CHICAGO — Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez understands the public would like some answers about Big Ten expansion. Just don't ask him.
Alvarez said the decision rests with school presidents, not with the league's athletic directors. Still, expansion was the hot-button topic Monday as conference coaches and administrators gathered in Chicago for three days of meetings.
"People want to know what's going on, but nobody has any answers for them," Alvarez said. "None of us do, anyway."
Michigan athletic director David Brandon senses "change is in the wind" but isn't sure anything will happen. And Indiana's Tom Crean said expansion "is a topic of conversation" even if it's not on the written agenda for the basketball coaches' meetings.
The Big Ten last year grabbed the attention of everyone in college sports by announcing that it was considering whether to expand from its current 11 members, a move that would extend the reach of its lucrative TV network and add a championship football game. The timeline for any decision is said to stretch into 2011, but expansion and the potential domino effect have dominated discussions from the Big East, SEC and Big 12 to the Pac-10.
"With the success of the Big Ten network and the position we're in, I am sure that the powers that be will only add universities that bring value," Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Anytime you add value to a league, you're going to be better off."
Last week, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany e-mailed conference officials to squash a rumor that Missouri, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Rutgers had been invited to join. Texas, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Maryland have all been mentioned as possible targets, too.
Missouri officials have denied a request for documents related to the school's possible interest in the Big Ten. The university cited an exemption related to ongoing contract negotiations, but indicated it had not determined if such records even exist before responding with its denial.
The expansion talk comes at a time when at least some schools are struggling to pay their bills, and no conference gives its members more money than the Big Ten at approximately $22 million each. That's about double what the SEC and Pac-10 pay, with the Big 12 at about $7 million to $12 million and the Big East $4.5 million or less.
Even expansion advocates such as Alvarez don't want to sacrifice a dime if the conference decides to grow. And along with the money, there are other issues that would have to be addressed, such as academic credentials and geography.
"We've talked from 10,000 feet about the census 20 years ago and the rust belt population, the Big Ten population versus movement to the Sun Belt over the last 20 years," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said.
That data, he said, revealed a big shift in population to the South.
"More and more people have moved to the South," he said. "The Big Ten still has the largest population base of alumni, but we want to make sure years from now, if that movement continues, we're in position to say that."
Piscataway, N.J., isn't exactly lined with palm trees, but Rutgers does offer proximity to New York and Philadelphia and those whopping television markets. Notre Dame and Nebraska boast storied traditions — and dedicated alumni — as does Texas, which would also give the conference exposure in big Texas markets and a fertile recruiting ground. Texas officials have denied any interest in leaving the Big 12, but the speculation hasn't stopped.
"It's a complex set of issues," Brandon said. "There's a lot of rumors out there, and from what I've been told, they're just that — rumors."
The potential travel costs for Michigan are a real concern for Brandon, who's new to the job, even if his budget is "in excess of $100 million."
"We service 750-ish athletes and the consequences of changes in the composition of the conference are a material issue to my life," Brandon said.
"I've got to get student-athletes to and from competitions, and I've got to get them in class," he said. "That's one of the things that I really want to get an understanding of from a scheduling competition standpoint. In a world where we expand the geographic scope of the conference and just the number of places that we go, how will we make that happen in a way that's affordable and consistent with our values?"
Penn State's coach Joe Paterno, who was not feeling well, was not expected to attend this week's meetings and neither were Ohio State's Jim Tressel and Minnesota's Tubby Smith.