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The Big Ten makes sense for Rutgers

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Curtis Eichelberger's Tuesday piece on Rutgers potentially joining the Big Ten has gotten more attention than I expected upon first reading it too days ago. As such, I'm going to comment on a few specific points, and explain why they're not really as big of a deal as they may seem absent certain context. Be advised: this is going to recycle a lot of previous content. This post is mainly addressed at a non-Rutgers audience less familiar with some of the topics discussed (which have been long beaten to depth here and on other RU sites), and is explicitly not an endorsement for overwhelming exuberance for the Big Ten or any other unintended implication. Let's begin.

To compete with schools such as Ohio State University, the University of Michigan and Penn State University, however, the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based school probably will have to increase spending on coaches’ salaries, recruiting and infrastructure, possibly sending it deeper into the red, sports business analysts and former coaches said.

"If you are going to compete and be successful, you better have the facilities, and that’s going to be an arms race," said former UCLA football coach Terry Donahue, now a college football analyst for Westwood One, Inc.’s radio network. "It’s the number one thing that attracts recruits."

Emphasis on to compete with schools such as Ohio State University, the University of Michigan and Penn State University. Yes, to compete on a regular basis with those schools in football, Rutgers in all likelihood would need a larger stadium and more fan support. Schools like Northwestern have had decent success with limited resources, and Michigan has struggled as of late, but that conclusion is reasonable enough. I take issue with the premise though. It's all speculation, just like everything else surrounding the topic. No one except RutgersAl envisions matching traditional powers that have built up fan bases through decades of sucesss overnight.

There are probably long term plans in a desk somewhere for further expansion, but that's years down the road. The expanded stadium seats 52,454. Last year the athletic department reported an average attendance of 49,113. That figure represented the sixth largest gain in all of Division I. Attendance was down nationwide last year (see linked NCAA PDF), and Rutgers enacted a large price increase despite a subpar out of conference schedule. In the end, stadium expansion proved to be an early financial success, just as it has been at other peer programs like Louisville (h/t: Brian Bennett)

Another round of expansion will eventually happen as the fan support continues to improve, but not until the stadium bond is paid off, and the season ticket base becomes much larger. Until then it's not all unreasonable to group Rutgers in right in the middle of the Big Ten, which is, I suspect, exactly where they probably would finish most years. Considering that usually means $20 million dollars in conference revenue, and a trip to a plum postseason bowl, that's hardly a scenario to complain about.

As far as other expenditures go, Rutgers football already has state of the art workout facilities thanks to the 2004 Hale Center expansion, although they may eventually want indoor practice facilities considering the recent collapse of the practice bubble. Schiano's unadjusted total compensation came in at 22nd in the country last year, and all indications are that he's a campus lifer.

As for basketball, Rutgers will pay incoming basketball coach Mike Rice 550k, and doesn't spend very much money overall on the basketball program. If successful, Rice will surely receive some sort of extension in time, but that has nothing to do with the Big Ten. There are also longstanding plans to upgrade the Rutgers Athletic Center (which would primarily help men's and women's basketball, although athletic director Tim Pernetti is quick to point out that 19 of 24 school sports programs use the facility). I'd imagine that an increase in revenue from Big Ten expansion would surely move that project along to some extent, but it's hardly a prerequisite for jumping conferences, or turning around Rutgers men's basketball for that matter either.

This all of course is an issue because as of 2008 (the latest year from which figures are available, unfortunately missing stadium expansion entirely), Rutgers subsidized about a third of the athletic budget via direct institutional support (which didn't necessarily all go to football). New Jersey provided 24.2% of the Rutgers budget in 2009-2010, which is poised to drop sharply if proposed budget cuts are enacted. Stadium expansion was one path towards increasing long-term athletic revenue, but the athletic department cannot continue to expect that level of support from the university's general fund. While a necessary step to reverse decades of neglect, times have changed, and they have to tighten their belts.

It may seem hard to believe at times, but Rutgers is not run by complete morons. You'll never see anything of the sort of Missouri-style open pandering here, but Rutgers initiated contact with the Big Ten two years ago, and clearly would jump at the chance to join the Big Ten/CIC. However the revenue totals ultimately play out, Rutgers will see some sort of jump from the $6.3 million reportedly received last year from the Big East. Considering the financial climate, any boost at all necessitates throwing all concern about logistics or fairness by the wayside.

That all went out the window long ago. After originally turning down membership in the Big East back in 1979 to pin hopes on Joe Paterno's dream conference, wrecking Rutgers men's basketball for decades in the process, the athletic department has learned its lesson. Throw altruism off the lifeboat, it's everyone for themselves. Perhaps the folly of blindly following Paterno eventually pays off. If given the opportunity, the Rutgers Board of Governors, Pres. McCormick, and A.D. Tim Pernetti need to put make the decision that is in the best interests of the university and athletic department, and I have all the confidence in the world that they'll respond by unanimously jumping at the chance.