Pac-12, Big Ten form 'collaboration'

Careful not to use the E-word (expansion) or R-word (realignment), the Pac-12 and Big Ten announced Wednesday that the two power conferences have agreed to a "collaboration'' that, if successful, could have far-reaching ramifications for both leagues.

Beginning as early as next year, the Pac-12 and Big Ten will initiate what amounts to a Friends With Benefits alliance. In short, the two leagues are going to significantly reconfigure their future football, basketball and Olympic sports schedules to feature games between their combined 24 member schools.

It isn't a merger, but the cleverly constructed "collaborative effort'' (as the official press release describes it) provides the Pac-12 and the Big Ten with some of the benefits of expansion without the mess of exit fees, litigation and the loss of historical rivalries. And from a strategic standpoint, the arrangement could broaden the geographical, television and brand reach of both conferences.

"Rather than go down the road of just trying to add members, we thought this was a way to keep who we were and an increased value for everybody,'' said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. "It doesn't mean you can't expand one day. It seems to us this is an intelligent way to get stronger and do so with zero collateral damage.''

Added Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, "It's a flexible approach to achieving some of the benefits of expansion without dealing with some of the other structural issues.''

Delany and Scott didn't mention other conferences by name, but clearly the defections involving Big East, Big 12 and Mountain West programs in recent months helped prompt the talks of an alliance. Those discussions first began in August, coagulated during the early fall and were officially green-lighted by Pac-12 and Big Ten presidents during a November meeting in San Francisco. This month in New York, athletic directors and administrators from both conferences began working on a scheduling plan for games.

The details remain fluid, but the probable first phase of the partnership would include increased Pac-12 vs. Big Ten games in men's and women's basketball, as well as in Olympic sports. Those changes will begin in the 2012-13 academic year.

The scheduling transition in football will be slower because of existing nonconference contract commitments. But by the 2017 season, the two leagues are expected to have a full 12-game Pac-12/Big Ten schedule in place, meaning each Pac-12 team will play a separate Big Ten program on an annual basis.

"We've obviously explored the possibility of going beyond 12 [teams],'' said Scott. "I've been a believer, philosophically, of that if it made sense. Now I don't see us expanding anytime in the foreseeable future.
A lot of what we can do through collaborating with the Big Ten will help us accomplish some of the same things.''

From a football perspective -- and football drives the financial bus in intercollegiate athletics -- the alliance will improve the nonconference schedules of Big Ten and Pac-12 programs. It gives each conference marketing and recruiting entry into large population and media centers of the country. It also provides added content and product for the Big Ten Network as well as the soon-to-be-launched Pac-12 Network, which begins programming in August 2012.

Former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther, now a consultant with the Big Ten, helped to first frame the concept of the consortium. The two leagues had kicked the tires on expanding their own conferences, but either couldn't find a suitable partner (as was the case with the Big Ten) or chose to reassess plans to increase membership (as was the case with Pac-12 presidents).

Instead, Delany and Scott settled on a plan that makes them quasi-national conferences without forgoing regional ties.

"It's another way to maintain who you are,'' said Delany.

Translation: Ohio State-Michigan isn't going away, nor is Cal-Stanford. But the nonconference schedules will get more muscle mass, the value of the leagues could increase and it opens up all sorts of Pac-12/Big Ten event possibilities.

According to Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, the future event list could include multicourt and multigames between Pac-12 and Big Ten teams at Dodger Stadium, the Rose Bowl, Ford Field in Detroit or Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Madison Square Garden also remains a possible venue, as do other NBA arenas, such as Staples Center in Los Angeles.

"If we told [MSU basketball coach Tom] Izzo we were playing a game on the moon, he'd ask, 'What time does the shuttle leave?''' said Hollis.

Hollis said the scheduling philosophy of "Anybody, anywhere, anytime'' is a no-brainer for the Pac-12/Big Ten partnership.

"I'm a believer that kids want to play in the big games,'' he said. "I think that's going to do nothing but enhance the situation for both leagues.''

The trickle-down effect of this new alliance will be fascinating to monitor. Will other conferences consider similar arrangements? Will it delay future conference realignment? Will it cause Notre Dame, which has rebuked Big Ten membership advances in the past, to look at the league as a "national" conference and rethink the university's independent status?

However it shakes out, the landscape of college athletics has been altered once more. But unlike the messy divorces involving the Big East, no threats or lawsuits were involved.

"It just seemed like the perfect time, with all that's going on," said Scott.

How about that? Two conferences that actually like each other.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.