Penn State: 15 Years In

By Jason Priestas on June 30, 2008 at 11:30 am

It seems like only yesterday when Columbus served as the Eastern tip of the conference footprint and the Big Ten had a, you know, logo that matched its name. It's hard to believe, but it's been nearly 20 years since Big Ten presidents floated the concept of adding Penn State as the conference's 11th member. The Nittany Lions now have 15 seasons of Big Ten football under their belts and some fans won't even remember a time when the conference didn't stretch to State College.

Joe Paterno doesn't knowYou know what they say about guys with big hands...

When the Big Ten announced the integration of Penn State in December of 1989, it sent shockwaves through the college football landscape. The Lions were only three years removed from the magic of their 1986 championship over Miami and had seen the culmination of a decade's worth of back-channel talks between the school and the conference finally come to fruition.

Penn State would be giving up part of their bowl revenue as it would be entering into the conference's bowl revenue-sharing program, but that loss was mitigated by the revenue-sharing from men's basketball, which the Big Ten was doing pretty damn well in 1989 and access to academic resources such as grants and an integrated library system. The Big Ten, for its part, would have a shot at adding the 5.3m television households in the state of Pennsylvania to the 17.8m in its pre-expansion footprint as well as more exposure on the East Coast.

Despite Joe Paterno and every other official at Penn State saying all of the right things, the courtship did have its rocky spots. Just 17 weeks after the announcement was made, the conference started to back-track a little. Member school athletic departments had largely been blindsided by the announcement -- Bo Schembechler claimed at the time that the move "confirms the worst fear I have of presidents' getting too much control in athletics. Not one athletic director was consulted on this matter. How can they do that?" His counterpart at Ohio State, Jim Jones, found out about the invitation from the press. To his credit, he was a strong proponent of the expansion. Others, like Minnesota athletic director Rick Bay and Purdue athletic director George King were pretty vocal in their opposition to the move.

The deal was finalized in June of 1990, but not before some classic one-liners were dropped. Bob Knight went on record as saying "Penn State 's a camping trip. There's nothing for about 100 miles," while Joe Paterno, still a sprite 62 at the time, had the tenacity to say that he might postpone retirement in order to coach the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten.

Then there was the sweetheart bowl deal Penn State signed in 1992. A year before officially joining the conference, the school was left in limbo by the newly created Bowl Coalition. Six major conferences and Notre Dame had put together a plan to attempt to pit the top two poll teams in a bowl. Only the Big Ten and Pac-10 had abstained. Penn State, without a conference or any real clout due to the fact that they'd soon be in a conference, negotiated a deal to play in the 1993 Blockbuster Bowl months before the 1992 season had even begun. Fittingly, the Lions started the season 5-0 before tailspinning to losses in five of their last seven games including a 24-3 loss to Stanford in said, agreed-on months in advance, Blockbuster Bowl.

When Penn State finally did get around to playing Big Ten football, they started with a bang. In 1993, they went 10-2 and returned most of the talent on that team to post a 12-0 record in 1994, a year that sticks with me because of the 63 points hung on the Buckeyes in Happy Valley. That 1994 Penn State squad was one of the finest Big Ten teams I have ever seen -- even to this day.

1978 - 1992 135-43-2 (.754) -- 8-5 (.615)
1993 - 2007 125-58 (.683) 73-47 (.608) 9-2 (.818)

The next five seasons would see Penn State notch 9, 11, 9, 9 and 10 wins. Seven seasons, 70 wins. Not a bad start at all. But the next five seasons, from 2000 to 2004, would see Joe Pa's squad post a grand total of 26 victories -- an average of a little over five a season. In 2003 and 2004, he would only lead his team to a combined total of three conference victories.

In fact, the trouble he suffered during the first handful of seasons after the turn of the century have gone a long way towards putting him almost a dozen victories behind the pace he set in the 15 years prior to Penn State joining the Big Ten. What's even more startling is that Paterno is winning at just a .608 clip in conference games. Compare that to Lloyd Carr's .779 Big Ten winning percentage (81-23 over 12 seasons). Would you believe that Northwestern (3) has more conference championships than Penn State (2) since the Lions joined the conference? If you toss out 1994, the Lions have only finished atop the conference standings once in the past 13 seasons.

Though Penn State has had some Big Ten football success, there are many reasons why maybe it hasn't enjoyed the type of success that was anticipated (and nicely highlighted the first couple of years in conference). Obviously Paterno's age is a huge one. The fact that in 1990 he was dropping hints that he may postpone his retirement to coach in conference tells you all you really need to know about that, really. The rise of the Big East -- granted, it's no SEC, but it didn't even exist 15 years ago -- has probably had some impact on Penn State's eastern recruiting efforts. There was a time when they owned New Jersey and Maryland, but not anymore.

Overall, I think it's a no-brainer that it was a great move by the conference. The latest Director's Cup standings (PDF) certainly validate their admission. The addition also gave birth to the rise of super-conferences, which I think the game is better for. Not long after Penn State agreed to come onboard, two of the other big independents, Miami and Florida State, quickly joined conferences of their own. But what about what was best for Penn State? Did they make the right move?