So Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said this week that the league will consider changing division names when Maryland and Rutgers join in 2014. This has led to a lot of people offering their own new division names for the conference, most of them whimsical or sarcastic.
But after much thought, creativity and focus-group research, I have come up with the perfect names for the Big Ten divisions that hopefully will soon be formerly known as Leaders and Legends. These are pretty ingenious, so prepare yourself for them. (Cough). Here they are:
Don't worry, I'm working on securing a trademark for this idea.
Seriously, this shouldn't be that hard. What are the division names in the NFL? East, West, North and South. How about Major League Baseball? East, West and Central. The SEC? East and West. The Pac-12? North and South. Does anybody have much trouble figuring out which teams are in those divisions? Nope. You know which divisions cause a lot of confusion over who's in them? The ACC's vague Atlantic and Coastal divisions, and our beloved Legends and Leaders.
The problem is that when labeling the divisions originally, the Big Ten -- which, granted, did not have great options after it chose not to make geography as a factor -- decided to let the marketing people use it as a branding opportunity. Honoring Legends and Building Leaders might be a fine slogan, but division names are not billboards. The Big Ten is right to want to highlight the many, many great success stories of athletes who have come through its schools over the decades. So put it in a TV commercial.
The Big Ten has fallen prey to this line of thinking in other instances, too, with sometimes unintended consequences. League officials had to quickly scrub Joe Paterno's name off the inaugural conference championship trophy after the Penn State scandal in late 2011. Expect another whitewash for the Big Ten's top female athlete honor; the Suzy Favor Award has different connotations now that former Wisconsin star runner Suzy Favor Hamilton admitted she led a double life as a $600-an-hour prostitute.
The lesson there is that we shouldn't be so quick to canonize athletes and coaches, especially living ones, because they are human and prone to making mistakes like the rest of us. See Lance Armstrong. And however well intentioned Big Ten officials might have been when they chose Leaders and Legends, that came off as pompous and grandiose. Whenever you do that, there will be critics lined up to take shots at you. The combination of Big Ten teams not performing well on (or in some cases off) the field and the rise of the snark machine that is Twitter since those division names were adopted has left the league open to scores of scorn and ridicule.
It doesn't have to be that way, and expansion offers an easy avenue to fix things. Keep the marketing folks out of this meeting. Go with something easy to remember like East and West. Strict geographical assignments don't matter that much, as few complain about the Dallas Cowboys being the NFC East, Missouri competing in the SEC East or Pac-12 South member Colorado technically sitting farther north than North members Stanford and Cal.
Not everything has to be about branding. When it comes to division names, the simplest answer is the best one.