Penn State’s football program joined the Big Ten in 1993 and spent 20 seasons as one of college athletics’ biggest outliers.
The school’s decision to join the Midwestern conference ended regional rivalries with Pitt, West Virginia and Syracuse. Fans needed plane tickets instead of full gas tanks to attend many road games for the first time.
Last month, Penn State played at Iowa, a state with 699 registered Penn State alumni. Earlier this month, the Nittany Lions visited Nebraska, a state with 426 Penn State alums.
On Monday, the Big Ten made a major move that sheds Penn State’s outlier status. And as early as today, the conference could make another move that will eliminate the geographic isolation Penn State once faced as the Big Ten’s lone East Coast team.
The Big Ten added Maryland as its 13th member Monday. The Terrapins will officially join the conference on July 1, 2014.
Only 205 miles separates State College and Maryland’s main campus in College Park.
Rutgers, according to multiple media reports, will become the conference’s 14th member. Only 228 miles separates State College and Rutgers’ main campus in New Brunswick, N.J.
Before the recent wave of conference expansion, Ohio State represented Penn State’s only Big Ten neighbor. The giant schools are separated by 337 miles.
Conference leaders and officials are not authorized to comment on Rutgers, but The Star-Ledger, of Newark, N.J., is reporting a news conference to announce the school’s decision to join the Big Ten will occur today.
Both moves bring the Big Ten closer to some of Penn State’s largest alumni bases.
Penn State Alumni Association Executive Director Roger Williams said more than 25,000 alumni live in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. The number exceeds 8,000 in the Baltimore area.
The numbers are even higher in the areas surrounding Rutgers. Williams said New Jersey is home to 25,529 alumni. Some of them live in the New York metropolitan area, which includes more than 27,000 Penn State graduates.
Ohio leads current Big Ten states besides Pennsylvania with 10,403 Penn State alumni. More than 315,000 Penn State graduates live in Pennsylvania.
“Some of the buzz out there from our standpoint and from the standpoint of an alumni relationship director is that I think people are very interested in re-instituting some of the rivalries with teams that we used to play,” Williams said. “It’s an easy drive distance to College Park and New Brunswick. The schools are right in the heart of where a lot of Penn State graduates live.”
Penn State and Maryland haven’t met in football since the Nittany Lions’ 70-7 victory in 1993. The Nittany Lions lead the all-time series 35-1-1, outscoring the Terrapins 1,190-412 in the 37 meetings.
Despite the competitive imbalance, officials from both schools are excited about renewing the series.
“One of our great football rivalries looking back at history was Penn State,” Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan said. “There was great dismay in Maryland when Penn State went to the Big Ten and we could no longer play them in football.”
Penn State acting athletic director Dave Joyner called the school’s history with Maryland “a great rivalry in many sports.
“It brings somebody to our back door that extends the footprint of the Big Ten, yet brings back many traditional great memories for people in Pennsylvania as well as in Maryland,” Joyner said in a Big Ten Network interview. “We are very excited about it.”
Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien worked as Maryland’s running backs coach from 2003-04 and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden was the Terrapins’ head coach from 1997-2000. Fifteen current Penn State football players hail from Maryland.
Numerous ties also exist with Rutgers, a school Penn State has played 24 times. The Nittany Lions are 22-2 against the Scarlet Knights and Penn State won the most recent meeting, 59-34, in 1995. Seven players on Penn State’s current roster hail from New Jersey. Penn State and Rutgers are scheduled to play a home-and-home football series beginning in 2014.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said adding Maryland will help the conference expand its presence, and by extension its lucrative television network. The Interstate 95 corridor is a densely populated area filled with multiple professional sports franchises.
“Today is Maryland’s day, but there may be other considerations that will assist us in really building a presence in this corridor,” Delany said. “Maryland is Maryland and Penn State is Penn State. I do believe that together we’re a conference that now lives in two areas of the country.”
Delany said the conference has plans to open an eastern office. The Big Ten’s current headquarters are in suburban Chicago.
Maryland will become the first school to join the Big Ten since Nebraska entered the conference on July 1, 2011.
“I’m not sure we never felt we fit geographically,” Joyner said. “We have Ohio State, which is very close and regionally connected to us, and then you have Maryland half that distance. I think it’s just a natural extension geographically and it brings home the Big Ten into the eastern corridor.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.