Big Ten expansion push heating up

Big Ten expansion talk has quieted down just a bit during the last six weeks or so, but things are about to pick up.

Real fast.

As first reported by the Chicago Tribune, top Big Ten officials will meet beginning Saturday in Washington to discuss expansion. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany confirmed in a text message to ESPN.com that he's in D.C., and the Tribune reports that Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro and University of Illinois interim chancellor Robert Easter also will attend. I'm still trying to confirm whether other Big Ten leaders are there, particularly Michigan State president Lou Anna K. Simon, the chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors.

The gathering coincides with a three-day meeting of the Association of American Universities, beginning today in Washington. All 11 Big Ten schools are AAU members, and the top expansion candidates, with the notable exception of Notre Dame, also are part of the AAU.

AAU members include Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas. Connecticut and Boston College are not part of the AAU.

It's also very significant that the BCS annual meetings take place later this week in Phoenix. Remember that in its Dec. 15 statement about expansion, the Big Ten said it will notify the commissioners of affected conferences -- or Notre Dame top administrators -- before engaging in any formal discussions with institutions.

If I were Big East commissioner John Marinatto or Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, I'd worry about a tap on my shoulder during the BCS meetings. From what I've been told from coaches and officials around the Big Ten, Delany wants to get something done, and the commish usually gets what he wants.

Two other dates to remember:

  • The Big Ten holds its meetings of coaches (football, men's basketball, women's basketball) and athletic directors in Chicago from May 17-19

  • The Big Ten holds its meetings of presidents and chancellors in Chicago in early June

Translation: the Big Ten could finalize an expansion plan, and quite possibly rock the college sports landscape, in the next two months. So much for the 12- to 18-month plan outlined in the league's initial statement.

As the Tribune points out, "The fiscal years of universities end on the last day of June, 'so if you go past July 1, you have to wait an extra year,' one source said." So if the Big Ten wants to be a 12-team, 14-team or 16-team league for the 2011-12 academic year, it needs to act quickly.

I've had the chance to visit seven Big Ten schools for spring football practice, and the buzz among coaches and officials is that the Big Ten will expand, and there's a strong likelihood the league will add more than one team. Almost everyone I spoke with thinks the league will go to 14 or 16.

I'm still skeptical about a 16-team super conference, which sounds great in principle but hard to successfully execute. I still believe that if the Big Ten can add Notre Dame as a 12th member, there's absolutely no need to do anything else.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, by the way, had this to say on Saturday: "Our highest priority is maintaining football independence."

Swarbrick can say what he wants, but he still has to at least listen if the Big Ten comes calling. Major changes could be coming to college sports, and Notre Dame can't be left on the sideline, clinging to a football independence that seems to mean less and less with each passing year.

I still think the Big Ten has to make a push for Notre Dame before moving on to schools like Pitt, Rutgers, Missouri and Nebraska. If the Irish ultimately say no, the likelihood of a three-team or five-team expansion goes way up.

The next few weeks should be very, very interesting, so stay tuned.