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Mourning the Big Ten that I grew up with

The additions of USC and UCLA are the final nails in the coffin of the Big Ten as we once knew it

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 27 Minnesota at Michigan Photo by Lon Horwedel/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is a reason Gopher football fans dream of returning to the Rose Bowl.

In a word: Tradition.

The Tournament of Roses Association first struck an agreement with the Big Ten Conference and the Pac-12 Conference in 1946. Under that agreement, a representative from each conference would meet in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. The first game under the agreement took place on Jan. 1, 1947, and saw No. 5-ranked Illinois square off against No. 4-ranked UCLA.

Though the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) era and eventually the College Football Playoff have intermittently taken priority over the traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup in the Rose Bowl in the last two decades, the original agreement stands the oldest intercollegiate postseason bowl agreement between two major conferences in the United States.

For Minnesota, the Rose Bowl still represents the Holy Grail. The Gophers haven’t been there in 60 years. The program’s glory days have receded into the past and a return to the Rose Bowl would serve as a long-awaited bridge to that storied history for fans, most of whom weren’t alive the last time their team was invited to “The Granddaddy of Them All.”

The good news is that the Gophers’ Rose Bowl drought is about to end.

Just not in the way fans would have hoped.

With the news that USC and UCLA will be exiting the Pac-12 — a conference both programs have called home for more than 90 years — and joining the Big Ten in 2024, Gopher fans will soon be able to start planning their trip to Pasadena for a conference road game against the Bruins.

With the Pac-12 plunged into chaos and uncertainty after the loss of two marquee member institutions, this could very well be the end of the Rose Bowl as we know it, too.

It’s certainly the end of Big Ten football as we once knew it.

Expansion is nothing new for the Big Ten, to be clear. It started with the addition of Penn State in 1993, followed by Nebraska in 2011. Fans could at least still convince themselves the Big Ten was the Big Ten with the Nittany Lions and the Cornhuskers among their ranks. But once the conference added Maryland and Rutgers in 2014 — a move driven entirely by a desire to expand into the New York media market — the writing was on the wall.

The passion of many Big Ten fans is rooted in the tradition-rich history of its longtime member institutions, embodied by some of the most iconic rivalry trophies in college football, including Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the Floyd of Rosedale, and the Little Brown Jug. Not only did geography no longer seem to matter to a conference that had been synonymous with the Midwest for decades, but fans were supposed to be excited by the prospect of matchups against two mediocre programs that added nothing to the conference from a competitive standpoint.

College football has always been a business, but for the longest time the sport has had remarkable success convincing fans otherwise. It has been increasingly difficult to maintain that illusion in the 21st century, with conference realignment chief among the challenges.

Conference realignment is a game of musical chairs. No one wants to be left standing without a seat when the music stops, and that means prioritizing survival above all else. Texas A&M didn’t care about cutting off its 117-year rivalry with the Longhorns when it decided to join the SEC, and Missouri didn’t think twice about sacrificing its 120-year “Border War” with Kansas when it made the same leap. As much as those rivalries may have mattered to each fan base — whether the fans would admit it or not — the revenue from the SEC mattered more.

The disparity in Big Ten revenue and Pac-12 revenue was reportedly the chief factor for USC and UCLA to turn their back on the conference they’d been part of for nearly a century.

Money is the driving force behind conference realignment, and when the dust finally settles, the Big Ten is likely to be unrecognizable from what it once was. And that’s a shame, in my opinion.

You can’t fight change, and no one can stop what is coming in college football. I’m sure they’ll even come a point in time when USC and UCLA — and whichever other programs inevitably seek refuge on the Big Ten’s lifeboat — in the Big Ten feels like a new normal. But I can’t help but mourn the death of the brand of Big Ten football I grew up with.

Maybe I’ll make the trip to the Rose Bowl for a regular season road game against UCLA. But I already know it’ll pale in comparison to what could have been. Even in a different timeline, Minnesota may never have made that return trip. But if they had, it would’ve been worth the wait.