July 1, 2022
Bright Los Angeles lights shine east to the Big Ten
USC and UCLA are leaving the Pac 12 for the Big Ten
In July 2021, two simple words sent a ripple through college athletics – conference realignment. The surprising move by Oklahoma and Texas to leave the Big 12 Conference together and move to the SEC sent university presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and league officials across the country scrambling for self-preservation. The Big 12 went on the offensive to preserve its status as a Power 5 conference, adding four new institutions (BYU, Houston, Cincinnati, and Central Florida) within a few months of the SEC’s blockbuster announcement.
The ripples continued, with large and small impacts, have been felt nationwide in leagues such as Conference USA, the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) and the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) to name a few. It’s common understanding for those in college athletics that the realignment carousel may have been slowing down in recent months, but it never really stops. There are too many dynamics in play that create constant conversations – and send people looking for self-preservation.
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So here we are, July 1, 2022, and someone hit the HIGH-SPEED button on the carousel making it spin so fast we cannot make out the mascots standing in line waiting their turn for a ride. The Big Ten Conference has landed the latest blockbuster punch, bringing USC and UCLA to their league beginning with the 2024-25 season. This now gives the Big Ten a geographical footprint from the east to the west coast and we watch two storied universities along with their athletic programs leave the Pac 12.
No matter the language in press releases that these decisions are based upon academics, institutional culture and enhancing the student-athlete experience, two main things drive these moves at the Power 5 level – money and football. What comes with those two pieces of the realignment puzzle are fiscal stability and exposure. It’s hard to argue that those things are bad because in theory and practice they are not. All athletic departments are striving for long term stability and to be able to provide the best experience and exposure for their student-athletes. But the impact is real and now it is up to those respective coaches to navigate what comes next.
For USC and UCLA women’s basketball, moving to the Big Ten will be a challenge, both on and off the court. The Big Ten has consistently positioned itself as one of the best leagues in women’s basketball in recent years. You don’t have to look hard to find Maryland, Iowa, Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan as regulars in the Top 25 each year. Nebraska surged back into the top half of the league 2021-22 and was one of six Big Ten teams selected to the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The Big Ten is home to Hall-of-Fame coaches (Joe McKeown at Northwestern) and program builders who are a fixture in their states (Suzy Merchant of Michigan State).
Lindsay Gottlieb is heading into her second season at USC, rebuilding the Trojan program after finishing the 2021-22 season 12-16 overall. Cori Close’s UCLA squad finished the 2021-22 season 18-13, making a run in the post-season WNIT. Close will be starting her 12th season at UCLA this fall. Both coaches will now have to start the delicate balance of competing in the Pac 12 for two more seasons and planning for their futures in the Big Ten.
It’s not only the challenges on the court that USC and UCLA will face but the impact this will have on the lifeblood of any program – recruiting. The geographical footprint now changes for these schools and so does your recruiting philosophy and conversations. How do you explain to a recruit and her parents who live in California that their daughter will only be playing one conference game in their home state each year, with every other league game two or three time zones ahead of you?
Yes, the Big Ten Network gives them a chance to see their loved one play on television, but the 7 p.m. EST tip at Rutgers on a Thursday night is 4 p.m. in California. Many parents will still be at work at 4 p.m. PST and as a parent of a soon-to-be enrolled collegiate student-athlete, these are the things you think about. This dilemma will not be unique to just women’s basketball. All sports will feel the pinch and so will the student-athletes. But there is also the opportunity to recruit in other parts of the country now, opening doors and pipelines for coaches that may not have been possible before.
Football only plays one time per week on Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays. But what about UCLA men’s soccer or the USC women’s swim team who travel to compete on a weeknight in Michigan and Minnesota respectively? Are they expected to be at class at 8 a.m. the next morning after a red-eye flight back to LA? Are we truly thinking about the student-athlete experience? In a time when mental health is front and center, shining a light on the pressures of college athletics, what really is best for them?
Time will tell how USC and UCLA navigate these monumental changes but this we know to be true – the carousel is not slowing down. All the mascots who jump on are holding on for dear life. Just when we thought July would be a slow month in college athletics someone hit the GO button. There are more ripples to come and they will be big.
Written by Missy Heidrick
I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!