Feit: A Rebuttal to Dan Wetzel

Scott Frost, Ohio State game

On Thursday, Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports posted a column entitled “Nebraska’s messy marriage with Big Ten getting uglier every day“.

 

While the impetus for the column was the news of Nebraska’s proposal to play Tennessee-Chattanooga this weekend (filling a hole created when Wisconsin cancelled) being rejected, it quickly turned into a rehash of the same over-inflated talking points used by national writers when Nebraska (amongst other schools) were pushing the conference to restart the football season.

 

In the interest of fairness – and to avoid taking any of Wetzel’s words out of context – everything he wrote is below in bold font. My responses are not.

 

On a Thursday morning conference call, Big Ten presidents discussed an exemption request from Nebraska to allow the Cornhuskers to replace Saturday’s canceled football game against Wisconsin with a non-league opponent, the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

 

It got zero traction, league sources told Yahoo Sports. There was no need for even a show of hands, let alone an actual vote. No one was in favor of granting it. The league’s previously agreed-upon rules — conference games only — was reaffirmed. 

 

Hold up.  “No one was in favor of granting it”?  So you’re telling me Nebraska brought this request to the committee, but was not in favor of supporting it.  That seems…..um……unlikely.  Your credibility is off to an amazing start.

 

Also reaffirmed was the belief around the Big Ten that Nebraska, even after nine years of membership, remains a difficult philosophical fit for the league.

 

Did they do an actual vote on Nebraska being a “difficult philosophical fit”?  A show of hands?  Or are you adding 1 + 1 and assuming it equals 3?

 

The Huskers’ request was met with knowing eye-rolls … of course it would be Nebraska that is already trying to rewrite the protocols everyone agreed to just last month in an effort to get a 2020 season played.

 

Dan, I know Barry Alvarez is a Nebraska alumnus, but when he said the conference should “reevaluate” the 21-day policy for positive tests on Tuesday, he was most definitely speaking as a Wisconsin Badger.

 

Likewise, Jeff Brohm was not speaking as a representative of Nebraska when he asked to be able to call his fellow Purdue coaches during the Iowa game as he recovered at home from COVID-19.

 

Even worse, rather than simply obeying the rules or even just asking for permission in the first place, Nebraska had gone out and negotiated a potential deal with Chattanooga.

 

This contradicts what Dennis Dodd of CBS reported.  He tweeted that the Nebraska – UTC game had been through “many levels of approval” within the conference:

 

I’ll trust an athletic director speaking on the record over an anonymous source every day.

 

Then the Huskers took it to the league and basically made the presidents say, “No.” 

 

There is some suspicion that it was done to purposely create headlines and signal how football is more important to Nebraska than the other schools. The Huskers say it was an honest argument.

 

“We believe the flexibility to play non-conference games could have been beneficial not only for Nebraska, but other Big Ten teams who may be in a similar position as the season progresses,” said Nebraska chancellor Ronnie Green and athletic director Bill Moos in a joint statement. “Ultimately, the Big Ten Conference did not approve our request, and we respect their decision.”

 

I’ll be honest: you may be right.  It is definitely in the realm of possibility that Nebraska only asked the league to convey how important football is here; or as way to thumb their nose to the conference. If so, then the Huskers would owe Tennessee-Chattanooga an apology for using them as a pawn in their PR gambit. Of course, this is all in the same realm of possibility where Illinois could still win the College Football Playoff.

 

But I would argue that going to the league for approval is exactly what a good, respectful conference citizen is supposed to do.  Nebraska went through the proper channels and asked for permission.

 

I’m glad you quoted it, but I feel the final sentence in the joint statement from Bill Moos and Ronnie Green is worth repeating:  “Ultimately, the Big Ten Conference did not approve our request, and we respect their decision.

 

Again: Nebraska got stood up by Wisconsin, and sought out a replacement game. Nebraska asked for permission and was denied. Nebraska said they respect the decision. By all accounts, the matter is closed.

 

In a perfect world, that would have been the final sentence in your column. But you’re just getting warmed up.

 

This is the state of affairs between the Big Ten and Nebraska, a partnership borne of equal-parts desperation and money that has turned into misreads and mistrust.

 

“It’s like an unhappy marriage,” one Big Ten source said. “It doesn’t work. It doesn’t fit. Yet no one can afford or figure out how to divorce. So nothing is going to change.”

 

Regarding your source’s quote, something you wrote previously applies here too:  “There is some suspicion that it was done to purposely create headlines.”

 

But your anonymous source is correct in one regard:  Nothing is going to change.  Nebraska is not going to go anywhere voluntarily, and the Big Ten is not going to kick NU out.

 

There was nothing inherently wrong with Nebraska contemplating adding a new opponent, of course. 

 

It wasn’t the Huskers’ fault that Saturday’s game was canceled — Wisconsin pulled the plug as its COVID testing approached (but did not exceed) the league’s mandated numbers. While that decision is allowed under the Big Ten’s rules, it hasn’t stopped speculation across the league that the Badgers were motivated to avoid playing without head coach Paul Chryst and some of their key players, all reportedly out with COVID.

 

I appreciate you acknowledging this.  I just wish that before you took a column’s worth of shots at Nebraska, you would have written 1,100 words on how Wisconsin failed themselves and the league by being the first team to cancel a game. Or written about the “speculation” the Badgers are gaming the system by avoiding playing. Or even investigate the rumors of how/why the Badgers have such a widespread outbreak.

 

But why put in the time and effort (and risk alienating a charter member of the league) when there is low-hanging fruit to be picked?

 

If Wisconsin couldn’t play, then why shouldn’t Nebraska change gears on the fly and try to get a game in? After all, who knows if the Cornhuskers will be hit by COVID and have to cancel additional games. Might as well get as much of a season in as possible while you can.

 

Again, it’s not an argument without merit.

 

But watch as Dan ignores the valid argument he just made in order to make a point!

 

What it is, however, is an argument made to the wrong entity. There was simply no way the Big Ten was going to grant it. Even asking spoke to a complete lack of understanding about how the venerable league operates and what it values. 

 

The Big Ten is about unity. It’s about following the rules everyone previously accepted. It’s about erring on the side of safety and precaution. It’s about not rocking the boat. Right, wrong or ridiculous, it is what has worked for well over a century.

 

It is both wrong and ridiculous. The Big Ten’s “unity” is, at best, a century old piece of mythology.  I’d put it right up there with the dubious (and pompous) fantasy that the Big Ten is the purest, most perfect mix of amateur athletics and higher education to ever grace God’s green earth.

 

I’ll freely acknowledge that we Nebraskans knew about the all-for-one / one-for-all mythos when we joined.  Heck, coming out of the selfish dumpster fire that was the Big XII, it was a huge selling point.

 

But how can anybody with a shred of credibility claim that storied “conference unity” survived Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, and others (and yes, that includes Nebraska) fighting to play football in the last three months?  The conference publicly acknowledged the August vote to cancel the season was 11-3. (On a related topic, presidents of public universities lying to their constituents must be another thing that that – right, wrong, or ridiculous – has worked for well over a century).

 

To paraphrase all of our parents:  “Nebraska, if the rest of the conference jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”  Dan, your answer appears to be that the Huskers should jump, while singing odes of praise to Jim Delany that they ever got the opportunity to stand on such a prestigious and storied vessel.

 

It’s why despite the quarterback depth chart red flag, Wisconsin will get the benefit of the doubt for canceling the game earlier rather than later. And it’s why trying to play a non-conference opponent with unknown or unsupervised testing requirements won’t.

 

I know you read part of the statement released by Bill Moos and Ronnie Green. You must have missed this part:

 

The discussions we had were with teams that had already implemented stricter testing protocols than those mandated by the Big Ten Conference. Those details were non-negotiable if we were to bring a non-conference opponent to Lincoln.

 

The Big Ten isn’t alone in this. The SEC has similar conference-only standards this season. And when, say, an outbreak at Florida caused its game against Missouri to be postponed, leaving Mizzou with an open date, the Tigers didn’t go out and try to schedule a fill-in. Missouri stayed in line and didn’t play.

 

I love the subtle dig of using Mizzou in the example, as the Tigers were long rumored to be a favorite to join the conference before Nebraska was invited to join.  Sadly for the Tigers, the biggest requirement for B1G membership is not total, unwavering obedience to the company line.

 

 So why did Nebraska think it was special?

 

“This might fly in the Big 12,” another Big Ten source said of Nebraska. “But they aren’t in the Big 12 anymore.”

 

Maybe they should go back.

 

SMH.

 

Look: I’m a big fan of using this format to take shots at horrible opinions barfed up (pun intended) by writers looking to score some cheap hate clicks.

 

But some takes are too stupid to mock.

 

To be clear, there is no movement to kick Nebraska out of the league and there is no known movement for Nebraska to leave.

 

But as Wetzel and others (Hi, Pat Forde!) have shown, the lack of any such movement will never stop wild speculation.

 

But as the COVID crisis has shown, there is a clear gap between the two entities’ ways of doing and thinking about business. 

 

Since Dan does not expand on this point, allow me to do so.  Nebraska wanted to play this fall, wanted to do so safely, and believed they could do so with fans in the stands.

 

The Big Ten did not.

 

Once Ohio State sided with Nebraska, the Big Ten reconsidered their position.

 

It was June of 2010 when Nebraska accepted the Big Ten’s membership offer. The Huskers were eager to leave the Big 12, which they felt was overly influenced by the University of Texas and on the verge of collapse. Due to geography, there weren’t a lot of options. Joining a safe, stable and very wealthy conference to the east made a lot of sense.

 

The Big Ten, meanwhile, was seeking a then-12th member (it’s now at 14). A border state school with a huge football brand (it won three national titles in the 1990s) was appealing. 

 

The belief that the Nebraska name would deliver strong television ratings, despite having such a small population, overrode the concerns that the university as a whole wasn’t as committed to academics as the rest of the league. 

 

Without going point by point, can we acknowledge that Dan is viewing this through a hindsight prism that makes the Big Ten like a benevolent savior, instead of a pirate who raided the wreckage of another league for their collective monetary gains?

 

What seemed like a potential fit, however, hasn’t been. 

 

Nebraska football has struggled in the Big Ten, failing to find new recruiting turf to make up for the pipeline of Texas talent the Big 12 offered. Since 2014, it’s under .500 in league play. It has shown no ability to contend for championships. Its national brand, meanwhile, continues to grow weaker with high school talent and television viewers alike.

 

And its sparse population adds little to nothing for other schools to recruit (both in terms of football talent and potential students, the way Rutgers and Maryland do).

 

Yes, it is no secret that NU has struggled in the Big Ten – especially by NU’s standards.  I, like many people who know Nebraska football beyond the 30,000 foot overview you’re using, will tell you many of those struggles are due to a poor coaching and leadership.  The three coaches who recruited the talent involved in those “since 2014” teams had three different recruiting strategies, three different systems, and limited levels of success with development, strength & conditioning, and culture.

 

And yet… your claim about the national brand growing weaker is dead wrong.  At the high school level, the 2019 recruiting class was NU’s highest ranked in eight years, with a similar ranking in 2020.

 

As for TV viewers, the 2020 game against Ohio State was the highest rated broadcast of the season.  The 2019 matchup between the two teams had equally high rankings.  Obviously, the Buckeye juggernaut plays a big role in that number. But I’m guessing OSU vs. Rutgers or Maryland are not matching those ratings – even with their much larger population bases.

 

Meanwhile, in 2011, Nebraska lost its membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, of which every other Big Ten school belongs.

 

This is true, but much like everything else you’ve written, you have never bothered to look past the headline to learn why.  This article from the Columbia Missourian has some excellent details, but here are the Cliffs Notes:

  1. Due to how the University of Nebraska system is structured, the Lincoln campus (what the sports world knows as “NU”) no longer received credit for research done at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
  2. As a land grant school in a Midwestern state, NU obviously does a lot of agricultural research.  The AAU does not consider ag research to be equal to economic and medical research.

 

One other note:  almost a decade later, aside from the stigma of having been “kicked out” of the AAU country club, there has been little to no impact on the University of Nebraska.

 

In the meantime, Nebraska continues to operate in a way that is sometimes foreign to many in the conference. The mentality and experience that makes the school think it is doing the right thing just isn’t prevalent elsewhere in the conference. 

 

I guess this is true, too.  Unlike most of the Big Ten, Nebraska does not consider the Rose Bowl to be the pinnacle of athletic competition.  The results on the field aren’t there yet, but I can assure you that Nebraska’s goals go way beyond Pasadena. Most of what Nebraska is doing under Scott Frost is geared towards rebuilding a championship caliber program.

 

It’s unlikely any other Big Ten school would have even considered adding a Chattanooga to the schedule.

 

Dan, is your issue with Tennessee-Chattanooga?  Would Nebraska have been okay if they tried to schedule a MAC school?  Does that satisfy some double-secret Big Ten by-law for non-conference games?

 

Nebraska doesn’t have any (or many) options of course to change leagues.

 

Despite a vocal minority of Husker fans who are fed up with the Big Ten’s poor leadership, holier-than-thou attitude, and perceived reluctance to actually compete, Nebraska fans, faculty, and alumni have no desire to leave.  We understand the academic, financial, and athletic advantages (in that order) that Big Ten membership brings.

 

We would appreciate it if the league would realize that Nebraska standing up for their student-athletes (including those in non-revenue sports that continue to complete because football makes money), as well as the local economy is not a threat to THE BIG TEN WAY ®.

 

Its football team’s mediocrity only weakens its hand even if it wanted to leave.

 

Dan, you have typed yourself into a hypocritical conundrum.

 

You’ve made it clear that a mediocre Nebraska football team is bad for NU and the Big Ten (I agree, btw). So it would naturally behoove the Huskers to make some serious strides – and soon. For a young team (like, for example, the 2020 Cornhuskers), the best way to build is through live games against actual competition. Intra-squad scrimmages aren’t going to cut it.

 

Do you see the issue yet? Okay, I’ll keep going...

 

So far this year, the Big Ten has reduced Nebraska’s schedule from 12 games to 10, and then down to 8+1. With the Badgers bailing to get their COVID under control, Nebraska lost yet another opportunity.

 

Nobody is saying the Huskers are a threat to make the playoffs – or probably even win the West, but any experience this young core can get now will pay off down the road, which – say it with me Dan – IS GOOD FOR THE BIG TEN.

 

Meanwhile, you are chiding the Huskers for wanting to improve, while criticizing them for not improving.

 

Meanwhile, the Big Ten is loath to do anything other than grumble privately.

 

Well....grumble privately (and anonymously) to you in the hopes that you’ll turn it into a column that becomes fodder for national talk shows. Mission accomplished!

 

It’s way too even-keeled to boot some school out. 

 

A fact that surely gives comfort to schools like Rutgers and Maryland who have brought nothing athletically to the conference.  Not to mention the many conference schools who have been involved in scandals, criminal activity, and other things just slightly more distasteful than trying to schedule a football game with an FCS school.

 

In this article from Forbes (titled, “As Scandals Mount, It’s Time To Ask: Does The Big Ten Have A Cultural Problem?“, there are seven schools listed who have been involved in a major scandal in the last decade.  The article is from 2018, so it doesn’t have the racism claims that rocked Iowa’s football program this summer.  It may surprise you to learn that article makes zero mention of Nebraska.  Maybe Pat Forde and you can update it with a list of Nebraska’s sins over the last two months.

 

So this carries on, like a lot of nuptials. Neither side is happy, or even sure they know who exactly they married in the first place.

 

Should Nebraska and the Big Ten ever break up, we’ll make sure they get full custody of you.

 

Dave Feit lives in Lincoln, and has been writing for HuskerMax since 2011.  Additional thoughts on the Huskers (and everything else) can be found on his site: www.feitcanwrite.com Follow him on Twitter (@FeitCanWrite) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/feitcanwrite).