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Wine Online: A (Big Ten) History Lesson

The intercollegiate athletics landscape UI Director of Athletics Gary Barta navigates today is far different than the one imagined more than a century ago by the founding fathers of the Big Ten Conference.


The intercollegiate athletics landscape UI Director of Athletics Gary Barta navigates today is far different than the one imagined more than a century ago by the founding fathers of the Big Ten Conference.

Aug. 21, 2011

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The college athletic conference we know at the Big Ten was founded 115 years ago by seven Midwest universities. Today, with the recent addition of Nebraska, the membership total is 12. Here is what happened between then and now:

Professors from seven universities met at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago on Feb. 8, 1896, to officially establish the "Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives." It was an appropriate name, because faculty firmly controlled the league for decades.


The charter university members were Chicago, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. The news media and public referred to the seven schools as the "Western Conference."

Iowa, along with Indiana, accepted invitations to join the league in 1899, bringing the membership to nine.

Michigan withdrew in 1908 because of a disagreement in rules. Ohio State became a member in 1912. Michigan requested, and was granted, re-admission in 1917, giving the conference 10 members.

Newspapers quickly grabbed the opportunity to refer the league as the "Big Ten" - which was easy to fit into a headline -- although that name did not become official until the conference was incorporated some 70 years later, in 1987, when the Council of Ten (the presidents) became more involved.

Chicago dropped football in 1939 because administrators thought the sport was over-emphasized (what would they think today?) and in 1946 withdrew from the conference, leaving the Big Ten with only nine members. Michigan State was admitted in 1949, bringing membership back to 10, and it stayed that way for the next 40 years.





The admission of Penn State turned out to be a positive step forward for the Big Ten 21 years ago, and the inclusion of Nebraska is expected to have the same impact.


The best-kept sports secret in my lifetime was bringing Penn State into the Big Ten in 1990. The decision was made by the presidents, and it came as a shock to administrators and coaches. Some were angry because they had not been consulted. Iowa's Bump Elliott was one of the few athletic directors who publicly endorsed the move.

Suddenly the Big Ten had 11 members. There was talk of a name change, but Commissioner Jim Delaney wisely decided the Big Ten was a well-known brand name that should not be changed, never mind the contradictory numbers.

Now here it is, 21 years later, and Nebraska brings the Big Ten's membership to 12. The addition of the Cornhuskers came as no surprise. Indeed, there was speculation of conference expansion for years, and the reaction to Nebraska being a new member has been generally favorable.

The admission of Penn State turned out to be a positive step forward for the Big Ten 21 years ago, and the inclusion of Nebraska is expected to have the same impact.

There is no way the faculty representatives who met at the Palmer House in 1896 could have envisioned what they were creating. The Big Ten is not only the oldest collegiate conference in the nation. It is also the most influential and prestigious.

If the league's founders were alive today, they would not only be very old, they would also be very proud.