ROSEMONT, Ill. — If there’s any small comfort for Jim Tenopir, it’s that he’s not alone.
When it comes to the Big Ten and Friday night football, not by a long shot.
“The commissioner [Jim Delany] made the comment that Friday night games have been happening all across the country,” Tenopir, executive director of the Nebraska School Activities Association, told Land of 10 during Day One of the Big Ten Conference Joint Group Meetings.
“They did not expect the blowback that the Big Ten got on Friday nights.”
And by “blowback,” he means calls. Emails. Facebook comments. General social media hell.
Executives from seven state athletic or activities associations within the Big Ten footprint — Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, along with a representative from the National Federation of State High School Associations — met with league officials for two hours at the Big Ten’s suburban Chicago headquarters Monday to explain their concerns with the conference’s decision to play football games, including intraleague matchups, on Friday nights starting this fall.
Tenopir said Big Ten officials countered that the intent of Friday games was getting “some better prime-time coverage for some Big Ten teams that are traditionally second-tier compared to Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska.
“They downplayed the revenue. But if television’s involved, you have to know that revenue is a portion of that.”
And some of those top-tier teams remain a part of the equation. One of those Friday conference games, and Tenopir’s primary concern, is the Cornhuskers’ trip to Illinois on Sept. 29.
“The chance to be on a national [window] is great for our program,” offered Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman, whose Fighting Illini will play two Friday night games this fall. “I’ve talked to [coach Lovie] Smith about it and [we] share his enthusiasm about it. It’s a little different for our league, but for us, we’re embracing the opportunity and hope it will help to advance our program.”
‘They’ve done a nice job trying to soften the blow, but the blow is still going to be there.’
— Jim Tenopir, executive director of the Nebraska School Activities Association, on the Cornhuskers
Tenopir said he was told the Huskers were also in line to host one Friday game during the first three years of the Big Ten’s television deal, but “I would like to see them not have one … I hope they understand where we’re coming from and we’re not just crying wolf.
“Jim Delany was very specific that this was a six-year television contract. Whatever [adjustment] there would be probably wouldn’t occur until after this six-year time period. And they’re as interested as we are in knowing how that Friday night, the 29th of September, will impact both Huskers football and high school football, volleyball, and other activities that have been competed on that particular night.”
The blowback since last fall’s announcement — not just from fans, but coaches such as Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald — was such that the league has already trimmed two of its 2017 Friday offerings, both involving Fitzgerald’s Wildcats. Northwestern’s visit to Maryland on Oct. 14 and home game vs. Michigan State on Oct. 28 were initially to be played under the Friday night lights, one day earlier.
“And I think part of it has to be the local politics, if you will,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. “What does it feel like in Evanston, versus what does it feel like in Lincoln, feel like in Iowa City, or in Columbus, Ohio? And the [more] we can allow those schools locally have influence [on] what we do on Friday nights, I think, the better off we’ll be.”
For the association reps, having the floor Monday didn’t necessarily bring closure. Or even compromise. But they appreciated the Big Ten giving them the microphone.
“I think [it helped] from the standpoint of coming to grips with the fact that it’s there whether you like it or not,” Tenopir said. “I think we’ve had good relationships with [Huskers athletics]. They’ve done a nice job trying to soften the blow, but the blow is still going to be there [during] an away game this fall. We would prefer they not have done that, absolutely.
“I didn’t come to this meeting thinking there was going to be drastic changes, but I came to the meeting hoping that the athletic directors and Big Ten staff and faculty representatives that were present understood where we were coming from … [Going] forward, I hope they understand that we’re dependent on each other.”
Four other things we learned from the first of two days of spring meetings:
1. The league promises to stay away from any other weeknight football games — for now
With Friday still on the table, what does that mean for Thursday night games? Wednesdays? Tuesdays?
“Now who knows what the future holds?” Phillips replied. “But I would say we have had [discussions] that we are not going to do that. We just are not going to do that, and I hope that we stay true to our word about that.”
2. Everybody’s still not quite on board with the new December national signing period
And Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith still isn’t thrilled with where the trend line — earlier commitments — is going.
“I personally think you’re going to see people making earlier and earlier decisions and [feel] pressure a whole lot earlier,” Smith said. “It’s like we have in all the other big sports. I’ve got Olympics sports kids sitting in my office who don’t have a driver’s license.
“And it just bothers me that we keep moving this back and when, in my view, we ought to be moving it closer to a team where they’re getting a little bit older, when [there’s more] the sum of all our experiences and see different things. You hope you’d make better decisions and we’re seeing kids making decisions a lot earlier than I think they should be making them, and we’re a part of that. I’m saying we’re a part of that, too.”
Nebraska football coach Mike Riley and athletic director Shawn Eichorst told a luncheon audience last Monday that a signing period as early as July 1 could also be on the radar, and sooner rather than later. Whitman wasn’t willing to go that far yet, but sees the December window as pragmatic.
“It’s just a couple months difference (from February),” Whitman opined. “It mirrors what we’ve done with other sports. Most other sports have had early signing periods for a number of years now. It never really made sense that football wouldn’t have one … it allows us to provide them with official visit opportunities in spring of their junior year. It aligns more closely (with) the time frame in which they’re generally making their decisions anyway.”
3. A 10th assistant on your football staff sounds like a good idea — a 15th consultant, not so much
Phillips concurred with a CBSSports.com report that the NCAA has concerns about the sheer size of college football staffs, especially where consultants are concerned. Michigan reportedly fields a crew of 40 combined on-field coaches, graduate assistants, support staff and strength staff, the most in the Big Ten and the fifth-highest total in the country.
“And that’s going to be a big piece of the football oversight committee’s work,” Phillips said. “That’s the next idea that they want to tackle. I think they also want to tackle a 14th week, in order to have two bye weeks and a 12-game season … but we don’t want to hold up that 10th assistant coach. We need that, if you look at the (ratio) of football student-athletes on the field and look at the coaches that can actually coach them. That number has as big a gap as we have.”
4. If a men’s basketball team wants to schedule a league opponent it rarely sees as a ‘nonconference’ game, that’s totally on the table
… and it’s on the table for the second week of March, too, given that the Big Ten men’s hoops tournament in New York City has been moved up on the calendar to accommodate Madison Square Garden.
The 2018 tourney is slated for Feb. 28-March 4, with Selection Sunday following on March 11, meaning that a post-league tournament gap could be a week or longer.
“Do you end up playing a nonconference game during that week that’s after the conference [tournament] finishes up in New York?” Phillips pondered. “That’s a possibility. But who do you get who’s available? Do you play another conference game, and it’s a ‘nonconference’ game, but you play another conference opponent during that week? And I think you’ve got to be creative … how long a layoff is too long, where it really starts to have an adverse effect when you go into the postseason, whether it’s the NCAA or the NIT?”
Maintaining long-standing rivalries such as Indiana-Purdue remains a priority, Phillips continued, in regard to future schedules. Bonus: If Nebraska wants to get together with, say, Maryland, for a game outside the usual conference slate, in order to fill out the calendar, “if you had two willing participants in the Big Ten that wanted to do it, I don’t necessarily think that the conference would oppose that.”