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Burning Questions: Can the Big Ten now claim USC and UCLA’s accolades?

Those 11 UCLA NCAA Tournament championships sure are tempting…

NCAA Basketball: UNLV at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the huge appeals of the Big Ten bringing on USC and UCLA as part of the conference’s expansion is certainly the brand power of the newcomers. The two schools bring a significant history of excellence, from national championships to Olympians to some of the top professional athletes of the modern era.

USC brings a prestigious history on the football field especially:

  • 11 claimed national titles
  • 82 consensus All-Americans
  • Six Heisman Trophy winners (not including Reggie Bush)
  • 520 NFL Draft picks

All these accolades are top-10 in the FBS. Despite their struggles in recent seasons, USC brings one of the most reputable brands in college football.

UCLA, meanwhile, is one of the most storied college basketball programs of all time, with 11 NCAA Tournament victories, most of them coming under legendary coach John Wooden.

That doesn’t even get to the non-revenue sports where both have a sizable trophy case of baseball, water polo, gymnastics, track and field and volleyball (both beach and indoor) national titles. In all, the two schools bring a collection of 227 NCAA team championships to their new conference.

With the Big Ten expanding, the question remains: Can the conference absorb the accolades of teams who were not in the conference at the time those accolades were earned?

It would be so easy (and so desirable) to say yes. Having the histories of Indiana and UCLA basketball in the same conference or the combination of Ohio State, Michigan and USC football — either would give the Big Ten such a leg up compared to other conferences.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Beyond the obvious question of the moral decision to absorb their contributions, the fact is UCLA and USC’s accomplishments were earned against different conference opponents in different circumstances. In other words, they didn’t compete in the same realm (or in some cases the same sports) as the Big Ten, so it’s challenging to reconcile.

Over time, however, it’s natural that those histories and accolades will start to fall under the Big Ten umbrella. After all, how often do we consider Penn State’s accomplishments pre-1990 outside the context of the Big Ten? That’s perhaps a bad example, as the Nittany Lions brought in just two national titles and one Heisman Trophy winner when they joined the Big Ten.

Even now, Maryland basketball and lacrosse championships from before 2014 feel like they are Big Ten wins as opposed to ACC. The Terps brought in 26 NCAA team titles when they came to the conference. (At this point we should acknowledge that Rutgers brought a 1949 NCAA title in men’s fencing when they joined the Big Ten.)

It gets easier to start claiming these titles when the sports they came in jive with the Big Ten. For instance, it seems unimaginable that the Big Ten will try to claim USC or UCLA’s beach volleyball titles, but perhaps they’ll try to own some of the tennis titles in a few years.

But beyond these more general historical accolades, there is a very specific scenario that will be a lot more challenging to reconcile: What of the Rose Bowl?

It will certainly be hard to explain to the next generation that the Granddaddy of them All oft featured two teams who belong in the same conference. There’s little precedence for that kind of post-season. We’ll certainly see a diluted version of that with Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC, since the Cotton Bowl featured the SEC and Big 12.

In short, it’s probably not fair to lump all USC and UCLA’s Rose Bowl titles — five and 25, respectively — in with the Big Ten, considering so many of those wins came against current Big Ten teams.

However, the reality is the Big Ten will be home to UCLA and USC’s 227 NCAA titles. Perhaps the Big Ten as a conference can’t claim them, but it will be their forever home.

At least until the next realignment.