A comfortable member of the Big Ten for more than two decades, it's easy to forget that Penn State wasn't readily welcomed by everyone in the conference.
“I've been to Penn State,” said Bob Knight, then the coach at Indiana, when Penn State was first invited to join the league in 1990. “And Penn State's a camping trip. There's nothing for about 100 miles.”
Rick Bay, then Minnesota's athletic director, was hoping that the Big Ten didn't expand. And that if it had to, he hoped the addition wouldn't be Penn State.
“I don't think it's a done deal,” he said. “Maybe it's some wishful thinking on my part.”
Even Indiana's president said he would vote against bringing Penn State aboard.
So it wasn't as if all the Big Ten's coaches and administrators sang 'We Are The World' and offered a warm hug to the Nittany Lions. The math didn't work — how do you schedule 11 teams? The travel was a pain — ever try to get to State College, Pa.? And there was the troublesome problem of what to call the new entity. The Big 11? The Big Misnomer?
The pragmatist in the grand design was Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. In 1990, he'd already been in charge of the Nittany Lions for 24 years — and, amazingly, would remain coach for 22 years more.
Penn State had been an independent for 106 years before it joined the Big Ten. The Big Ten hadn't added a school since Michigan State in 1949.
Paterno knew the change would be difficult on everyone.
“The (Big Ten's) presidents made an invitation and we accepted it,” Paterno said then. “It's not going to be easy, though. I have a lot of empathy for coaches and athletic directors who have to make this happen. The easy part was done by the presidents. The hard part has to be worked out by others.”
For the record, not everyone in Happy Valley was sold on a conference affiliation, either.
One caller to a radio talk show said, “I think Penn State took a step down. I see Penn State giving everything to the Big Ten and getting nothing back in return.”
For years, Penn State had tried to create an Eastern conference, but had failed. Most neighboring schools didn't look at football the same way Penn State did. Plus, there were differences in size, academic goals and geography to address. At least the Big Ten was comprised of like universities in contiguous states.
Still, even Penn State alumni were lukewarm to the lack of established rivalries and having to travel over 1,000 miles to watch the Nittany Lions play at Minnesota.
“It's been mixed,” said Peter Weiler, then Penn State's executive director of the alumni association. “But the temperature is changing. This thing has been percolating for a while. When it first hit the streets, the reaction is completely different than what you have now. There's a lot of anticipation for the first game.”
Now the addition of Penn State is seen as a template for other conference expansions, commonplace in college sports these days. Penn State has been a perfect fit for both the university and the Big Ten, particularly in football.
Paterno, who died of lung cancer Sunday at the age of 85, became the conference patriarch as a rookie.
“If you look at just adding a guy like Joe and what he brought individually and what he represented, there was a star power,” said Jordan Hyman, a Penn State alum who worked for the school paper and has written books on Nittany Lions football. “You look at the other coaches in the Big Ten, he was the guy. He had the magnetism. No offense to the (John) Coopers and (Lloyd) Carrs of the world, but they're not Joe.
“And never will be.”
The addition of Penn State expanded the Big Ten in more ways than geography. Sure, it added fans in New York and the East Coast to what had been a somewhat insular, Midwestern league. But it also enhanced the conference's prominence nationally. Recruiting for other schools started stretching further to the East while Paterno made inroads in Ohio and Michigan. And the inclusion of Penn State increased the Big Ten's television profile and almost immediately proved to be a financial bonanza for all 11 schools.
It's hard to imagine where the Big Ten would be without Penn State — and vice versa.
“Much the way that Penn State kind of acquired a little more national respect and a national footprint through the Big Ten, Penn State coming in helped to further nationalize the Big Ten,” Hyman said.
Still, it took time. The first year or two, there was some mistrust and downright enmity between Penn State and the existing members.
Michigan, then the reigning bully in the Big Ten, beat the Nittany Lions 21-13 on Oct. 16, 1993, for their first conference loss. The Wolverines didn't hide their feelings.
“We wanted to welcome Penn State to the Big Ten in a Big Ten fashion, and I think we did that today,” center Marc Milia said.
They resented all the attention Penn State was getting in its first season in the Big Ten.
“You just have to pay your dues. Just like a freshman, you can't come in bragging and boasting,” said running back Tyrone Wheatley, who rushed for 192 yards in the victory.
But it didn't take long for Penn State to prove it belonged. Within two years, Paterno and his team were Big Ten champs. He called reaching the Rose Bowl — his Nittany Lions did it twice — one of the highlights of an unprecedented 46-year coaching career which included a major-college record 409 victories.
These days, most Big Ten athletes would have no idea that Penn State hadn't always been a member, the fit is so ideal.
But for visionaries like Paterno and others, it took some selling.
“It's good for Penn State and the Big Ten,” he said at the time. “Anybody who doesn't think that is very shortsighted.”
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