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Big Ten Silliness

December 13, 2010 Leave a comment

The Big Ten conference announced names for its new divisions, two of the most meaningless names one can imagine. But maybe I should back up. The Big Ten is the oldest and, I suppose, most famous university sporting conference in the country, dating back to 1896. It became the Big Ten only in 1917, with Ohio State joining in 1916 and Michigan re-joining in 1917 after an absence, the other eight being founding members Chicago, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin (along with Michigan), plus Indiana and Iowa, who joined in 1899. The arithmetic got a little complicated when Chicago left after 1946, but Michigan State joined in 1950, restoring order. When Penn State joined in 1990, there was no changing the name, as will be the case after Nebraska joins next year. The Big Ten is a brand now, not a count.

I will pass on providing a primer on the economics of college football and the motivation for conferences to have 12 teams. The short version — and remember, this is about football only, not other sports that conference teams participate in — is that once a conference has 12 teams, it is allowed to split into two 6-team divisions and conclude the regular season with a conference championship game between the two division champions. This means big money. Millions. Many millions. And it’s why both the Big 10 and the Pac 10 chose earlier this year to expand. Losing out in this is the Big 12, which will lose not just Nebraska to the Big 10, but also Colorado to the Pac 10. (Yes, that’s right, this means the Big 10 will have 12 teams and the Big 12 will have 10. Get used to it.)

The Big 10 expansion and concomitant addition of a conference championship game necessitate a split into divisions. Those conferences that already split divisionally generally did it geographically. The SEC (Southeast Conference), the model for this, has east and west divisions. The east is perhaps more east and north, but the west is a geographically compact region, one that makes sense, and so the divisional alignment as a whole makes sense as well. The west schools (going roughly from west to east) are LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Alabama, and Auburn. The east schools (going from south or southeast to northwest) are Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky.

The Pac 10 has a plan for post-expansion divisions that has some logic as well. To the north are Washington and Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State, Cal and Stanford. The six in the other division come in handy pairs as well: USC and UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State, and the two newcomers, Colorado and Utah.

Take a moment now to think about how you would split the twelve Big 10 teams into two divisions. Remember, they are Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska.

Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? In fact, I’ve just done it, and handy pairs are staring you in the face. In the east we put Penn State and Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue. In the west we put Illinois and Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. Done, with natural rivalries built in, rivalries that may not respect past history but are ready made for new history.

The problem is that past history, with the mother of all rivalries, Ohio State and Michigan, the primacy of which has to be preserved somehow. And then, well, let’s see what the Big Ten had to say in its announcement a few months ago:

The Big Ten football division alignments will include a division featuring Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin, and a division featuring Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern. Each school will play the other five schools within its division and will also face three teams from the other division, including one cross-division matchup guaranteed on an annual basis. The guaranteed cross-division matchups are Illinois-Northwestern, Indiana-Michigan State, Ohio State-Michigan, Penn State-Nebraska, Purdue-Iowa and Wisconsin-Minnesota. Names for each Big Ten football division will be announced at a later date.

This isn’t how I would have done it. In particular, there’s no geographical logic to it at all.

But about those division names, which were announced today along with the logo pictured at the top, they are: Leaders and Legends. League commissioner Jim Delany explained to the AP that “The Legends, not too hard in that we have 215 College Football Hall of Fame members, we have 15 Heisman Trophy winners. We thought it made perfect sense to recognize the iconic and the legendary through the naming of the division in that regard. … We’ve had plenty of leaders in the conference, that’s for sure, but the emphasis here is to recognize the mission of using intercollegiate athletics and higher education to build future leaders.”

I think he lost me. And which is which? The division with Ohio State is the Leaders; the division with Michigan is the Legends.

Sigh.

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Categories: Football, Language, Stupidity

Travels in Siberia, II

December 13, 2010 Leave a comment

At the end of August, I mentioned reading an article by Ian Frazier in that week’s New Yorker about his 2005 visit to the site of a former gulag in Siberia. I also noted that he would have a new book coming out in October, Travels in Siberia.

Well, it came out, and two weeks later I pondered whether to buy the physical book or the Kindle e-version. Before heading to Chicago last month, I bought the Kindle version in anticipating of reading it on the plane. Perhaps that was the wrong decision. I spent the flight to Chicago working on a NYT Thursday crossword, then reading a New Yorker. On the way home, the next night, I watched some dumb movie, listened to music, and I don’t know what else.

But I’m now reading the book, about a third of the way through, and missing the book version, since I would have liked to be able to refer regularly to the map of Siberia. In the Kindle version, the map is essentially unviewable (as is invariably the case). And even on the iPad, which usually renders graphics far better than the Kindle does, the map doesn’t work too well. The print and the cartographic details are just too small.

This is a minor nuisance, though, because the tale’s the thing, and the tale is fabulous, as is Frazier’s writing. Like in his earlier gem Great Plains, he bounces around a lot — deciding to visit, making early forays into Siberia from the west and the east, learning Russian, preparing for a drive across the length of Siberia. Years pass in between various of the episodes. People come and go. I’m now at the beginning of the Siberia drive, two days in.

The foray into Siberia from the east was not a deep one. After some time in Nome, he went due west across the Bering Sea to Provideniya, from which he took a fascinating side trip to a salmon fishing site. A better map would help, since a theme of this part of the book is just how stunningly close North America and Asia are, and how similar the Native cultures on either side are, which once one thinks about it is hardly surprising, as they are essentially one. The peoples, climate, topography, food sources are the same. However, history, governments, and funding aren’t, and however poor that part of Alaska is, the Russians have it worse.

Frazier also gets to Little Diomede Island for the briefest of stays, shuttled there by helicopter and shuttled back later in the day. With Russia’s Big Diomede Island looming not much more than a mile away, this is the place where one really can look out one’s window and see Putin rearing his head.

Excellent book. I just wish I could have seen Frazier in late October when he passed through town on his book tour. I intended to, but couldn’t make it. I do hope to see him some day, given how much I admire his writing (and given our slight connection as college classmates).

Categories: Books