In 1990, Penn State made the Big Ten bigger than its name.
That was the year that the university announced it was becoming the 11th member of the oldest conference in college sports, joining other historical powerhouse teams such as Ohio State and Michigan.
“The addition of Penn State to the Big Ten Conference 25 years ago marked a historic moment for both the institution and the conference,” said Commissioner Jim Delany, who was at the helm for the Penn State expansion and has since seen the Ten become 14 with the subsequent additions of Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers.
Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics clearly agrees, going on a full-court press to commemorate the merger Thursday. There were stories on the web, press releases to media, and individual teams tweeting their pride.
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“Penn State has clearly benefited from its association with the premier conference in all of college athletics,” said athletic director Sandy Barbour.
Part of that is about the teams, but Barbour also feels there is a like-minded focus on the classroom within the conference.
“It starts with the academic quality and reputation of the other 13 institutions we associate with. That’s a benefit to our 31 teams and about 800 student-athletes,” she said.
“Much like the Big Ten, Penn State has always been a leader in academic and athletic excellence, and those efforts have continued over the past 25 years, thanks to the hard work of students, coaches and administrators,” said Delany.
There have been amazing highs over the two and a half decades since the marrying into the Big Ten family. The 1995 Rose Bowl win that capped a perfect season was one. The Lady Lions basketball program’s eight Big Ten titles and two tournament titles is another, as well as the dominance of the women’s volleyball program.
There have also been lows. Every team has slumps, but Penn State also took real lumps with the Jerry Sandusky scandal that resulted in not just historic NCAA sanctions, since repealed, but also punishment from the Big Ten, which took the university’s share of football bowl revenue for the 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons.
Revenues will be restored in the 2015-16 season.
Despite that, Delany still sees the association as good for both the university and the conference.
“At the time, we felt that it was a tremendous fit for both sides, and history has proven that. The integration of Penn State into the Big Ten was mutually beneficial, largely because the characteristics of the university and conference were so well-matched,” he said. “We are thrilled to commemorate this historic occasion and look forward to a successful future together.”
The change was not just about names or rankings. For some, it made a real difference in the level of the sport.
“Entering Big Ten, collectively, for all of the sports resulted in us having a new commitment from the university to try and be competitive,” said women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose in a release. “From a volleyball perspective, we had been competitive prior to that, but playing in the Big Ten in women’s volleyball made us better because the level of competition was better than we were experiencing in the Atlantic 10.”
Conferences also tend to include rivalries. For Penn State football, Ohio State has long been one of the most anticipated games, and when it happens, one of the sweetest wins.
While Barbour says that the biggest rivals tend to change from sport to sport, depending on who excels the most, she agrees that Ohio State retains a special spot in the Big Ten hierarchy for Penn State.
“We are two of the premier broad-based programs in the country,” she said. “I’d be hard-pressed not to say, whether we are fencing against Ohio State or playing football, that there is not a rivalry.”