Big Ten History

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

Widely known as one of intercollegiate sports' most successful undertakings, the Big Ten boasts 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 of all Big Ten universities.


James H. Smart

The history of the Big Ten traces back nearly 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 control and 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 amateur 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 "Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives" or "Western Conference."

Indiana University and the State University of Iowa were admitted in 1899. In 1908, Michigan briefly withdrew its membership from the conference, and in 1912 Ohio State University was incorporated into the conference. Upon Michigan's return in 1917, the conference was first referred to as the "Big Ten," and the 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 25 sports, 12 for men and 13 for women. Beginning with the 2013-14 academic year, the Big Ten will add men's ice hockey as an official conference sport, providing six institutions and more than 125 student-athletes the opportunity to compete for a Big Ten Championship.

One of the conference's proudest traditions began in 1902 when Michigan took on Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Although Big Ten teams only appeared in Pasadena twice before the Big Ten began annually sending a conference representative to the game in 1946, Michigan's appearance in 1902 cultivated a relationship that has endured for more than a century.

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 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 conference student-athlete can receive.

In 1922, Major John L. Griffith became the conference's first "Commissioner of Athletics," and was tasked "to study athletic problems of the various Western Conference universities and assist in enforcing the eligibility rules which govern Big Ten 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 as a 10-member conference, the conference consolidated to a nine-school league when the University of Chicago formally withdrew its membership in 1946. Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) was added to the Big Ten in 1949, 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.

In one of Duke's first actions as commissioner, he oversaw the adoption of the Black Advisory Commission in 1972, designed to study conference programs and make suggestions which would further objectives of the Big Ten. Recently having celebrated its 40th anniversary, the Advisory Commission engages with student-athletes to identify issues and serves as a resource to the NCAA's Diversity and Inclusion Department, the Big Ten Student-Athlete Advisory Commission and other organizations.

In 1981, the Council of Ten endorsed a proposal that enabled universities to affiliate their women's intercollegiate programs with the conference, and the first conference championships 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, after nearly 40 years of conference stability, 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.

The Big Ten remained on the forefront of change in collegiate athletics when it implemented a pilot program of instant replay for college football. Following the 2004 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 Cable Networks to create what would become the Big Ten Network (BTN). BTN launched on August 30, 2007, and is now in its sixth year of operation. BTN is in 51 million homes in the United States and Canada, through agreements with more than 300 cable, satellite and telecommunications providers, and is available internationally in 20 countries.

On June 11, 2010, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors approved a formal membership application by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, expanding the conference to 12 institutions. Nebraska officially joined the Big Ten Conference on July 1, 2011. In November 2012, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors announced approval for the University of Maryland and Rutgers University to join the Big Ten Conference, which will expand the conference to 14 institutions.

The Big Ten Conference office and staff are housed at the Big Ten Conference headquarters and meetings center in Park Ridge, Ill. The conference's first fully owned and operated building is located 10 minutes from O'Hare Airport and has been designed to fully service the needs of over 60 different committees, coaches and governance groups that schedule more than 125 meeting days per year.

Delany and his staff manage nearly 1,000 broadcast events, provide legislative and compliance services, manage 25 different sport championships and tournaments, provide staff services to over 400 coaching and administrative personnel on Big Ten campuses, and service media and fans needs and interests for information about the Big Ten Conference.

Nearly 120 years after its inception, the Big Ten remains a national leader in intercollegiate athletics on and off the field. Conference teams have combined to win more than 280 national championships and consistently take home individual honors for athletic and academic accomplishments, fulfilling the Big Ten's mission of honoring legends and building leaders.

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