Illinois coaches, players have mixed feelings on possible Big Ten expansion

By Alex Iniguez

Recent speculation that the Big Ten Conference could add one or more members in the near future has caused some concern — and excitement — among U. Illinois coaches and athletes.

The biggest issue could be the distances teams would likely have to travel if the conference added schools outside the Midwest.

Making another trip to the East Coast, for example, would take a bigger chunk out of the University’s budget than the current setup, and it would cause some athletes to miss class more often than they already do.

“This year we had about a 12-hour trip to get to Penn State,” men’s tennis head coach Brad Dancer said. “When we look at expansion, it’s probably going to be driven by finances and revenue opportunities, but I hope that when they look at that they do look at the logistics in terms of missed class time and other factors that are associated with that.”

Baseball head coach Dan Hartleb said while road trips may be extended, the benefits of expanding the conference would cancel out the drawbacks of the extra travel.

“You could have someplace where you have further travel, maybe another flight,” Hartleb said. “But that stuff will all be considered, and if it brings more revenue to the entire conference, then there’s going to be money there for us to travel.”

Some athletes may not notice or care too much about the increase in distance that expansion could bring.

“Obviously, we travel a good amount as it is right now,” sophomore tennis player Dennis Nevolo said. “I don’t know how much we’d realize it if they did add another school. Clearly, it’d be a long trip (to the East Coast), and we probably don’t want to travel too far again. But if that’s how it happens, then that’s just how it is.”

Illinois softball’s Audrey Gallien said any disadvantages of adding teams would be negated by the positives another team could bring.

“Every softball program is getting better and better every year, and to add that much more competition to the conference would just be great all around, in terms of competition and camaraderie,” Gallien said.

“We’d miss more school, obviously, but it’s a great opportunity,” Gallien added.

The Big Ten began as a seven-school conference in 1895. The original members were Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin and the University of Chicago. Indiana and Iowa joined four years later, and Ohio State joined in 1912 to bring the number of members to 10. Chicago left the conference in 1946 and was replaced by Michigan State three years later.

The conference first expanded to 11 schools in 1990 with the addition of Penn State. A decision resolving current expansion discussions will not be announced until at least December.

Schools that have been included in the expansion rumors include (in no particular order): Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Missouri, Notre Dame, Texas and, to a lesser extent, Connecticut and Maryland. Notre Dame turned down an offer to join the Big Ten in 1999.

“Everyone talks about possibly bringing in Texas,” Dancer said. “I know that might be a pie-in-the-sky dream, but everyone’s got an understanding of what kind of revenue that potentially brings in, too.”

Schools joining the conference would likely need to be members of the Association of American Universities, an organization of universities to support research, which could rule out Connecticut and Notre Dame — unless the benefits of adding either school trump the importance of AAU membership.

All 11 current Big Ten schools are AAU members, which no other Division I conference can claim.

The extended travel would either cause long road trips or a two-division conference, splitting it either north-south or east-west. Softball head coach Terri Sullivan said she wouldn’t be in favor of splitting the conference, which would have the Illini facing fewer teams and possibly playing three-game series instead of the current setup of two-game series.

“I don’t particularly care for that,” Sullivan said. “That’s what the SEC has to do — they’re split into two divisions and then they join up at the end. I’ve just always been a big fan of being able to play everybody in the conference. I’d go nuts if I was in football and wasn’t able to.

“You find a true conference winner by playing each other.”

No matter how many teams are added — if any — Hartleb thinks the Big Ten will remain one of the premier conferences in the country.

“I don’t mind one way or the other,” Hartleb said. “I think our setup’s very good right now. I think if you bring more teams into the mix, it just adds a new dimension. If it’s what’s best for the entire conference, I’m all for it.”

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