Big Ten History

Big Ten Athletes of the Year
Big Ten Medal of Honor winners
Big Ten Record Book
Big Ten Championships

Known as one of intercollegiate sports’ most successful undertakings, the Big Ten is home to a lineage of legendary names and an ongoing tradition of developing strong leaders. Even in its infancy, the conference established itself as the preeminent collection of institutions in the nation, where the pursuit of academic excellence prevailed as the definitive goal.

The history of the Big Ten traces back 120 years to the Palmer House hotel in Chicago, where on January 11, 1895, then-Purdue president James H. Smart and leaders from the University of Chicago, University of Illinois, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, Northwestern University and University of Wisconsin set out to organize and develop principles for the regulation of intercollegiate athletics.

At that meeting, a blueprint for the administration of college athletics under the direction of appointed faculty representatives was outlined. The presidents’ first known action “restricted eligibility for athletics to bonafide, full-time students who were not delinquent in their studies.” That important legislation, along with other legislation that would follow in the coming years, served as the primary building block for intercollegiate athletics.

On February 8, 1896, one faculty member from each of those seven universities met at the same Palmer House and officially established the mechanics of the conference, which was officially incorporated as the “Intercollegiate Conference Athletic Association” in 1905.

Indiana University and the State University of Iowa became the eighth and ninth members in 1899. In 1908, Michigan briefly withdrew its membership, and in 1912 Ohio State University joined the conference, bringing its membership total back to nine. Upon Michigan’s return in 1917, the conference was first referred to as the “Big Ten” by media members, and that name was eventually incorporated in 1987.

As the 1900s opened, faculty representatives established rules for intercollegiate athletics that were novel for the time. As early as 1904, the faculty approved legislation that required eligible athletes to meet entrance requirements and to have completed a full year’s work, along with having one year of residence.

In 1901, the first Big Ten Championship event was staged when the outdoor track and field championships were held at the University of Chicago. The debut event marked what is now a staple of conference competition. Today, the Big Ten sponsors 28 official sports, 14 for men and 14 for women, including the addition of men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse the last two years. Big Ten schools compete in a total of 42 different sports, furthering the conference’s commitment to broad-based programming and providing more participation opportunities than any conference in the country.

One of the conference’s proudest traditions began in 1902 when Michigan took on Stanford in the Rose Bowl, the nation’s first bowl game. Big Ten teams only appeared in Pasadena twice before the conference signed an exclusive contract with the Tournament of Roses in 1946, making it the first bowl game with permanent conference affiliations. But Michigan’s appearance in 1902 cultivated a relationship that has endured for more than a century. In January 2014, Michigan State defeated Stanford in the 100th Rose Bowl Game.

Coupling the academic goals set forth by the leaders of the charter members of the conference and their steadfast commitment to athletics, the conference instituted the Big Ten Medal of Honor in 1915. It is awarded annually by each conference institution to a student of the graduating class who has attained the greatest proficiency in scholarship and athletics. It is the most prestigious honor a student competing in Big Ten athletics can receive.

In 1922, Major John L. Griffith became the conference’s first “Commissioner of Athletics.” Griffith was the first of five men to assume the role of commissioner in the conference’s history, followed by Kenneth L. “Tug” Wilson in 1945, Bill Reed in 1961, Wayne Duke in 1971 and current commissioner James E. Delany in 1989.

After nearly 30 years with 10 members, the conference consolidated to nine schools when the University of Chicago formally withdrew its membership in 1946. Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) was added to the Big Ten three years later, bringing the number of affiliated conference schools to 10 once again.

In 1955, the Big Ten formulated a revenue-sharing model designed to pool all football television rights of its members and share those proceeds equally. The conference and its members continue to utilize a revenue-sharing model, dividing media rights, bowl payouts and other profits among all conference institutions.

While academics have always played an integral role in the conference, presidents of the Big Ten member institutions formalized the primacy of academics with the establishment of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) in 1958. The CIC was formed as an academic consortium of all Big Ten universities and founding conference member Chicago. In 2013, the 15 schools currently constituting the CIC produced over $10 billion in funded research, $4 billion more than any other conference.

In one of Duke’s first actions as commissioner, he oversaw the adoption of the Big Ten Advisory Commission in 1972, designed to study conference programs and make suggestions which would further Big Ten objectives. The Advisory Commission enlists former students that competed in Big Ten athletics to serve as liaisons to the NCAA’s Diversity and Inclusion Department, the Big Ten Student-Athlete Advisory Commission and other organizations.

In 1981, the conference presidents and chancellors endorsed a proposal that enabled universities to affiliate their women’s intercollegiate programs with the conference, and the first conference championships for women were staged that fall. The Big Ten was the first conference to voluntarily adopt male and female participation goals after launching its Gender Equity Action Plan in 1992.

In December of 1989, the conference agreed in principle to invite Pennsylvania State University for membership. On June 4, 1990, the Council of Presidents officially voted to integrate Penn State into the conference, giving the Big Ten 11 members.

In 2004, the Big Ten implemented a pilot program of instant replay for college football. Following the season, the conference forwarded replay proposals to the NCAA regarding the future use of instant replay, where it approved country-wide testing in 2005. In 2006, the NCAA approved the use of instant replay for all conferences.

In 2006, Delany announced the creation of the first conference-owned television network, a 20-year agreement with FOX Networks to create what would become the Big Ten Network (BTN). Launched on Aug. 30, 2007, BTN now produces more than 1,000 events across all platforms each year. BTN is in more than 60 million homes in the U.S. and Canada via the nation’s major cable, satellite and telco providers and more than 300 additional cable operators across the country. BTN2Go is the digital extension of BTN, delivering live and on-demand programming to computers, smartphones and tablets and also is accessible outside the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean via BTN2Go International.

On June 11, 2010, the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors (COP/C) approved a formal membership application by the University of Nebraska, expanding the conference to 12 institutions. Nebraska officially joined the Big Ten on July 1, 2011.

The conference expanded its footprint further in 2012 when the COP/C approved formal membership applications from the University of Maryland and Rutgers University on November 19 and 20, respectively. Maryland and Rutgers became official Big Ten members on July 1, 2014, giving the conference almost 9,500 students participating in intercollegiate athletics and more than 11,000 participation opportunities on 350 teams.

On June 3, 2013, the Big Ten announced that Johns Hopkins University had been accepted as the conference’s first sport affiliate member. Johns Hopkins’ addition in men’s lacrosse gave the Big Ten six institutions sponsoring the sport, allowing the debut of men’s lacrosse as an official conference sport and building on the Big Ten’s tradition of broad-based sports competition. On June 17, 2015, the conference announced that Johns Hopkins was accepted as a sport affiliate member for women's lacrosse beginning with the 2016-17 academic year.

In the fall of 2013, the Big Ten opened a new conference headquarters and meeting center in Rosemont, Ill. The newly constructed building is located 10 minutes from O’Hare Airport and has been designed to fully service the needs of more than 350 meetings annually for Big Ten and CIC related committees and coaches groups. The new headquarters also features an interactive digital museum - the Big Ten Experience – which opened to the public on June 7, 2014, and brings the conference’s storied academic and athletic history to life. For more information on the Big Ten Experience, go to

In June 2014, the Big Ten opened a second office in New York City, featuring both office and meeting space in Midtown Manhattan. Three Big Ten staff members are based in the New York City office to provide expanded coverage and service, while other conference and institutional administrators utilize the space as necessary when conducting business on the East Coast. The Big Ten and its member institutions also have access to satellite office space in Washington, D.C.

Delany and his staff work to meet the educational needs of students competing in intercollegiate athletics to allow them to excel in all areas of their lives. The conference office manages 28 different championships and tournaments, offers legislative and compliance services, oversees the production and distribution of nearly 1,400 events annually, provides staff services to coaching and administrative personnel and services media and fans interest for information on the Big Ten.

More than 120 years after its inception, the Big Ten remains a national leader in intercollegiate athletics on and off the field. Big Ten programs have combined to win more than 450 team and 1,800 individual national championships, consistently taking home individual honors for athletic and academic accomplishments and fulfilling the Big Ten’s mission of academic achievement and athletic success.

Last updated: July 2015