Indiana AD on USC, UCLA joining Big 10: 'They were just a perfect fit.'

Zach Osterman
Indianapolis Star

BLOOMINGTON – The Big Ten wasn’t actively seeking expansion this summer, but when USC and UCLA approached the conference about coming on board, they were impossible to turn down.

“The conference has always continued to make certain we know what’s really important to us, what our values are, what the Big Ten stands for,” IU Athletic Director Scott Dolson told IndyStar on Thursday night. “When you really know what those priorities are, when an opportunity like this presents itself and those schools reached out to us, it wasn’t like we had to start from scratch. … When USC and UCLA really applied to us and reached out to the Big Ten, it started a lot of due diligence and a lot of, really, reflection, among the COPC (Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors) and the athletic directors.”

That due diligence ended with a seismic maneuver Thursday, when arguably the Pac-12’s two biggest brands broke away from the West Coast conference and confirmed their intention to move to the Big Ten starting in 2024.

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The vote among the COPC — the decided authority on the matter — was unanimous in favor of adding the Los Angeles-based schools, thereby making the Big Ten the first Power Five conference in America to touch both coasts.

'They were just a perfect fit and a great addition to the conference," IU AD Scott Dolson told IndyStar regarding the Big Ten's addition of USC and UCLA.

“I am thankful,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement, “for the collaborative efforts of our campus leadership, athletics directors and Council of Presidents and Chancellors who recognize the changing landscape of college athletics, methodically reviewed each request, and took appropriate action based on our consensus.”

For Warren and the conference office, Thursday’s move represented a tremendous win, and an impressive gathering of power.

Warren’s first two years in the job, complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have not always been smooth. But the seamlessness with which the Big Ten absorbed two new members into its fold — at the expense of a direct competitor with whom the conference entered into the now infamous Alliance last summer only to outflank them now — was a credit to Warren and his staff.

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The unanimity of Thursday’s vote will also be a win for the third-year commissioner. A conference known for its harmonious day-to-day operations under his predecessor looked anything but during the fight over the 2020 Big Ten football season, with coaches and athletic directors at times attempting to openly defy the league office.

When it mattered, efficiency reigned, and the Big Ten secured an emphatic answer to the SEC’s addition of Texas and Oklahoma one year ago.

“I give Commissioner Warren and his staff a ton of credit, really, for the job they did in quickly providing all the information we needed to evaluate this,” Dolson said. “It was really based on looking at academics and culture, student-athlete welfare, diversity and inclusivity, and financial stability.”

The Big Ten’s newfound largesse will come with some challenges but, in Dolson’s mind, much more opportunity.

“Taking a deep dive and looking at USC and UCLA — and that’s where the conference staff did a phenomenal job of providing that information — they were just a perfect fit and a great addition to the conference,” Dolson said.

“It’s really, really exciting for IU, on multiple fronts,” he continued. “We’re excited for our student-athletes and the opportunities that will arise from adding them to the league and broadening their experience.”

Dolson pointed to a sizable alumni contingent in Los Angeles (IU boasts one of the largest living alumni bases in America, and many of the largest living alumni bases in the country filter out of Big Ten schools). He said he got an excited text message from men’s soccer coach Todd Yeagley about bringing another powerhouse program, UCLA, into the Big Ten, a nod to the strength the Trojans and Bruins can add not just in football but other sports.

And while it would be difficult to speak in specifics so soon, Dolson will know the conference’s negotiating position on numerous issues — not least its pending media rights renegotiation — just got a whole lot stronger.

Already expected to push $1 billion annually, the Big Ten’s next TV deal should now breeze past that number. With resolution on the new rights package expected some time this year before going into effect next summer, Jon Wilner of Pac-12 Hotline reported USC and UCLA believe their annual Big Ten distributions could reach $100 million. Bringing them into the fold, and thus opening both the Los Angeles and San Francisco-area television markets, would go a long way toward securing those kinds of figures.

“We are excited about what USC and UCLA bring to the table on all fronts,” Dolson said. “There’s no question they bring tremendous value to the conference in all those areas, academically, athletically, in every way.”

There will be other issues to resolve, like a new football scheduling format.

Already, the Big Ten appeared to be moving away from divisions, perhaps toward a model of two protected opponents per team with all others rotated across a nine-game schedule on a four-year basis. With two more schools in the fold, a similar arrangement could still work, with minor tweaks.

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Dolson said a lot of those conversations will begin immediately, now that the conference has officially approved adding its two West Coast members.

“The reality is, there’s just lots of details that will need to be worked out, and lots of opportunities,” he said. “We really have not gotten into the weeds yet in terms of working through all those, but that’s sort of the beauty of having some time to process everything, to evaluate and sort out and talk through what those opportunities might be.”

Of course, any discussion of opportunities raises the question of further expansion.

Dolson was adamant the conference had not sought expansion before USC and UCLA knocked on the door. But he also underscored the same need for flexibility and the same willingness to embrace opportunities that might arise unexpectedly, in an effort to keep the Big Ten at the cutting edge of reformation and realignment in college sports.

“We weren’t seeking anyone at this point,” Dolson said. “We received the request from both schools and moved on it. That’s really where we are right now. We continue to be in a mode where we’re going to do what’s best for our conference, and what’s best for our student-athletes.”

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Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.