Five lessons about Big Ten expansion study

CHICAGO -- Three days of meetings at the Hotel Sofitel didn't provide many major revelations about the Big Ten's expansion study, which is a little more than five months old.

League sources said there's little doubt the Big Ten will go through with some sort of expansion, but the questions about candidates and the size and scope of an expansion remain largely unanswered.

"Eastern Illinois and Toledo State," one Big Ten athletic director jokingly told a small group of reporters as he left the hotel Wednesday.

Expansion wasn't on the official agenda at the Big Ten's spring meetings, but commissioner Jim Delany brought the league's athletic directors and coaches up to speed on the process. Delany insists the Big Ten is still in the information-gathering stage of the study, and the formal invitation/application process is "months away," if and when it happens.

Meanwhile, speculation will continue as everyone asks: Who will end up joining the Big Ten?

"There's not a person in the world," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said, "who knows the answer to that question."

The week still provided some takeaways about the expansion study, and here are five lessons learned:

1. The Big Ten still wants to land a big fish

It would be tough to see the Big Ten being satisfied with an expansion that didn't include Notre Dame, Texas or Nebraska.

Several Big Ten athletic directors said that Notre Dame makes a lot of sense for the league both athletically and academically. One league source told ESPN.com that Nebraska would be a great fit for the league. Texas brings some challenges because of its location, but the Big Ten is well aware of UT's obvious strengths.

Ohio State AD Gene Smith, a former Notre Dame player and coach, made some interesting comments about how times have changed in South Bend and how players miss out on the chance to play for conference championships.

The Big Ten knows it can add some smaller-name programs, but the league isn't going to give up on the big boys.

2. AAU membership matters for the most part

Delany made it clear Tuesday that membership in the Association of American Universities remains an important criteria for most expansion candidates. All 11 current Big Ten schools are AAU members.

"AAU membership is an important part of who we are," he said.

Of course, the Big Ten's last expansion target, Notre Dame, isn't an AAU member, and it likely wouldn't preclude the league from pursuing the Fighting Irish again.

"The academics and the traditions and the values of those schools have to match the values of the Big Ten," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "[AAU membership] is very important."

When asked if AAU membership is part of the identity of Big Ten schools, Alvarez replied, smiling, "It is right now."

In other words: it is until Notre Dame wants in.

The AAU comments could spell bad news for Connecticut, a non-AAU member.

3. Other than Texas, the South likely isn't a target area

Delany's comments about the nation's population shift to the Sun Belt region set off signals to some that the Big Ten would focus much of its expansion efforts on institutions in the South. That's probably not the case. Aside from Texas, few schools in the South fit what the Big Ten is looking for from an academic, athletic and marketing perspective. While it's foolish to totally write off candidates at this stage, I think Delany might have been misunderstood.

It's more likely the Big Ten will try to increase its presence in the northern half of the country, particularly in the Midwest and the East Coast. If the Big Ten can add more alumni in the North and become bigger in the biggest TV markets, it shouldn't be hurt too much by a shifting population.

Then again, if Texas is interested ...

4. The Big Ten is only concerned about its own timetable

Delany said there will be no vote at the June 6 meeting of Big Ten presidents and chancellors at the league headquarters in Park Ridge, Ill. And several league sources said the expansion process likely would go through the fall before reaching a resolution.

The Big Ten doesn't seem concerned about the start of fiscal years for expansion candidates or the penalties -- either financial or length of time -- that schools would face for leaving other conferences. Delany and his staff want everyone to know how thorough and diligent they're being with this expansion study, in an effort to avoid missteps made in the past by other leagues and to try to limit the damage on the back end.

"A lot of these things that we've studied have been, in my view, improperly studied [by other leagues]," Delany said. "Didn't understand the logistics, didn't understand the culture, didn't understand the academic fit, didn't really understand whether they were doing a merger or whether they were doing an expansion. Expansion is very difficult, and we're learning how to do it better, I think."

5. The end game won't last long

Delany knows he's holding most of the cards in this process, and if/when the Big Ten ultimately decides to go forward with expansion, the league will act quickly. Delany will inform other conference commissioners before beginning formal discussions with one of their institutions.

Ultimately, an institution must apply for admission to the Big Ten and receive at least eight votes from the league's presidents and chancellors to be admitted. But that process should be more or less a formality. The league presidents and chancellors will know who they want and what they want before taking a vote. We likely won't see a repeat of Penn State's admission process in 1989-90.

"I would presume that nobody would apply without knowing they were welcome to apply,” Delany said. “We’re not interested in embarrassing ourselves, or embarrassing anyone else. So the process of due diligence is a long one, but the process of formal conversations about it is a shorter one. The heads up [other conference commissioners] would get would be before a public announcement, but probably not months before a public announcement."