NU and the Big Ten: A behind-the-scenes look at how the historic switch was made

This story appeared in The World-Herald on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2010

Harvey Perlman was driving north on Interstate 29 out of Kansas City, somewhere around Mound City, Missouri, when he got on the phone with Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor had just endured two days of grilling from his Big 12 peers and now faced an ultimatum: You have a week to let us know whether Nebraska is committed to the Big 12.

So Perlman essentially told Delany it was late in the fourth quarter. Regardless of the Big Ten’s time frame for expansion, if it wanted Nebraska, it needed to act now.

“This is not an ultimatum to you, but in fairness, this is what the situation is,” Perlman recalls telling Delany. “If I don’t have something definitive from the Big Ten, I’ll have to commit to the Big 12.”

Exactly one week later — almost to the minute — of Perlman’s phone call, Delany was standing before a crowded hall in Lincoln on June 11 welcoming Perlman, Nebraska and its powerhouse football program into the Big Ten Conference.

The World-Herald recently dug deeper into Nebraska’s decision to jump to the Big Ten, a landmark shift that in 2011 will end a century of athletic traditions but open a new chapter for the Cornhuskers in one of the nation’s most prestigious athletic leagues. The paper’s examination included the most extensive interviews to date on the topic with Delany, Perlman and NU Athletic Director Tom Osborne.

The paper’s examination revealed many misconceptions about how and why the change unfolded. It also revealed a high drama featuring inside tips, surprises, powerful players, back-channel contacts, cloak-and-dagger meetings, tough bargaining and big stakes. Consider:

When the Big Ten first launched its drive to expand late last year, Nebraska was not a likely partner. The Big Ten had bigger potential targets. And contrary to many perceptions, Nebraska was generally happy in a conference whose most important rules — those governing how money was distributed — tilted to Nebraska’s liking.

Perlman first reached out to the Big Ten this January after a tipster warned him that even an elite football school like Nebraska could be left standing on the sidelines in a major conference shake-up that appeared to be brewing.

The future stability and academic prestige offered by the Big Ten would grow on NU officials. After a secret meeting with Delany on May 25 — the first major exchange between the two sides — Perlman was leaning in favor of the Big Ten.

The attraction was becoming mutual. Delany says Nebraska’s stock rose significantly during that May 25 meeting. His parting words convinced Perlman that Nebraska was now a serious candidate.

During the showdown at Big 12 meetings a week later, Perlman tried hard to keep Nebraska’s options open but left facing a one-week ultimatum instead.

He was in a tight spot. There was no Big Ten offer on the visible horizon, the Big Ten still in the midst of its expansion timeline. At that point, Perlman says, it was essentially: Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

But Perlman felt he had little choice.

As he drove out of Kansas City on June 4 — metaphorically speeding away from Big 12 country toward a new future in the Big Ten — Perlman made the call.

* * *

The 287-word statement released from Big Ten headquarters on Dec. 15, 2009, quickly got the college football world buzzing. League leaders, it said, had decided the time was right to evaluate expansion.

Adding at least one new member would allow the 11-member Big Ten to start playing a conference title game.

A bigger geographic footprint also could expand the reach of the Big Ten TV network, a groundbreaking venture that was helping bring in $20 million annually to each league school. That’s double the conference revenue of top Big 12 schools.

Back in Lincoln, though, the announcement caused hardly a stir.

“I don’t see any indication Nebraska is looking to go to another conference at this point,” Osborne said in a radio interview that day.

It’s not the plain-spoken Osborne’s style to put up smoke screens, and he says now he wasn’t. There truly was no thought of going to the Big Ten.

Nebraska shared a lot of history with Big 12 schools. Plus, when you get right down to it, Perlman says, Nebraska had no major beefs with the way the Big 12 was run.

Sure, Husker football fans had screamed robbery just 10 days earlier when a second was put back on the clock, allowing Texas to beat Nebraska for the Big 12 title.

Osborne also personally had some longtime concerns about the Texas-centric nature of the Big 12 and the natural advantages of its Sunbelt schools. It certainly wasn’t the same as the old Big Eight, the league in which the legendary coach toiled for decades before it absorbed Texas and three other Southwest Conference schools in the mid-1990s.

Osborne had opposed the relocation of the conference offices from Kansas City to Dallas. He also fought anchoring the conference title game in Dallas, preferring it move between cities in the north and the south.

But Perlman didn’t really share those geographic concerns. In fact, he actually would end up voting to play the title game in Dallas for the next several years. “I wasn’t prepared to sit in Kansas City in the cold,” Perlman said.

And on the issues of greatest import, “Nebraska was getting largely what it wanted,” Perlman said.

While some schools complained about the league’s unequal distribution of revenue from network TV contracts, Nebraska wasn’t among them. It joined Texas as a strong proponent of giving big-time football schools — those most appealing to the networks — a bigger slice of the pie.

Plus, Perlman said, the Big 12 had just recently completed important conversations about whether to form its own TV network for secondary sports programming, akin to the Big Ten’s.

While many have blamed Texas and its plans to start its own Longhorn TV network as the reason a Big 12 network never got off the ground, Nebraska wasn’t on board with a conference network, either. Nebraska’s support was conditional on the high-profile schools taking a larger cut of that revenue, too — a condition some schools strongly opposed.

As a result of those talks, Nebraska, like Texas, was now moving to create its own network. A consultant’s study had concluded that a Husker network would succeed and bring in seven-figure revenue on top of what Nebraska was getting from major network telecasts.

Perlman said NU was on track to have its network running by the fall of 2011 — actually ahead of Texas’ timetable.

For all those reasons, when Perlman first heard of Big Ten expansion, he didn’t give it five minutes’ thought.

Before long, it would come to occupy much of his time.

* * *

In mid-January, university leaders from across the country gathered in Atlanta for the NCAA’s annual convention.

In a hallway of the Hyatt Regency on Jan. 15, Perlman ran into a good friend — someone he describes only as a well-connected “sports insider.’’

“You need to pay attention to conference realignment,” the friend told Perlman, “or you’re going to be left out in the cold.”

Indeed, the Big Ten’s expansion talk was now causing the ground to shift all over the college football landscape.

This wasn’t about the Big Ten adding a team, the friend said. The Big Ten might add as many as five, becoming the first major football conference with 16 teams.

If that happened, other leagues wouldn’t stand pat, creating the potential for major college football to reorganize into four 16-team superconferences.

Under that scenario, at least two major conferences would not survive. And the Big 12 was in the cross hairs, with strong conferences both to the east and west in position to pilfer schools.

If things didn’t break right, the friend said, even a traditional power like Nebraska could find itself on the outside looking in.

The friend said things were moving fast. Perlman decided he needed to move quickly, too.

The next day, as he was sitting in the convention’s general assembly, he pulled out his BlackBerry and punched out an e-mail to Jim Delany.

“Are you around?” he asked the Big Ten’s commissioner.

“Yes. I’m right behind you,” came the reply five minutes later.

Perlman, an erudite Nebraska native who has served as UNL’s chancellor for a decade, knew the businesslike Delany a little, the two having been active in football bowl matters.

As the convention session broke up, they met up in the open at the front of the large ballroom. They talked just a few minutes.

“I don’t know what you guys are thinking,” Perlman recalls saying. “But if you think about looking west, Nebraska would be interested in at least having a conversation with you.”

Delany said he appreciated the interest from Perlman and then talked briefly about the Big Ten’s timeline, set at 12 to 18 months.

Delany did not betray any particular interest in Nebraska. But as Perlman would later recall, Delany didn’t give him the brushoff, either.

* * *

Back in Nebraska over ensuing weeks, Perlman and Osborne would have many talks about Nebraska’s position.

Though NU was rich in football tradition, home to five national championships, three Heisman winners and coaching legends, both men feared the school was vulnerable. Rumors and speculation in the media did nothing to diminish that.

Notre Dame and Texas were often mentioned as the Big Ten’s top targets. Another report in March indicated the league had studied the viability of five schools: Notre Dame, the Big 12’s Missouri, and Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse.

It appeared from such reports that the Big Ten was eyeing schools in states with big populations and lots of TV sets. With only 1.8 million people, Nebraska wouldn’t make such a cut — a big concern.

Delany today says nearly all such reports had no validity. The conference at that point was still doing broad research and had not narrowed its focus to any schools.

“We didn’t have an endgame in mind or an end institution in mind,” he said. And in the end, “there was only one serious dance with one institution.”

Osborne and Perlman also talked about the pros and cons of the Big 12, the Big Ten or even trying to make it as an independent — a potential fallback if the Big 12 fell apart.

Perlman in particular was intrigued by what the Big Ten would mean to Nebraska academically.

Big Ten schools were well-known for collaborating as hard in the classroom and laboratory as they competed on the field. Big Ten membership would bring more big-dollar research awards and boost UNL’s scholarly stature.

Though Nebraska would rank at the bottom of the Big Ten on most academic measures, concerted efforts over the past two decades had raised its national research standing, quality of students and overall reputation. With its rise, UNL’s profile compared favorably with many of the other supposed candidates.

But still, the Big Ten had to be a good fit athletically, too. There were many unanswered questions.

Osborne and Perlman also kept their ears to the ground, each having a channel into the Big Ten.

Osborne stayed in touch with Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, a former Husker player and coach. And Perlman reached out to Graham Spanier, the president of Penn State. When Spanier was chancellor of UNL in the early 1990s, Perlman had served as the law school dean, and they remained close colleagues and friends.

Perlman called Spanier early on and expressed concern about Nebraska’s vulnerable position.

But while Missouri’s governor openly campaigned to get the University of Missouri into the Big Ten, Perlman and Osborne decided against mounting even a back-channel campaign. They didn’t think it would be particularly productive, and thought it might actually hurt.

* * *

In the spring, Delany offered up to Big Ten presidents a list of schools he wanted to pursue initial talks with. It appears he got approval to go ahead on April 18. That’s when Big Ten leaders were together in Washington for a meeting of the American Association of Universities, an organization of top research schools.

By that point, Delany said, many schools had reached out to the Big Ten. But now the league would take the next step and sit down with schools it had interest in. Delany won’t disclose which, or how many, schools were on that list.

The meetings were preliminary, Delany said, part of the “due diligence” of vetting all candidates. “There was nothing about these meetings that could have led anyone on the other side of the table to believe that a next meeting was going to happen,” he said.

Around the same time, Perlman and Osborne were getting indications that Nebraska had made its way onto the Big Ten’s radar.

On April 19, Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel came to Lincoln for a speaking engagement. As Osborne gave his old coaching colleague a tour of Nebraska’s facilities, Tressel told him he was hearing Nebraska’s name.

“Nebraska’s very highly thought of,” Tressel said.

Also around that time, Perlman got a call from Spanier: You should hear from Delany soon.

In football terms, Nebraska had made the first cut.

* * *

To this day, Perlman, Osborne and Delany won’t say where they met on May 25.

Perlman will describe it only as “a very remote private location” far from both Big Ten country and Nebraska. It’s a secret, Perlman said, because the Big Ten may use it for future business.

They went to considerable lengths to keep the meeting under wraps.

Because Osborne is a well-known figure who tends to attract attention, it was agreed he and the chancellor would fly separately. Perlman was joined by Joel Pedersen, the university’s general counsel. Few on any of their staffs knew the reason for their travel.

After staying overnight in a city and eating breakfast separately to preserve their low profile, Perlman and Osborne received cell calls summoning them to meet a car outside. They then rode to a rural location about an hour outside the city.

They were greeted by Delany, Big Ten Deputy Commissioner Brad Traviolia and the conference’s legal counsel.

Perlman said Delany reiterated that “this shouldn’t be regarded as any more than sitting down for a chat.” He was holding similar meetings with other schools.

Asked last week where NU’s bid ranked then, Delany said it would have been inaccurate to say the school was “not on the horizon” or “in the lead” — it was just in the mix.

The next four hours, however, changed that.

The Big Ten contingent went through a PowerPoint presentation detailing the Big Ten, its TV network, projections on future revenues, conference traditions and values and what it was looking for in a new member.

Then it was Nebraska’s turn.

Perlman said he and Osborne were definitely trying to sell Delany on Nebraska. Even though they weren’t sure the Big Ten was right for NU, they felt it was important to keep the option alive.

Perlman said he was upfront on why Nebraska was there, concerned about NU’s vulnerability in the Big 12 and intrigued by the Big Ten.

Osborne and Perlman had decided against PowerPoints or flashy videos playing the school fight song. They talked through what they thought were the “high points” of Nebraska and went through a series of documents outlining information requested by the Big Ten.

They covered the school’s guiding principles, budget, facilities, plans, NCAA compliance, future schedules and media deals. The university has declined to disclose the documents it offered, saying they are exempt from the state’s open records law.

A key message Perlman wanted to convey was that at Nebraska, “we try to do things the right way.” He and Osborne cited the school’s record number of academic All-Americans and sterling compliance record.

Delany was struck by how well Nebraska’s profile fit those of top-tier programs in the Big Ten: Iconic brand. AAU membership. Broad-based athletic program. Strong value on sportsmanship.

“I saw a lot of things familiar to me,” he said.

But the comfort level went beyond the school.

Going in, Delany had been just vaguely acquainted with Osborne and Perlman. But he liked how the two Nebraskans presented themselves.

He was particularly struck by how concerned Perlman and Osborne were about making sure the cultures of the Big Ten and Nebraska meshed — a concern born in the less-than-ideal marriage between the old Big Eight and the Texas schools.

Delany recalls Osborne saying at one point during the culture discussion, “There are some things that are more important than money.”

In this case, Delany saw a great cultural fit. It’s safe to say that Nebraska’s stock had climbed considerably, he said last week.

“It clicked on both of our ends,” he said.

Then while the attorneys went over Nebraska’s media contracts, and Osborne and Traviolia discussed more detailed athletic matters, Delany and Perlman went for a walk.

Delany told Perlman he was not prepared to make any commitments. But Perlman recalls a statement from Delany he took as very encouraging: “All I can say is from what we see, the culture, the aspirations and the tenor of Nebraska seem to fit what we are looking for in the Big Ten.”

It was enough to convince Perlman the Big Ten was now seriously interested in Nebraska.

* * *

By the time Perlman and Osborne returned from their whirlwind trip, the Big 12 meetings in Kansas City were just a week away.

This was going to be tricky.

The meeting with Delany had answered a lot of questions. Perlman says he was now leaning in favor of the Big Ten, though also not ready to rule out staying with the Big 12.

And while Delany’s encouraging words had left Perlman excited about a potential Big Ten bid, there were no guarantees. The Big Ten could go in another direction.

“We had nothing to fall back on, so we had to be pretty careful here,” Perlman said.

Entering the meetings, Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe made clear he would be looking for commitments from all the conference’s schools. By that time there was a radio report — again erroneous — that Nebraska, Missouri, Notre Dame and Rutgers had been invited to join the Big Ten.

But Perlman also knew NU was far from the only Big 12 school whose loyalty was now in doubt.

Longhorn-Husker politics aside, Perlman describes University of Texas President William Powers as a friend. And months earlier, when realignment talk was first heating up, they struck an agreement: Their first duty was to their own institutions, but to the degree they could share information, they would.

At some point, Perlman says, Powers had told him Texas and five other Big 12 schools were in serious discussions with the Pac-10 Conference. That story later would be leaked publicly midway through the Big 12 meetings.

Despite the talk of commitments, Perlman and Osborne decided NU’s posture going in would be to keep its options open. Perlman described the Nebraska message as this: “Look, rumors are six of you are leaving for the Pac-10. We do not have an offer from the Big Ten, and we are feeling vulnerable that if we do make a commitment to the Big 12, there won’t be a conference there to honor it.”

While declaring that they had no Big Ten offer, Osborne and Perlman say they never disclosed they’d met with the Big Ten, nor were they asked about it. “I was never cross-examined,” Perlman said.

Powers and Beebe both declined to be interviewed for this story.

As proceedings got under way at the InterContinental Hotel in Kansas City, media scrutiny was intense, but what happened inside has largely remained behind closed doors.

Osborne and Perlman both say the meetings were heated, but not inappropriately contentious. It was understood everyone was looking out for his own school, and lots was at stake.

The athletic directors met first, and Osborne said there was an almost immediate call for all schools to commit. Osborne came to the defense of Missouri’s athletic director, who was particularly taking heat. Osborne noted it’s the university presidents who make the decisions here.

“Everyone in this room can raise their hand one way or another and it won’t make much difference,” Osborne said.

The presidents first took up the conference’s future late on Thursday, June 3. And the discussion quickly came to revolve around just two schools.

Powers made it clear that if Nebraska stayed, Texas would stay.

Other than Colorado, the other schools being courted by the Pac-10 indicated they’d stay if Texas stayed.

“What’s Nebraska going to do?” became the meeting’s constant refrain, Perlman said.

The presidents broke for dinner, and Powers and Perlman shared a cocktail.

While Perlman and Powers were going back and forth in these meetings, Perlman said there was never any antagonism between them. Perlman knew from their private discussions that Powers well understood why the Big Ten would be attractive to Nebraska.

The next day, Friday, June 4, the call for commitment turned to how to define it. As part of that, Perlman attempted to probe the depth of Texas’ commitment to the Big 12.

What if Nebraska stayed but both Colorado and Missouri left? Would Texas stay then, Perlman asked? Perlman said Powers indicated he was optimistic Texas would, but he could not commit.

Then Perlman said it occurred to him the most binding way to make a commitment would be for schools to pledge their major network TV rights to the Big 12. The league’s current TV contracts were soon set to expire, so such a pledge would have real meaning. He asked Powers whether Texas would commit its future rights to the league.

He said Powers responded that he might be able to secure that commitment but it would take time, and the schools didn’t have much time.

Perlman said the responses to those questions did little to allay his concerns that Nebraska could end up committing to a league with a short shelf life.

However, it appears even if Texas had answered those questions with solid commitments, there’s no guarantee Nebraska would have pledged to stay. Perlman declined last week to speculate, saying there would have been much else to weigh, including century-old rivalries and the Big Ten’s attractiveness.

Finally the ultimatum was set: All schools had a week to commit — the Friday, June 11, deadline picked because that’s when Nebraska’s Board of Regents would next meet.

While the ultimatum applied to all schools, only one answer really mattered. As the meeting broke up, several presidents told Perlman they were sorry to put him on the spot.

Perlman didn’t think there was anything inappropriate about the ultimatum. The conference needed to know who was in before it could move forward.

But Perlman felt the pressure. It was as if the fate not only of Nebraska but of several other Big 12 schools had been placed on his shoulders.

* * *

Perlman was happy to get out of Kansas City and began his lonely drive home.

As he motored north in his Lexus — a perk provided to the chancellor by the NU Foundation — he first dialed Osborne, who had left Kansas City the previous day.

They discussed a meeting Osborne had had that morning with NU’s coaches. Telling them the conference discussions were getting serious, Osborne polled them on where they thought Nebraska should cast its lot.

Every coach voted Big Ten.

He and Osborne talked and agreed: It was time to make the call.

Perlman first phoned Penn State’s Spanier and told him of Nebraska’s dilemma.

Spanier responded that some of the presidents had been talking about Nebraska. Spanier also said he would certainly support admitting Nebraska — the first time in all these months he’d ever expressed that to Perlman.

Spanier said he’d talk to Delany.

Then at 5 p.m., Delany phoned Perlman, the start of what Perlman would later jokingly call “the Mound City conference.”

The call was an awkward dance for Perlman, who tried to avoid directly asking Delany to consider Nebraska, given the school had never been invited to apply. He stressed Nebraska’s problem wasn’t Delany’s problem, but said, “If the Big Ten is seriously considering Nebraska, it doesn’t have much time.”

In effect, Perlman had just crossed the Rubicon — for the first time signaling to the Big Ten that Nebraska wanted in.

“This is not our timeline,” Perlman recalls Delany saying, “but I understand the predicament you’re in.”

One media report around that time indicated Delany was irritated that his timetable had been moved up, but he said last week he was never upset with Nebraska or the Big 12. It was just a new reality, he said, and as with any game plan, you need to adjust.

Delany also felt confident by then that he knew everything he needed to know about Nebraska. He was ready to move.

“I told (Perlman) we’d be interested to take the next step if they were,” Delany said.

The next step was taking Nebraska’s name before the Big Ten’s chancellors and presidents. It just so happened they were scheduled to meet in two days — they always meet on the first Sunday in June.

While Perlman waited in Lincoln, the Big Ten’s leaders huddled behind closed doors in Park Ridge, Illinois, for more than four hours.

Delany declined to provide much detail on the discussions. But he said Nebraska was fully vetted both academically and athletically. No vote was taken, but there was a clear consensus.

Around 5 p.m. that evening, Delany called Perlman.

“The presidents,” he said, “would be receptive to an application from Nebraska.”

It was intentionally cryptic, the way such conference courtships work, but there was powerful meaning in the words: Nebraska was in.

* * *

It had all moved so quickly. Over a span of just 12 days, Nebraska had gone from its first serious meeting with the Big Ten to tacit conference membership.

Still, Perlman wouldn’t feel secure until it was all official. In the next five hectic days, he engaged with the Board of Regents, sneaked away to Chicago to work out some business details with Delany, and prepared the remarks he would deliver Friday to the board and the outside world.

Delany made a late decision to fly to Lincoln. So at 2 p.m. Friday, as the Regents voted unanimously to make application to the Big Ten, Delany was sitting in a suite at the Embassy Suites in downtown Lincoln, watching on TV and working the phones.

At 4 p.m., the Big Ten presidents met in teleconference and soon accepted Nebraska’s bid.

“Welcome to the Big Ten,” Delany told Osborne as they met for a 5 p.m. press conference. Perlman put on a Big Ten lapel pin. Delany sported a Big Red “N” on his jacket.

Perlman was elated. He thought the day would prove a landmark in the history of both the university and the state. And he was both relieved and happy days later when the remaining Big 12 schools stayed together.

Now weeks later, Delany says he continues to be amazed at the near-universal plaudits for the move and the excitement it still generates.

Even as college football prepares to kick off the 2010 season — Nebraska’s last in the Big 12 — fans already are talking about future matchups between the Huskers and other traditional titans like Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan.

Looking back, Delany said, there’s a lot of serendipity in how it all came together.

“It wasn’t predicted,” he said. “It just worked.”

The Big Ten football stadiums

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