It Was Big (Ten); It Can Be Bigger

In the college football world, a lot has happened since last Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game unfolded in Indianapolis for the second consecutive year. (More on that in a minute). Northern Illinois crashed the Bowl Championship Series party, creating a venom that is usually reserved for teams that are on the outside looking in when it comes to the NCAA basketball tournament.

The coach who won that Big Ten title game has bolted Wisconsin for Arkansas in an unexpected move. Notre Dame, Ball State and Purdue learned their bowl destinations, with the Boilermakers hiring a new coach — from that same no-respect Mid-American Conference as Northern Illinois and Ball State. (In case, you didn ‘t know I’m a Ball State grad and proud to be making the trip to Florida for the always popular Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl).

But my focus is back to Indiana and the business of sports. Yes, the 41,000-plus in attendance at Lucas Oil Saturday night was a dramatic drop from more than 62,000 a year earlier. Yes, TV ratings were down (falling almost as fast as the Nebraska defenders as Wisconsin running backs piled up more than 500 yards in a 70-31 victory). Yes, there is concern despite Indy being in the middle of a five-year contract to serve as host. Many say the attendance problem would have been solved if undefeated Ohio State had not been on probation, but that falls into the category of things we can’t control.

I volunteered both Friday and Saturday at the Big Ten Fanfest at the Indiana Convention Center and attended the game. A few observations.

  • Wisconsin and Nebraska fans showed up and they liked what they saw. I talked with numerous parents and family members who, like so many before them, truly appreciated downtown Indianapolis and all its amenities. They enjoyed Georgia Street before the game and they, at least on the Wisconsin side, enjoyed a winning effort in Lucas Oil for the second straight year.
  • Yes, this is only anecdotal, but I witnessed far fewer fans from the Hoosier state taking part in either the Fanfest or the game. On a smaller scale, the Fanfest was similar to the NFL Experience that took place in conjunction with Super Bowl XLVI earlier this year. An opportunity seemed to be missed in not generating more interest and participation on a local or regional level.
  • These events, and many others, bring a true excitement and economic impact to downtown. The benefits both in the short term and in further establishing the Circle City as a destination spot are numerous.

Let’s allow the creative people who do such a good job bringing these sports championships here to work on ways to bring more fans into the fold. And if you’re looking for something else to do in late November/early December on a post-Thanksgiving weekend, give the Big Ten and its championship a good hard look in coming years.

Will IU Tackle the Longstanding Mascot Question?

More of a light-hearted story here about a state school, but as an IU grad, I’d like to weigh in on the IU mascot debate featured in today’s Indy Star. Personally, I think we definitely need a mascot, and I’ve long been jealous of the Boilers’ "Purdue Pete" (the old/new one, not the stuffed pillow they had for about 20 minutes a couple of months ago), which I think is one of the top mascots in the country. Since my time at IU, I’ve advocated (among friends) the development of "Harry the Hoosier Hog." Just a giant State Fair-quality pig to run mosey on out with the football team during games, and then maybe a student in a hog costume during the hoops season. What’s not to like about hogs? They’re sometimes cute, often aggressive, and always delicious.

That said, I do think the bison idea in the article has merit. The animal is on the state seal, and while we no longer have them here, bison remain a part of our history. The Star reports:

In the late 1960s, IU had a bison as its mascot. In 1979, IU had someone named "Hoosier Pride," a hick-looking person with a large head and a crimson cowboy hat. Apparently, though, that one didn’t pass the politically correct test and was quickly abandoned.

Since then, however, nothing.

"I think you should have a contest, get the university students involved and let them draw up something," Gearries said. "Let’s have a name contest, let’s have a drawing contest, and when we finally get it down to two or three finalists, we can let the students vote on it."

Valerie Gill, IU’s director of licensing and trademarks, said nothing is currently in the works.

Glass said any decision on a mascot would need to be made at the university level.

"Ultimately that’s a university decision, and my belief is that if it bubbles up, it will be more of a grass-roots effort from the students and fans," Glass said.

Most of the mascots in the Big Ten date to the 1950s, though their role has significantly expanded from an extension of the cheerleading squad over the decades.

Minnesota assistant athletic director Scott Ellison said its mascot, Goldy, made 572 appearances last year, roughly 300 of them outside athletic and other school events, including birthday parties and weddings. Goldy can make as many seven appearances in a day and is a revenue source for the school.

"(A mascot) is an ambassador for the university," Ellison said. "It’s one of our brands. It’s very visible and very much the face of not only the athletics department, but also the university."

IU Football Symbolizes Decisions Universities Must Make About Importance of Athletics

As an IU alum and football fan, this was obviously of great interest to me. The Indianapolis Business Journal’s recent article on the state of the school’s football program seems to highlight the risk vs. reward dilemma facing larger universities’ athletic budgets. When is it worth a major investment, and when should the pursuit of winning be scaled back?

Athletic Director Fred Glass has emphasized marketing, been the point man in radio and television commercials, and is leading the charge into a season that promises football financial gains not seen in Bloomington in a very long time.

While success on the field is not guaranteed, Glass is promising significant attendance increases and a continued rebirth of the football program that he believes will lead to critical fiscal gains for the school and its athletic department.

IU has a long way to go, and some critics wonder if it’s wise for the Hoosiers to chase the likes of Ohio State University … or even the University of Wisconsin. IU’s $55.7 million athletic department budget looks small compared with the Buckeyes’

“College athletics is a very dangerous investment for schools,” said David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and past president of The Drake Group, a not-for-profit that bills itself as a watchdog for academic integrity in the face of big-time college sports.

“Schools can get caught up in chasing bigger programs with many more resources, and it becomes difficult to justify the expenses based on true return on investments.”

Packing a Punch at Purdue

Purdue University doesn’t need me to make the case for its importance to the state of Indiana and beyond. It has thousands of professors, students, research leaders, and business men and women doing that every day.

But despite at least three-plus decades of personal experience (starting with a cousin who graduated from the university and still serves on the faculty in the veterinary medicine school to more than a few athletic contests, including covering the top-ranked basketball team in 1987-88), a half-day on campus earlier this month reinforced the impact being made in West Lafayette and throughout the state.

Just a few observations:

  • Discovery Park is a nice name with a clear mission. Behind the name are five leading centers, all opening between 2004 and 2009 and featuring $205 million in private donations, bringing together experts from a variety of disciplines who are working together on our future. The learning opportunities for students are nearly endless.
  • Purdue Research Parks: There is the largest gathering of technology companies in the state in West Lafayette and growing enterprises in Merrillville, New Albany and Indianapolis (AmeriPlex complex near the airport).
  • The Technical Assistance Program has been working with Indiana companies for 24 years. It drives immediate improvements in companies, training employees, increasing sales and retaining/creating jobs. And now it is doing so in the manufacturing, energy, health care and green sectors, among others.
  • And while others might come to mind first when thinking about education, Purdue’s I-STEM Resource Network and role as one of four homes for the Woodrow Wilson Indiana Teaching Fellowship program are critical. I-STEM is a partnership that includes 19 institutions, K-12 schools, business and government with the bottom line of improving outcomes for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies.

One of my absolute favorite people in 12-plus years in this position was former Purdue President Martin Jischke. He was the driving force behind most of the entities mentioned above, as well as numerous others. Today’s leaders and practitioners are carrying the ball forward.

We’ll continue to help tell the Purdue stories in the months and years ahead. It was good to be reminded about the excellent work taking place there during the recent visit.

And will the 2010-2011 basketball triplets (Hummel, Moore and Johnson) equal or exceed the exploits of Troy Lewis, Todd Mitchell and Everette Stephens from 23 years ago? We’ll have to wait and see on that one.

Expansion Now “Front Burner” Issue for Big Ten Conference

How can I justify putting this post on our blog? Hmm, well it’s sort of education-related … and it’s definitely profit-related.

The Big Ten athletic conference is looking seriously at expanding to 12 teams. The last team to join was Penn State in 1990. Schools reported as top candidates to fill the current void include Rutgers, Syracuse, Missouri, Cincinnati and Louisville.

Brian Kelly’s boys in South Bend remain doubtful. The Chicago Tribune explains the rationale behind expansion:

Jim Delany never will be a contestant on "Top Chef," but the Big Ten commissioner frequently has used a cooking analogy when asked about the prospects of Big Ten expansion.

"A back-burner issue," he has called it.

Not anymore. According to a league official, the Big Ten will release a statement Tuesday saying the matter has moved to the front burner.

The first sign of change came from former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, who told Wisconsin’s athletic board on Friday that Delany "is going to take this year to really be more aggressive about it. I just think everybody feels [expansion] is the direction to go, coaches and administrators."

A league source on Monday cited a "growing groundswell" of support among athletic directors for expansion.

In 1990, the Big Ten became the Bigger 11 by adding Penn State. (The Nittany Lions had to wait until 1993 to vie for their first Rose Bowl.) In 1999, Notre Dame stiff-armed the league’s overtures, and that put the issue on ice.

Why is it being revisited now?

The biggest reason, as always, is the stuff that doesn’t grow on trees: money. If the league expands to 12 teams and two divisions — like the SEC, Big 12 and ACC — it would create a Big Ten title game that could be worth $5 million or more to the league. The Big Ten Network would love to televise it, and the conference has a 51 percent ownership stake in the network.

Personally, I must admit that I love the Big Ten Conference. So much so that even though I’m an Indiana man, I even root for Purdue against "outsiders." And I think the conference embodies the characteristics of many Midwesterners like myself — the competitiveness, the penchant for good sportsmanship, and the plight of being terrible at football.

So I have mixed feelings about this move (should it happen). The money would be nice, but I think mega conferences like the Big East can get so convoluted they lose their identity, so expansion should be treaded lightly. Your thoughts?