Big Ten officials downplay SEC rivalry

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The Big Ten Experience, an interactive museum on the first floor of the league's offices, doesn't contain a Nick Saban voodoo doll or a dartboard with the SEC's logo in the bull's-eye.

I checked.

This may disappoint our friends in the South, including my ESPN colleague Paul Finebaum, but the Big Ten isn't completely obsessed with the SEC. To be clear, the Big Ten is acutely aware of the SEC's recent success in football, an unprecedented run that largely coincided with a Big Ten nosedive. Big Ten officials, including commissioner Jim Delany, understand that the Big Ten and SEC are, by far, the richest, most powerful and most popular conferences in college sports.

There's no shortage of rivalry kindling, from location to history to philosophy to coaches to results to massive fan bases incited by the mere mention of the other conference. Satellite camps, as insignificant as they are, became the latest wedge.

The Big Ten-SEC rivalry isn't going anywhere. But many Big Ten officials don't view the two leagues as diametrically opposed, even if it's how they're portrayed.

"There’s a good bit of collaboration," Delany said Wednesday after the Big Ten concluded its spring meetings. "It doesn’t get covered very much."

Delany, finishing his 27th year as Big Ten commissioner, recalls working with former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer to arrange bowl matchups in the early 1990s. He says there was more cooperation than discord between the leagues in shaping the College Football Playoff model. He praised the SEC for experimenting with centralized replay review this coming football season, adding that while the Big Ten isn't quite ready to take the step, it will be watching closely.

"It's natural to have a little healthy, competitive rivalry," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "But knowing most of those guys down there, they're going to compete and try to beat you on the field, but I also know they understand the importance of getting these kids educated.

"I doubt we're as far apart as people think we are."

There's a gap between the two leagues on the football field, at least in winning national championships, as the SEC boasts nine titles since 2003 (claimed by four different teams) while the Big Ten has just one in the same span. Another gulf exists with resource allocation. On average, the SEC devotes significantly more money to coach salaries and overall staff than the Big Ten.

This past offseason, two successful Big Ten defensive coordinators, Wisconsin's Dave Aranda and Penn State's Bob Shoop, left for similar posts in the SEC. Aranda more than doubled his salary by going to LSU, which will pay him approximately $1.3 million this season.

Excessive or justified, the SEC's commitment to football reflects the passion of its constituency.

"They’re from a different geography than ours," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said, "and maybe that geography creates some of that perceived separation, but we probably do things a little bit differently more so because of that than anything else."

Given the SEC's success in football, some argue the Big Ten should be doing more, especially with a lucrative new TV contract on the horizon. But Big Ten athletic directors like Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez don't feel that tug, whether it's paying coordinators seven-figure salaries or hiring massive staffs like Alabama's.

"Everybody wants to coach, everybody wants to have their fingers in it," said Alvarez, who coached Wisconsin from 1990 to 2005. "I don’t know how you keep track of responsibilities and hold people accountable when you have so many of them around. I like to have a staff that's manageable, the number of people, whether it’s recruiting, quality control. I don’t even know what some of the titles are anymore. You have to be careful with that."

But other than the head-to-head competitions, like Wisconsin's season opener against LSU at Lambeau Field, its third straight against an SEC power, Alvarez isn't wrapped up in "measuring one league to another league." He and his Big Ten colleagues remain focused on building athletic programs with an array of sports, without compromising academic standards.

"Those two things," Alvarez said, "really separate us."

Big Ten athletic directors, especially those in national leadership roles, hope the regionalism that largely defines and often hamstrings college sports will erode in the coming months. They think major reforms are on the horizon, especially in areas like recruiting.

"The day of the region, I get it if you're in a region that has a population and talent, it might be a little bit different, but a majority of us don’t have that," said Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst, a member of the Division I football oversight committee. "You need to look at it as a national platform, just like our institutions recruiting regular students to our campuses. It's not only national. It's global. As you look at that, you have to have rules that reconcile with that and create some fundamental fairness."

It might sound like sour grapes from a school in a conference that has struggled to match the SEC on the recruiting trail. But Big Ten ADs think their SEC counterparts are more in line with the need to reform the sport.

"I know it makes for a great story, and there are situations where there's some conflict between the two conferences, but I also think there's some collegiality," said Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, chair of the NCAA's Division I Council. "There's mutual respect for each other and the programs that we offer. Ultimately, this is, has to be, must be, can't be anything other than what's good for college football, not what's good for a particular conference, not what's good for a particular program or a certain region.

"I'm incredibly optimistic that we're going to get there."