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Shatel: Nebraska is now a leader in the Big Ten, at least off the field
COMMENTARY

Shatel: Nebraska is now a leader in the Big Ten, at least off the field

Sam McKewon and Evan Bland discuss several topics including Huskers players filing a lawsuit against the Big Ten and Nebraska picking up one of the top players in the country.

It’s a good thing Nebraska wasn’t kicked out of the Big Ten.

Or maybe it’s not. Depends on which side of the Big Ten debate you’re on.

Nebraska has put itself in the middle of the debate. And that’s a big story within the story.

In 10 years of Big Ten football, Nebraska has been a nonfactor. The highlight is one division title, which led to one conference title game blowout. On the football field, the Huskers have been basically invisible.

Suddenly, in one month, Nebraska has become a major player in the Big Ten.

Fearless. Aggressive. Strong.

Nebraska challenged the idea of the league shutting down fall football — twice. And while the administration backed off, that wasn’t the end. Not hardly.

Nebraska football parents, along with Iowa and Ohio State, pressed the Big Ten office for answers and transparency. The Husker parents rallied other schools’ parents. Then came the major move last week.

Eight Husker players, buoyed by a local attorney, filed a lawsuit against the conference.

Think about the idea of a Big Ten school suing the league. That’s some guts. Imagine how it landed around the league.

Now look at the result: The Big Ten suddenly talking about starting a football season Thanksgiving Weekend.

Coincidence? No way.

Nebraska has garnered respect and fans around the league, starting with the most powerful brand in the Big Ten.

“There are a lot of people at Ohio State who are Cornhusker fans,” said Bobby Carpenter, a former Buckeye and NFL linebacker who has a sports talk show in Columbus, Ohio.

“For pushing back and showing that, hey, let’s see if we can find a pathway to play and if other people can join us. Let’s do it.”

At a rally outside Ohio Stadium on Saturday, Gee Scott Sr., the father of a Buckeye player, told the crowd, “I think Nebraska and their fans are out here doing the Lord’s work.

“I thought about wearing a Nebraska hat. It’s a beautiful thing when you have conferences that work together.”

Now, understand that the University of Nebraska did not sue the Big Ten. But NU did not try and stand in the way, either.

This bold move made sense in this way: Nebraska, still relatively new to the league, is not as entrenched or loyal. NU is not afraid of the Big Ten office.

And with the current vulnerable state of Big Ten leadership, that makes more sense.

The end game of the suit was to rattle some cages at the presidential level. There was a simple aim: Have the CEOs say whether there was a vote. Expound on their reasoning and medical data. Offer some transparency to the process of calling off a football season.

The cages were considered rattled when the Big Ten’s attorney, Andrew Luger, said, “the harm would be incredible” if the board of directors’ (presidents) documents were released to the public.

That made it only seem more like the presidents had something to hide.

On Thursday night, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel had the story about possibly moving the football season up to Thanksgiving. On Friday, multiple national outlets were reporting the same thing.

Call it a coincidence. I say it looks more like the presidents are so protective of what might come out in a court discovery that they are willing to throw the parents and players a concession.

We shall see what happens. But this story is moving quickly again and Nebraska has been a major impetus.

“I don’t think anything was done appropriately in that meeting,” Carpenter said of the Big Ten presidents’ decision.

“And once you get a freedom of information act on that, you’ll find that A.) they didn’t really have a formal vote, which is ridiculous, and B.) you’re going to see the minutes and what some of the presidents were saying and they’ll be in trouble.

“They’re paranoid right now.”

The confusion about the vote is surprising. The Big Ten prides itself on being a student of history and tradition. High-level votes are part of both in the league.

When Michigan State joined the Big Ten in 1950, there was a vote by all nine schools. Carpenter says the vote was 5-4, with OSU providing the decisive vote, though at the time, the Big Ten announced the vote was a unanimous 9-0.

Then came the historic vote after the 1973 Ohio State-Michigan tie to decide who would go to the Rose Bowl. That vote was 6-4 in favor of the Buckeyes.

That was the most famous vote in Big Ten history — well, until this one. If there was a vote.

“This is a major decision and these are public employees,” Carpenter said.

Nebraska’s suit rekindled the fire around the league, Carpenter said, adding, “I don’t think it’s going to subside anytime soon. If anything, it’s going to be heightened as the other leagues begin to kick off.”

How did we get here?

A story last week in Sports Illustrated’s “Wolverine Digest” revealed some interesting thoughts.

The story quoted a Michigan source as saying, “there was a surprising lack of awareness” among Big Ten presidents that there would be pushback from around the league on their decision. The story also said Commissioner Kevin Warren was so eager to please his new bosses that he went along with them rather than being an advocate for the athletic directors and football programs.

Wolverine Digest’s Michigan and Big Ten sources said the Big Ten presidents assumed the Pac-12 and ACC would fall in line with its decision. Why the ACC? Because some of the leaders of ACC’s academic powers assured them they would.

But the story said Notre Dame (which was going to be an ACC member in football this fall) became an obstacle by pushing hard for football — and offering future games with ACC opponents in exchange for the ACC playing this fall.

When the ACC said it was playing, the Big 12 and SEC joined in.

How about that? Notre Dame foiled the Big Ten.

The SI story said that the Big Ten presidents miscalculated the pushback from its own schools and fan bases.

That made me smile.

This observer has long thought the Big Ten didn’t care enough about football. The pushback around the league — and the support for Nebraska’s actions — has offered another view.

“It’s a very football-centric region, like most of middle America,” Carpenter said. “These schools are massive, over 30,000-40,000 students. So there’s a lot of people who care about football.

“There are about six or seven schools where football is paramount to the university. It’s their best marketing tool. It’s what they’re known for, much to the chagrin of these presidents.”

Carpenter added, “Football matters more to the SEC with the people at the university and inside of it. The Big Ten has always said, ‘Football is important to us, but we’re above that. We’re elite academic institutions.’ Which is true.

“In the fans’ eyes, that’s all good, but most important to us is the satisfaction we get from watching our team on Saturdays. It was underestimated severely by these presidents and Kevin Warren.”

No matter what happens this fall, the Big Ten has a long road ahead. It feels fractured.

Who mends that? Who’s in charge? Former Commissioner Jim Delany was the man. But now the presidents seem to have stepped up. And Warren, in his first year, has been damaged.

“It will be interesting to see if this is salvageable for (Warren) because he’s completely mishandled the situation,” Carpenter said. “He misread the situation to where he thought he could build a consensus with the presidents and the rest of the conference would go along.

“I’m not one to push out commissioners. But if there’s any other issues shortly after this, I think he will be a very short-term commissioner.”

One long-term effect, however this comes out, is Nebraska will be viewed around the league through a different lens. That image on the field is a work in progress. What NU has done off it has brought with it a new respect.

“I think that’s definitely true,” Carpenter said. “They were the impetus for a lot of this stuff happening. They showed the first crack in the Big Ten’s armor. That opened it up and people started trying to peer down that hole and saw the inner workings of what was going on.

“Most people in the Big Ten were glad that Nebraska came out and did that. There was no basis for anyone saying they should kick them out of the league. That was ridiculous.”

Quite the contrary, Nebraska has never felt more “in.”

Nebraska's first road game against every Big Ten team

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