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Was Big Ten right to fear Penn State leaving for ACC in last round of realignment?

Apparently this was a thing... or at least that’s the story when writing Jim Delany’s complicated legacy.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously the constant firestorm of conference realignment is largely behind us, and we’re happy that the Syracuse Orange appear to be thriving in year six as members of the ACC. Still, the shift from 2010 through 2014 was a huge change for college athletics, and shaped the legacies of a lot of people in the business.

One of those is Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner who will retire in 2020. As others have discussed quite a bit, he has a complicated legacy, made more so when looking at things through the league expansion lens. Since he started as commish in 1989, Delany’s overseen the addition of four programs: Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers. Obviously that’s a mixed bag of results, however.

Or at least, that’s what most of us think at this stage. But Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith wants us to think a little bit differently about the latter two additions. As he told the Toledo Blade this week:

“Here’s one thing that people seem to forget about our move with Rutgers and Maryland. At the time, the ACC was looking to expand. Part of our move was to protect Penn State. Everyone forgets we had a teammate and partner institution that was on a (geographic) island, so what we did, beyond gaining exposure, is we further brought in a valued partner in Penn State. Had Penn State defected to the ACC, what would the conversation have been then?”

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The idea has some merit on its face. Despite the fact that Penn State’s football program probably should’ve been shuttered for the foreseeable future following the child sex abuse scandal uncovered in 2011, it wasn’t, was barely punished and remains a very valuable college football #BRAND to this day. Most Syracuse fans over the age of 30 want to see the Nittany Lions on the schedule every year. Historically, they’re one of our more common opponents (or they were before they joined the B1G and we joined the Big East).

Add in PSU’s history with eventual ACC addition Pitt, eventual ACC defector Maryland, and then-members Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami, and there were plenty of reasons the Nittany Lions would have maybe considered leaving the Big Ten for the ACC.

Back when we were in the Big East, and in the early days after announcing we’d be leaving for the ACC, Penn State was a common pipedream addition based on exactly the idea Smith spells out above. Depending on timing — before or after Pitt and Syracuse were joining — the idea has some legs in theory.

Yet I still don’t buy it. Not to accuse Smith of anything, but this seems more like running interference for your business partner’s bad deal (Rutgers and Maryland) than anything else. The additions were about TV markets and strengthening the value of the Big Ten Network. Even before they were added, the Big Ten could boast a TV payout lapping that of other leagues. I find it hard to believe Penn State would’ve given that up for what was at the time a pretty weak ACC football product and no conference network revenue to bank on to help make up the difference in base TV contract.

Also, does the geography of SUNJ and Maryland matter all that much to Penn State? Is it any more impactful than the geography of the raft of Mid-Atlantic programs in the ACC would be? The ACC had/has far more to offer from a geography and historic rivals standpoint. The Big Ten’s advantage was and will be money.

That’s not to disparage Penn State for their decision (but others, sure) or the Big Ten for the move to bring in two atypical fits all for the promise of future riches. It’s to point out that those future riches WERE the reason.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s nice for Smith to help paint a story that Delany’s additions were uniting, not dividing (after all, much of the league still hates the fact that the two schools are there). But SUNJ and Maryland have contributed little on the football field and basketball court, and probably even less to Penn State’s reasoning behind staying in the Big Ten. The reason the schools were added and the reason PSU’s still there is money, plain and simple. As is always the case in college athletics.

That’s not “fine” per se. But it’s true, and I’m not going to hammer Delany any more than the various others in the business (including ACC commissioner John Swofford, arguably the savviest realignment negotiator of them all). Let’s just pass on the need to lionize (no pun intended) the guy for something that was driven by what every other decision was driven by: the money.