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Conference realignment has been a huge topic in the college sports world over the past few years, and the reshuffling isn’t over yet. Yes, another major domino may be ready to fall, and it doesn’t involve the schools you may be thinking about.

There have been a recent swell of rumors that the Big Ten is about to add a 15th university. No, not Notre Dame. And not Virginia or North Carolina either. You guessed it…

Johns Hopkins University.

What?

I said Johns Hopkins University. You know, that tiny private school in Baltimore. The national football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse powerhouse. Of all schools, they have caught the eye of the Big Ten. The blog Inside MD Sports first reported the rumors about two weeks ago, stating that “a few people” have revealed assimilation to the Big Ten “may be done soon.” Hopkins lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala also recently confirmed they are considering options to abandon independent status.

Let’s assume the rumors are true. Why would the Big Ten take on a school without any top division sports other than lacrosse? And what does this mean for the larger realignment picture?

First, the addition of Hopkins would allow the Big Ten to form a lacrosse league with the requisite number of teams to achieve an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, as Maryland, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, and Michigan also sponsor the sport. While nobody will confuse televised lacrosse with the financial impact of televised football and basketball, it’s important to note that Hopkins has been able to sign a TV deal with ESPNU guaranteeing national TV coverage of their home games, proving some value. The lacrosse league will also help the Big Ten Network fill their still weak programming schedule, especially in the spring, and add value to the venture.

Second, Hopkins will solidify the mid-Atlantic corridor and the new eastern block of the Big Ten as another (partial) voting member and cultural fit for new arrivals Maryland and Rutgers. The Big Ten is making their moves in the realignment game with their eyes focused squarely on the long term. The more stable the conference, the better, and it’s best if no schools or block of schools feel like an outlier. A stronger eastern core and solid lacrosse league may help entice other mid-Atlantic schools, such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Duke, to join the conference down the road.

Finally, and most importantly, Hopkins is a major academic add. The Big Ten is probably the most academically oriented conference in the nation. Thirteen of its future 14 members are affiliates of the preeminent research-intensive organization, the American Association of Universities (AAU), which lobbies to secure government funding for its members. Nebraska had been a member when they joined the conference in 2011, but were subsequently voted out. The 14 Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago also make up the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), an incredibly powerful and exclusive academic group that helps universities save money by collaborating on research and sharing resources.

The CIC’s total research funds increased from $8.4 billion to $9.3 billion with the recent additions of Maryland and Rutgers, one of the more important reason for their admission to the conference. Hopkins has the nation’s highest research budget, with total expenditures of around $1.9 billion. Look at that number again. That’s more than twice the amount of Maryland and Rutgers, strong research schools themselves, combined. Though research funds are far from shared equally, on a pro rata basis it would increase each of the Big Ten university’s share from $620 million to approximately $706 million.

As a conference realignment prognosticator, why do I care? Isn’t this all about football prestige and TV money? Sure, that’s part of it, but university presidents are the ones that need to sign off on any conference expansion, not athletic directors. I propose a general rule that as long as the per-school research budgets are increasing, they should provide their stamp of approval. And the hook of this whole move is that Big Ten athletic director Jim Delany has found best possible counterweight to possible additions of less than academically stellar universities, without adding a dead-weight football program.

The counterweight might even be necessary for Delany, not just a beneficial tool. Reprising the earlier per-school research dollars in the CIC, the current number sits at $620 million. Adding any school with a smaller budget than this, or any combination that averages to a smaller amount, would probably fail to pass university presidents scrutiny. Let’s make this our threshold. Targets for Big Ten expansion principally consist of AAU schools in contiguous states outside of their current footprint and in growing media markets. This first eliminates AAU school Pittsburgh for existing within Penn State’s territory. Kansas can also be eliminated due to their politically-induced grip to Kansas State, which would never be a viable conference addition. And while Notre Dame would be excepted from the rules, they have no plans to join a conference until they are forced too. Below are the remaining targets listed with their 2009 research budgets.

Duke – $805 million

North Carolina – $646 million

Georgia Tech – $562 million

Virginia – $262 million

The average of all four schools fail to meet the target, and there are only two pairs of schools that average over our threshold of $620 million.

Duke + North Carolina = $725.5 million average

Duke + Georgia Tech = $683.5 million average

Neither of these combinations fit the unofficial rules of Big Ten expansion, as a gap would exist between states represented in the conference. Delany might actually have his hands tied or options severely restricted without the addition of a research giant like Hopkins. But the math changes once that school is brought on board, and all possible combinations that do fit the unofficial conference expansion rules are now in play.

Hopkins + Virginia + Duke = $974.3 million average

Hopkins + Virginia + North Carolina = $921 million average

Hopkins + Virginia + Duke + North Carolina + Georgia Tech = $826 million average

With the addition of Hopkins to the conference, Delany can feel the power coursing through his hands. And here’s where the fun begins. Not only could the Big Ten slash into the Georgia market and SEC territory, Hopkins research dollars and academic prestige could allow them to keep going. If the ACC breaks up, there would be a highly attractive “king” football program available in a talent rich state that could add a lot of TV sets, and not just locally, but nationally. That program is Florida State.

Florida State had an inferior $195 million research budget in 2009, but is ranked as a “very high activity” research school by the Carnegie Foundation and is ranked 97th on the U.S. News undergraduate college ranking list. For comparison, Nebraska has a research budget of $235 million and is the lowest ranked Big Ten school by U.S. News at 101st. That academic profile is quite borderline compared to existing conference members, but the conference has shown willingness to overlook that in the case of certain schools that provide a national brand, such as the addition of Nebraska or the offer extended to Notre Dame in 1999. And if Florida State is entering with Hopkins and a whole other set of strong academic research universities, the math just might work out.

Hopkins + Virginia + Duke + Georgia Tech + Florida State = $736 million average

Hopkins + Virginia + North Carolina + Georgia Tech + Florida State = $704 million average

Oh and by the way, if the Big Ten is willing to add a school like Johns Hopkins as a quasi-affiliate member, I hear the University of Toronto ($878 million research budget in 2010) and McGill University in Montreal ($470 million), both AAU members, have pretty good hockey teams…

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By: Sam Brylski

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