On a June evening in Paris, a wedding rehearsal party that had started hours earlier showed no signs of stopping as midnight approached.
That put Penn State President Graham Spanier in what the French might call une situation difficile.
The wedding being celebrated was his daughter's. Six time zones to the west, Spanier's fellow presidents in the Big Ten Conference were about to hold a historic vote — whether to admit Nebraska into the league.
“It got a little complicated," he said.
Spanier excused himself from the party and placed a call to Chicago. His vote made it unanimous to accept Nebraska as the 12th member of the Big Ten starting in July 2011.
“People were very surprised I would want to take time away from the wedding activities to do that," Spanier said by phone last week from State College, Pa.
“But this was a very significant decision for the conference. And I thought it was very important because I had been centrally involved."
Spanier wouldn't say he alone had entered Nebraska's name into the expansion pool when the Big Ten first discussed adding schools last December. But the former chancellor at NU from 1991 to '95 added:
“Certainly, I had a role in it from several standpoints."
Spanier has the most seniority of any Big Ten chief executive officer, which includes 15 years of dealing with athletic media contracts.
“So I've been intimately involved in all our discussions about conference expansion," he said.
His knowledge of the inner workings at Nebraska also put him in a prime spot to help. Spanier said he has “close relationships" with NU System President J.B. Milliken and Chancellor Harvey Perlman.
“I was in a position to comment knowledgeably to my colleagues," Spanier said. “Harvey and I were in touch during the entire process."
Spanier didn't detail when those talks first occurred or how often. Yet the peek he allowed behind the curtain of the proceedings indicates that Nebraska had a mostly open runway into Big Ten airspace.
“From the moment we began our exploration," Spanier said, “we knew Nebraska would be a tremendous addition to the Big Ten."
Any discouraging words once the CEOs seriously dissected Nebraska's résumé?
“None," he said. “It was remarkably positive and supportive and encouraging. In the end, it was an easy call. When Nebraska emerged as our school, if we were going to go from 11 to 12, it was a slam dunk."
This isn't the first time Spanier has been involved in a major shift of conferences with Nebraska.
In a three-month period in late 1993 and early 1994, major shifts in television rights deals put the Big Eight Conference in a bad spot and the Southwest Conference in an even worse one.
By late February 1994, four SWC schools had joined the Big Eight to form the Big 12. And Spanier was one of four chancellors charged with organizing the new league.
“I wrote the first draft of the Big 12 constitution," Spanier said.
He modeled some of his work on Big Ten procedures and practices. At the time, he said, he doesn't recall ever thinking about Nebraska leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten.
But when a new wave of realignment talk began last December, including possible defections in the Big 12, Nebraska drew attention quickly.
“We hadn't planned to take any action as quickly as we did," Spanier said, noting Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany's original timetable of 12 to 18 months from December 2009.
“But because of the situation in the Big 12 that unfolded, we moved to include Nebraska earlier than we had thought."
Penn State was the most recent newcomer to the Big Ten, beginning participation in 1993. When Spanier moved from Nebraska to PSU in 1995, he said some on campus and in the community quizzed him about his feelings for the Big Ten.
“I think some asked hoping I didn't like it," he said. “But I was very positive about it from the beginning, and time has proven it's been a great thing for Penn State."
Life in Nebraska, Spanier said, won't change quickly or dramatically as a result of the move.
“What I'll say is that it will open up a lot of doors," he said. “Many won't be in areas as visible as athletic contests. But I think this will be a great thing for Nebraska like it was for us."
By the way, the phone call from France was worth it.
“It worked out just fine," Spanier said, “although it was one of the more expensive phone calls I've ever had to pay the bill on."
Now, the key question: Has his daughter forgiven him for doing business on family time?
With a chuckle, Spanier said: “I was able to sneak out quietly. And in the French tradition, the party was still going on when I got back."
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