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The Big Ten is rich, but money can’t buy everything

Plus, it might not be so rich forever.

The Big Ten Network Kick Off Party Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Wink Public Relations

Over the last few years, this is around the time of year when we either write Big Ten apologetics columns, or try to figure out what’s wrong with the conference after some high-profile, embarrassing early season defeats. Failing that, if we, the bloggers of the internet, felt the need to stick up for the conference, we could always fall back to, “well, yeah, but at least the Big Ten is rich.”

This year is different. The Big Ten might be good. Ohio State and Michigan both sit in the AP Poll’s top five teams. Wisconsin, who has beaten LSU and Michigan State, is 8th. Nebraska, who has a win over Oregon, is 15th. Michigan State (who beat Notre Dame) is 17th. Northwestern is bad, but at least they beat Duke. Maryland is undefeated and getting votes.

And Rutgers? Well, Rutgers is at least getting plenty of fresh air and exercise.

But the Big Ten is still rich. And thanks to that new TV deal they signed over the summer, they’re about to become even richer, perhaps dramatically so, when compared to their peers. Big Ten institutions, including Ohio State, will soon be clearing well over $40 million a year, just in TV money.

TV network news flooded the college football offseason, especially within the Big 12, but the disparity in television financial growth may be most clear when looking at the Pac-12. While the Big Ten is already clearing tens of millions of dollars a year, and much more in the near future, Pac-12 schools are getting about $2.5 million a year from the Pac-12 Network, and struggle to get their product distributed.

It’s gotten so bad, that I, a person who writes about college football for a living, could barely get the Pac-12 network until a few weeks ago, because I live in Maryland.

Steven Godfrey recently took a closer look at the Pac-12 Network’s situation. It’s worth a look in it’s entirety, but the basic gist here is that because the network is completely owned by the conference (instead of with ESPN or Fox), they remained untethered and have the opportunity to be more flexible with other distribution channels, and internationally.

If the way we watch college sports continues to change dramatically, the Pac-12 network could, theoretically, become as profitable, if not more so, than the Big Ten or SEC, not to mention anybody else.

Whether that will happen or not is an interesting question, especially for those who are a bit more plugged into the technology world than I, but it’s also a very May or June question.

But another look at these television deals does bring up a question perhaps more germane to current season.

Who cares? At some point, does money even matter?

I don’t mean to get all existential here or anything. Of course money matters. I can’t pay my rent with RTs and Favs. But when we’re talking about college sports, at some point, we may run out of things to spend it on.

What do you do with a boatload of money, if you’re an athletic department looking to better your football team?

You’d try to go out and grab a quality head coach, for sure. But salary is just one factor that determines what kind of coach you can get. After all, even if say, UConn, decided to spend $15 million on a head coach, they may not be able to pry a top name from an elite program.

The SEC and upper half of the Big Ten dominate the list of highest paid head coaches, but that hasn’t prevented the Pac-12, or other power leagues, from hiring quality leaders. Would you rather have Utah’s Kyle Whitingham at $2.6 million, or Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz at $4 million? If you aren’t Gary Barta, that answer is clear.

You might spend it on assistant coaches, and that would probably be wise. But an institution may decide not to break the bank on assistants, even if they have the money to do so. Ohio State almost certainly has the money to pay an assistant a million dollars a year, or more, like LSU, Michigan and others have done, but have made the administrative decision not to. Wisconsin has done the same. Would dumping another $15 million into the checking account change an administrator’s mind? Maybe, maybe not.

You could pay the players. You should pay the players. Buuuuuut, nobody is going to pay the players. At least, not until somebody makes them.

You can build fancy training facilities and locker rooms with waterfalls and lasers and PlayStations and unlimited snacks and quality control assistants that do nothing but swipe on Tinder on behalf of the players, and yeah, lots of teams are already doing that. But if you expect those palaces to be recruiting advantages, they need to be better than other school’s. And at some point, just about everybody is going to have a dang palace.

There are a few other things you can spend the money on, like paying big guarantees to make your scheduling easier, or hiring a gazillion quality control assistants, but at some point, you reach a point of budget diminishing returns.

In four years, maybe Iowa and Minnesota will have $20-25 million dollars more than say, Arizona, or Texas Tech, for their football program. But if they’re recruiting the same player, and that player is from say, Dallas, how many times will they win that recruiting battle? Maybe one, two more times than they do now?

At the end of the day, you can’t quite buy a championship. Lord knows Texas will have tried by now. It hasn’t saved USC. It hasn’t saved Notre Dame. And Ohio State didn’t win two championships in the last 15 years simply because they have a massive budget.

You win lots of football games because you hire a good coaching staff, supported by a good administration, that is able to recruit lots of good players, and then develop them into better players. That’s a product of budget, sure, but also of history, geography, talent, and more.

Money is important. North Texas isn’t going to win squat, no matter how great their AD is, without enough money. But at the end of the day, whether the Big Ten, or the SEC, or the Pac-12, has the most money won’t determine who makes the college football playoff, or who wins a title.

Already, it’s entirely possible that a Louisville, or a Houston, makes the college football playoff. They’re already outplaying dozens of programs with better TV deals and bigger budgets.

Money can buy a lot of things, including a lot of important, and totally awesome things.

But it can’t buy everything.

Sorry, Rutgers.