Commemorating 25 years of Penn State and the Big Ten

By Tony Mancuso
June 04, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Just four months into his tenure as commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, Jim Delany recalls an idea brought to the table by former University of Illinois President Stan Ikenberry.

It was October 1989 when Ikenberry, who spent time as a senior administrator at Penn State earlier in his career, broached the thought of adding an institution to the Big Ten for the first time since Michigan State was invited to become a member in 1949.

The Big Ten then began a formal research process for an institution that would bridge a Midwestern league to the East.

Penn State was on the table for discussion as a superb academic institution with a rich tradition in athletic success.

Delany, whose sister attended Penn State as a graduate student, didn’t need much convincing. He knew the level of potential a partnership between Penn State and the Big Ten could foster.

“The Big Ten hadn’t changed in many, many decades, but I thought if the opportunity to expand presented itself it was a no brainer,” Delany said earlier this week. “Excellent academics. Excellent athletics. And pointed toward the East Coast, I thought there was a lot of potential there. That was my recommendation at the time.”

The process moved forward with the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten institutions discussing the topic when news broke just before the holidays in December 1989 that Penn State could be on its way into a new conference. Under the direction of Athletic Director Jim Tarman at the time, Penn State had been competing as an independent in football for more than a century, and the rest of the department had been a member of the Atlantic 10 since 1976.

When the news initially surfaced, women’s volleyball head coach Russ Rose, who along with field hockey coach Charlene Morett-Curtiss (the two current Penn State head coaches who were on staff in 1989), was giving a presentation at the annual women’s volleyball coaches convention (AVCA) about the importance of NCAA Tournament at-large bids for teams in smaller conferences.

“I remember talking in front of the group about the importance that not all of the at-large bids go to the bigger conferences and that there were good teams in other conferences even though they didn’t have the same notoriety,” said Rose. “We have a lunch break. I turn on ESPN at lunch, and I see that Penn State is going to be a member of the Big Ten. I come back. I say to some people that I would like to retract what I said about at-large teams.”

The formal process concluded with a vote in Iowa City on June 4, 1990, at which time Penn State was officially accepted as a member of the Big Ten Conference. Twenty-five years have passed in a partnership that allowed both the University and conference to reach unprecedented heights on the field and in the classroom.

"Penn State's entrance into the Big Ten not only changed the intercollegiate sports landscape, it also changed our academic landscape and our future. Our size, our academic reputation and our athletic tradition matched up well with Big Ten schools," said Penn State President Eric Barron, who also noted that all Big Ten schools are flagship universities for their states.

"The academic side of the Big Ten is known as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) and the institutions together have annual research expenditures topping $10.2 billion — more than the Ivy League and the University of California System combined — and they educate a total of nearly 600,000 students. The benefits from being part of such an outstanding and prestigious organization with such an expansive footprint across the nation are immeasurable," Barron said. 

Delany concurred that “from a broad perspective, at the time, my view was that it was a tremendous fit for both sides. And history has proven that.”

In 1990, the positive news zipped throughout the Penn State campus shortly after the vote in Iowa.

“I remember hearing about the announcement from Mary Jo Haverbeck, from the Sports Information office,” said Morett-Curtiss. “She told me about us going in and how it was going to have a major impact for women’s athletics at Penn State.”

It was an announcement that changed the landscape of funding and development for all of Penn State’s 28 programs at the time, and it was a day Morett-Curtiss remembers quite well.

“Ironically, I had gone for a run that day on the trails near Sunset Park and as I’m running, I see someone walking in front of me and it was Joe Paterno,” Morett-Curtiss said. “And it was that day, so I said to him, ‘Hey, what’s going to happen?’ He said, ‘I think this is going to be a really good thing for Penn State and the exposure all of the programs are going to get.’”

Penn State’s athletic teams felt the impact of the Big Ten conference almost immediately.

“What it did for us when we joined the Big Ten is that No. 1 it resulted in a reassessment of the levels of commitment we had to the various programs,” Rose said. “We became fully funded when we joined the Big Ten. Prior to that, we were not fully funded. And we were not fully staffed. Entering Big Ten, collectively, for all of the sports resulted in us having a new commitment from the University to try and be competitive. 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.”

The same can be said for what Morett-Curtiss experienced within the field hockey program.

“The financial support from a scholarship standpoint was huge right away,” said Morett-Curtiss. “And knowing our field that we were going to build was going to be a first rate facility.”

Penn State’s time in the Big Ten has been marked by excellence in the classroom and on the field of play. In all, Penn State’s programs have accounted for 92 Big Ten championships from 15 different programs -- 76 regular season and 16 post-season. Additionally, more than 170 student-athletes have accounted for nearly 300 individual Big Ten titles.

Penn State student-athletes have earned more than 5,000 Academic All-Big Ten recognitions since it joined the conference, with its three highest totals during the past three years, led by 296 in 2012-13.

The women’s volleyball program earned Penn State’s first Big Ten crown during the 1992 season, just one year after the team began competing in the league. The title marked the first of Penn State’s superlative 16 Big Ten titles in women’s volleyball, in addition to seven NCAA Championships since 1999.

Like women’s volleyball, the women’s soccer program has been a benchmark of success in conference play. The program became the department’s 29th varsity sport in 1994. Since then, Penn State has won an unprecedented 16 conference titles, including a string of 15 straight from 1998-2012.

The football program claimed the Big Ten title in its second season of competition during an undefeated Rose Bowl championship campaign in 1994. Coach Joe Paterno’s ’94 squad became the first Big Ten team to ever post a 12-0 record. The ’94 crown marked the program’s first of three Big Ten championships to date (2005 and 2008).

The fall season of 2005 stands out as a monumental period in Penn State’s history within the conference. Nittany Lion teams clinched five Big Ten titles in a span of 30 days. The list included field hockey, football, men’s soccer, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball. Since the fall of 2005, Penn State teams have won 51 Big Ten championships (5.1 titles per year in a 10-year span).

It’s impossible to quantify how the partnership between Penn State and the Big Ten altered the recruiting landscape for the teams on campus and how the recruiting gains equated to success on the field of play. But pitching a world-renowned education with an elite conference affiliation cultivated relationships with premier student-athletes.

While the competitive atmosphere is intense between teams across all of the conference’s sports, each member institution understands that the individual success aids in the growth of the collective conference.

“I think the relationship has been a really positive one,” said Rose. “There are a lot of similarities between the various Universities.”

“Everybody in the Big Ten shares what they do and why they do it; best practices,” said Dave Baker, associate athletic director for Business Operations. “We share lots of ideas, at least from the business manager and ticketing perspective. We learn things from one another. And there aren’t secrets. We all work together and try to help each other out ... . We all don’t do things the same way. We all have limitations, but we are all looking to help one another out for the betterment of the conference.

Sharing resources and best practices is a large part of the Big Ten/CIC benefits, Barron said. Initiatives carried out by the institutions include joint purchasing agreements, the digitization of millions of books within their collective libraries and the creation of a fiber optic network — all of which have led to saved dollars, shared assets and more opportunities for students, faculty and researchers.

“Some people would find it hard to believe that people in the Big Ten root for other Big Ten teams in the postseason, but we do. We follow what is going on ... . It is a cooperative spirit and a partnership,” Baker added.

By no means was the integration in 1990 an easy one, but the partnership between the University and Big Ten is a match that enabled both sides to mutually prosper in a way neither side could have envisioned when the formal vote concluded 25 years ago today.

  • Infographic lists Penn State's total Big Ten team championships (92) and individual championships (289)
    IMAGE: GoPSUsports.com
  • The logos of the Big 10 and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation

    Schools in the Big 10 athletic conference are connected academically through the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated June 04, 2015