Gene Smith Says Big Ten Has Annual Conversations About Conference Expansion But Isn’t Looking to Make Any Moves This Year

By Dan Hope on June 8, 2023 at 8:35 am
Gene Smith

It might only be a matter of time before the next round of conference realignment begins in college sports.

There have been persistent rumors about the possibility of Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah leaving the Pac-12 for the Big 12. There were reports last month that Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia and Virginia Tech were looking to get out of the ACC’s grant of rights. The Big 12 has also reportedly explored the possibility of adding Gonzaga and UConn, while the Pac-12 has had talks with San Diego State and SMU.

As far as the Big Ten is concerned, there’s been a lingering question of whether the conference will eventually add Oregon and Washington ever since it announced its agreement with USC and UCLA last summer. It stands to reason the Big Ten would be interested in several ACC schools if they eventually hit the realignment market. And of course, there will always be the question of whether Notre Dame could eventually join its Midwestern peers in the conference.

With UCLA and USC set to join the conference a year from now, however, the Big Ten isn’t looking to add any more teams for the time being, according to Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.

“At this point, we're not looking at that. We had a discussion about that earlier this year, and we decided that we’re just gonna pause and integrate USC and UCLA,” Smith told Eleven Warriors in an interview on this week’s Real Pod Wednesdays. “We always look at it. And we'll probably look at it again next year at some point. But I don't see us doing anything at this point in time.”

Smith said Big Ten leaders have had annual conversations about the possibility of expansion for many years dating back to Jim Delany’s tenure as commissioner. Those conversations have led to five additions to the conference since 2011: Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers, UCLA and USC.

When the Big Ten looks at candidates for expansion, Smith says the criteria the conference considers include whether the school is a member of the Association of American Universities and whether it would increase the conference’s media rights value. Whether a potential addition fit the Big Ten geographically used to be a significant criterion, but as clearly evidenced by the additions of two schools in Los Angeles, that is no longer as much of a consideration as it once was.

“We look at AAU schools, first and foremost. And we obviously look at whether or not they bring value from a lot of different reasons, but mostly television,” Smith said. “We look at the value and whether or not that school fits our profile relative to how they operate. We want to make sure that they're an environment that we can trust. And there's so many other factors that's underneath that. Travel was a big one for us when we talked about USC and UCLA, but in today's world, we charter so much – it's kind of like our recruiting, it’s easier for us to go recruit in Europe sometimes – so travel’s a lot easier than it used to be.”

“We always look at it. And we'll probably look at it again next year at some point. But I don't see us doing anything at this point in time.”– Gene Smith on Big Ten expansion

Schools that have been rumored as potential candidates for Big Ten expansion that are AAU members include Oregon, Washington, Cal, Stanford, North Carolina, Virginia, Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami and Notre Dame, with the latter two just becoming AAU members this year. Whether those schools meet the Big Ten’s other criteria for expansion is less certain. The conference seemingly hasn’t made an aggressive push to pluck more West Coast schools from the Pac-12, but it could potentially have greater expansion in poaching ACC schools to expand into the Southeast.

For now, though, both Smith and Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti say their focus is on ensuring a smooth transition for USC and UCLA into the conference rather than on starting the next round of expansion.

“USC and UCLA coming in, we've gotta do a great job there integrating them into the conference,” Petitti said Tuesday on The Rich Eisen Show when asked about his top priorities to start his tenure as Big Ten commissioner. “The conference has a really good history of doing that, back in the day with Penn State and Rutgers, Nebraska, Maryland as well. So it's just number one, making sure that works; this is probably a little more challenging in terms of logistics and travel, so there's a lot of people in the office spending a lot of time on scheduling and trying to work through all those things.”

Along with the Big Ten’s other athletic directors, Smith is also involved in the process of integrating USC and UCLA into the conference. Of course, Smith is also focused on the present as Ohio State looks to have a successful 2023-24 year in sports before what will be a big year of change for the Big Ten and college sports as a whole when UCLA and USC join the conference and the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams in 2024-25.

“You got to plan for the future, but keep things in your immediate future in front of you. And I really feel good about where we are going into the ‘23-’24 season, but we are planning for the future,” Smith said. “We have different working groups in the league, our Senior Woman Administrators and some conference office staff talking about scheduling for soccer, volleyball, all those sports. And we've had conversations around football. And so we're really just really planning for that as best we can, planning for the College Football Playoff; I'm blessed to be on a focus group for the CFP where we’re talking about operations and how things will work in the first rounds and the quarterfinals and all those type of logistical issues – hotels, whether the bands go, all those type of things. So you just gotta plan for it, but know you still have, we still gotta execute this year, and we're not leaving that behind.”

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