraska, even with its small population base of 1.8 million, now becomes a good fit.
And it's because of football, where the bulk of college revenue is produced.
The Huskers don't provide as many TV households as other candidates. But they provide national football clout, a history of high ratings for their broadcasts and a strong brand to attract advertisers.
Don't discount NU's seriously motivated fan base, either. With far-flung alumni groups who watch and wear everything associated with the Big Red, they would hound their local cable carriers to pick up the BTN.
What kind of culture would Nebraska find in the Big Ten?
When rumors first circulated about Texas joining the Big Ten, I talked with a current administrator at a Big 12 school who has strong Big Ten ties.
He chuckled at the thought.
“The Big Ten is a ‘Check your ego at the door' conference,'' he said. In fact, if Nebraska joined, it likely would have to pay to get in or take reduced revenue in the early years as payment for an equity position in the Big Ten Network.
The Big Ten is about the Big Ten, not the individual entities. Recall that when Penn State joined in 1990, the league refused to change its name. Instead, it tweaked its logo to include an optical illusion “11.''
More proof that the league is the No. 1 thing: The Big Ten is the only BCS grouping in which all revenue is shared equally. So no single school or small group of “haves'' wields golden hammers.
If Nebraska moved, how soon could it play its first Big Ten contest?
That's a tricky one. Big 12 bylaws stipulate that any school seeking to leave as a “withdrawing member'' would give two years notice and forfeit 50 percent of its league revenue (about $5 million a year for Nebraska) during that period.
If a school wants to leave earlier, making it a “breaching member,'' the revenue forfeiture can grow to 100 percent if less than six months notice is given.
It's really hard to know at this point how soon a bigger Big Ten could emerge. The earliest probably would be the 2012-13 academic year, since time would be needed to divide the league into divisions and rework schedules. But that's a guess.
If Nebraska and Missouri make it plain they are leaving, the Big 12 might want them out as soon as possible, with lawyers negotiating a buyout.
One more thing: The reason an announcement could come in mid-June is because most schools run on a July through June fiscal year. If change is coming, July 1 would be an appropriate time to rewind the clock on budgeting and future schedules.
Is any of this leave-the-Big-12 talk impacted by Tom Osborne becoming Nebraska's athletic director?
Handle this one with care.
Osborne's quick repair job on the football program after the Bill Callahan debacle has helped NU return to the national conversation, which in turn makes the Huskers a more valued target for an expanding league.
Also, it's no secret Osborne has been disappointed in certain Big 12 decisions through the years, especially involving Texas or the league's “center of gravity moving south.''
Do I think that Osborne would get some satisfaction from out-snookering Texas now? You bet I do. But that wouldn't be a good enough reason on its own for Nebraska to change leagues. At least it had better not be.
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