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Conference Realignment Creates an Uncertain but Exciting Future for Iowa Athletics

Much like the Big Ten itself and college football at large, the Iowa athletics program must find a way to balance the preservation of its traditions with the embrace of conference realignment and the excitement and uncertainty that come with it.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

College football is a fascinating paradox: a game deeply rooted in tradition, yet constantly evolving. Recent years have seen these two sides of the sport come into conflict with one another as widespread changes across the college football landscape have uprooted longstanding rivalries, disrupted regional alliances, and threatened the security and standing of several programs. For the Big Ten, America’s oldest Division I athletic conference and one of the premiere brands in college sports, this has meant straddling a fine line between preserving the traditions that make the conference so special and acting quickly to secure its future in a tumultuous landscape.

Perhaps no dynamic better reflects the challenge the Big Ten has faced over the past few years of conference realignment talk than its relationship with the Pac-12. For nearly 80 years, the two conferences and their spiritual predecessors have been tied at the hip as co-participants in college football’s most iconic game (the Rose Bowl) and frequent allies in broader cultural debates surrounding amateurism, segregation, and academic standards in the sport. When the SEC appeared ready to assume juggernaut status after absorbing Oklahoma and Texas, the two conferences even announced plans to form an “Alliance” with the ACC to stave off their mutual destruction.

Two years later, the Pac-12 is on death’s door thanks to a series of vicious moves by its one-time ally. The Big Ten put the kibosh on the planned Alliance by extending membership to the conference’s flagship programs in USC and UCLA and followed up one year later by peeling off Oregon and Washington, the only two Pac-12 teams to ever qualify for the College Football Playoff. These moves, combined with the defection of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah to the Big 12, left the so-called “conference of Champions” with only four members and has seemingly doomed the Pac-12 to either perish or limp along as a college football afterthought for the foreseeable future. Shockingly, the Big Ten’s expansionist push may not yet be complete, as rumors of the conference wanting to peel off disgruntled ACC members or woo perpetual holdout Notre Dame continue to swirl.

As both the Big Ten and college football at large experience massive tectonic shifts, the University of Iowa athletic program finds itself in largely uncharted waters. On one hand, both the university’s place in the Big Ten and the conference’s growing power in the college sports world have seemingly secured the school’s place in one of the premiere athletic conferences for the foreseeable future. Iowa does not have to worry about missing the last chopper out of Saigon like the former Big East schools who ended up dropping down to less prestigious conferences when their league folded, nor should it be concerned about the Big Ten being relegated to second-tier status the way the Pac-12 has been. However, the ever-widening geographic footprint of the Big Ten certainly presents new challenges and opportunities to athletic programs like Iowa’s which have long prided themselves on adherence to and preservation of tradition.

On the positive side, Big Ten expansion offers exciting new opportunities for competition against storied programs. Hawkeye fans will regularly get to watch their football team play games at the Rose Bowl, Coliseum, and Autzen Stadium, the basketball team lock horns with UCLA, the baseball team and softball teams match up against USC and Washington, and the track teams race against Oregon. Should the Big Ten manage to lure in Notre Dame and/or other ACC powers, it would only add to the grandeur of Iowa’s athletic seasons and make the stakes and give Hawkeye fans another school they could revel in claiming victory over. The Big Ten’s westward expansion should also create new recruiting opportunities, as the Hawkeye brand will receive far greater exposure in recruit-rich areas like Southern California than it currently does. Iowa historically pulls very few recruits from the Pacific, as traveling from the beaches of Malibu and Santa Barbara to the cornfields of the Midwest appeals to only a certain type of eighteen-year-old. However, the Hawkeyes have increased their recruitment of the east coast in sports like football and basketball as a result of the conference’s expansion into the northeast, and it is not unthinkable that something similar could happen out west. Finally, the prospect of schools like USC and UCLA playing a night game in Kinnick Stadium in late November is understandably appealing to any Big Ten fans who have ever wondered how the Pac-12’s run-and-gun style of football would stand up to the wintery conditions the conference’s founding members have long had to play in.

However, there are real potential downsides to the Big Ten’s expansion as well. Just as the Southern California teams will have to schlep up north for the occasional late Autumn conference game, so too will the Hawkeyes be forced to contend with late night kickoffs on Pacific time, something which has not gone well for the program in road games against Pac-12 schools during the Kirk Ferentz era. However, the scheduling woes the football team will face are dwarfed in comparison to those of some of Iowa’s other athletic programs. Non-revenue sports do not have the same cushy travel accommodations enjoyed by the Iowa football program, which could make the 1,921-mile journey from UI’s campus to the University of Oregon a particularly taxing one. Absent careful scheduling on the part of the conference, it is conceivable that an Iowa basketball team could travel to road games at Rutgers and UCLA in the same week, a scenario which would put an immense amount of physical and mental strain on student athletes trying to juggle high-level athletics and a full courseload. While the conference’s expansion should provide enough revenue to keep Iowa’s athletic department flushed with cash for the foreseeable future, a future economic downturn or a burst of the television rights market bubble could leave the athletic department struggling to fund a massively expensive coast-to-coast travel schedule for several sports which do not make enough money to justify such costs, potentially putting select non-revenue sports at risk of cancellation.

Furthermore, while the Big Ten’s expansion will create new rivalries for the Hawkeyes, it could risk diminishing some of the university’s most historic ones. The football program successfully secured three protected rivals under the post-USC/UCLA Big Ten scheduling model (Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), but the additions of Oregon, Washington, and god knows who else could potentially put these protected games at risk depending on what type of schedule the conference adopts. The Big Ten’s current football members have a whopping sixteen intraconference trophy games, a testament to the century-plus of heated competition between hated regional rivals. As exciting as it will be to inject new blood into the conference and expand the Big Ten’s geographic footprint, it would also be unfortunate to reduce the frequency and dilute the importance of these hallowed traditions. However, the football rivalry of Iowa’s that might be most at risk in an expanded Big Ten may be the Cy-Hawk game. Should the Big Ten adopt a ten-game conference schedule for football (a format which would at least make the conference’s name make some level of sense again), it would be difficult for Iowa to justify keeping a yearly game against an occasionally competent Power Five opponent, particularly if the school is already replacing a game against a lower-division cupcake with the likes of USC or Oregon. Despite the national media’s good-natured derision of the Cy-Hawk football game, the yearly matchup has been immensely meaningful to both fanbases since its rebirth in 1977, and it is tough to imagine another conference fare matching the significance of this game should it fade into obscurity.

Much like the Big Ten itself and college football at large, the Iowa athletics program must find a way to balance the preservation of its traditions with the embrace of conference realignment and the excitement and uncertainty that come with it. As Iowa looks to bring on a permanent replacement for former athletics director Gary Barta, the university must prioritize finding someone who can be forward thinking enough to envision a pathway for sustained success in the new world of college sports and agile enough to adapt to the inevitable changes in the years to come. Iowa lacks the built in demographic advantages of other schools in the conference, a fact which makes the university’s broad success in athletics over the past several decades particularly impressive. For Iowa to stay relevant in the changing college sports landscape, the leadership of both its individual programs and the athletics department as a whole must be prepared to stay competitive in an arena which, every year, starts to look a little less like the one they’ve been competing in for over a century.