As the Big Ten draws closer and closer to expansion, the whole idea gets a little oilier and a lot more pungent.
Why do I keep picturing the expansion announcement as a prime time Big Ten Network event, televised live from downtown Chicago, where all the self-suspecting candidates have gathered in a kind of "Let's-Make-A-Deal" audience of breathless contestants?
Figuratively or not, this isn't where I want to see Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg in his Panthers outfit, frankly.
The realists say that Pitt and Rutgers, Missouri and Nebraska, Texas and whoever else the Big Ten might anoint will have no choice but to shriek with glee at the prospect of joining the ancient, prestigious Big Ten, if for no other reason than the hot boost of adrenaline to that school's financial pulse.
The whole process has begun to project the assumption that no other reason exists for this, or for anything else, and it's unseemly.
The Big Ten -- the brand name itself a lie since 1993 when it added Penn State as its 11th member -- is the nation's wealthiest conference now that its cable network has a vast regional foothold.
The University of Michigan, which just committed $20 million to upgrading Crisler Arena, its basketball facility, also broke ground this spring on a $23.2 million Basketball Player Development Center.
I think that used to be called a playground.
Certainly the general funds at many or all of the conference's schools and hundreds, if not thousands, of students have benefited as well from this profitability, but not quite like Michigan's two dozen or so basketballers.
This isn't to tear down Michigan. Rich Rodriguez is doing that on his own.
This is about a larger question: When you're swimming in cash, when you're the envy of just about every other athletic conference in the country, when you've got your own cable network and an iconic college football presence that goes back more than a century, what do you do if you're the Big Ten?
You grab for more, of course. With both hands.
It is so Wall Street, isn't it?
Bored with your millions? Make it into billions. What, it'll put 15 million people out of work? That's capitalism baby. Hey, it's a jungle out there.
Sure, maybe that overstates it, but the Big Ten has everything it needs and plenty more without being anywhere near satisfied with its financial profile. But unlike the banks and the big investment houses that got busy curdling the economy, at least the conference sounded the warning. It's about to raid the other major conferences to fill out its ever-broadening cash fantasies, fallout be damned, and there will plenty of fallout.
How many additional institutions are necessary to help construct the long-term portfolio for the Big Eleven -- one school, two, three, five, nine? Twenty might be a fitting total. The Big Ten Times Two.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, an expert at magnetizing cash through television contracts after 17 years on Park Avenue, tried to quell the rampant anxiety of the neighboring Big East, which he serves in an advisory role.
Around his clear instructions for the conference to hang on to its ESPN relationship for dear life, Tagliabue offered a gentle reminder of the conflicting missions in play.
"It starts," Tagliabue said, "with listening to all of the university presidents so we have a proper balance between sports and academics."
In professional sports, we've come to expect that a running back with a multimillion dollar contract will want to renegotiate, that an owner with a perfectly sumptuous stadium (see Dallas, New York) will want to replace it with a $1 billion-plus facility, that expanding your brand recognition is part of the economic model that perpetuates a narrow vision: you need money to win to make more money to win more to make even more money ....
What does it say about us when the same model gets retrofitted perfectly into the nation's university system?
I can tell you from shepherding two prospective students through the college selection process that Big Ten universities tend to be extremely pleased with themselves academically. Their missions are so lofty when it comes to educating, so advanced in disciplines that expand the minds of young people, so revered by the top professionals in fields throughout the spectrum of human experience, they have no choice but to be so selective it is a wonder they're even talking to you.
Well that's fine, but you teach with everything you do, and, when 11 of the nation's most wonderful universities conspire to expand their conspicuous wealth at the expense of more vulnerable institutions, and, by definitive extension, more vulnerable students (many of whom don't really care who wins the Rose Bowl), that's a lesson for which no one should be terribly proud.
The Big Ten should reconsider. Google those university mission statements, boys and girls. You are drifting the other way. The conference is wealthy and perfectly positioned to stay that way. Can't that ever be enough?