Why is Penn State Playing Football in the Midwest Anyway?

Culture Watch


Carl Abbott is Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University and the author of a number of books including “Frontiers Past and Future: Science Fiction and the American West.”

On January 2, 2012, Wisconsin and Oregon will face off in the Rose Bowl.  For someone with a sense of the past, that’s right and fitting.  The Rose Bowl has long meant Big Ten + Pac 8/10/12.  It’s been matching teams from the two identifiable regions of Middle West and Pacific Slope for more than a half century.

Those of us interested in the cultural geography of the United States, however, have reason to be uneasy.  Neither the Big Ten nor the Pac 12 is what it once was—an athletic conference with a clear regional identity.  And they’re pretty well grounded compared to some of the other conferences.

My complaint starts with Penn State, and it has nothing to do with current scandals.  It dates back to 1990, when Penn State—an Eastern school—moved to join the Big Ten athletic conference.

Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, my sports allegiance was intensely local.  I followed Cleveland Browns football (Lou Groza! Jim Brown! Frank Ryan the Ph.D. quarterback!), Cincinnati Reds baseball (that wonderful pennant season of 1961 brought low by Whitey Ford’s arm in the World Series), and Big Ten football.  I was a Midwestern kid, and Big Ten meant Middle West, the heartland of farms and factories stretching from Ohio and Michigan to Iowa and Minnesota.  They were synonymous.  A school from east of the Alleghenies like Penn State didn’t seem to belong.

The formal grouping of American colleges for regular athletic competition dates back to the 1870s, but it was the expanding role of football in particular that led to the organization of the Western Conference (Big Ten) in the 1890s and the Eastern League (ancestor of the Ivy League) around the turn of the last century.  The Missouri Valley Conference followed in 1907, the Southwest Athletic Conference in 1914, the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 1915, the Southern Conference in 1921, and many more.

The same year that Penn State initiated its affiliation with the Big Ten, I published a regional analysis of college athletic conferences in the Journal of American Studies. I took the members of forty extant conferences, from Atlantic Coast to Yankee, and mapped the number of potential intraleague contacts with teams from other states, assuming that each team played each other conference team one time.  Not surprisingly, the strongest pairings were neighboring states like Kansas-Nebraska and Alabama-Mississippi.  Mapping the full set of connections produced a map that looked remarkably like our everyday understanding of American regions.  There was a West from the Rockies to the Pacific, a South from Texas to Virginia, a Middle West, and a Northeast.  To the surprise of nobody familiar with U.S. history, there was also a somewhat ambiguous border zone across the Upper South.  College athletics nicely reflected and reinforced the nation’s economic and cultural regions as defined by the Census Bureau and by scholar Raymond Gastil in Cultural Regions of the United States (1976).

My scholarly timing was off, given that Penn State’s very high profile conversion to Midwesthood helped to open the way for an avalanche of athletic conference realignments that thumb their nose at geography.

West Virginia is leaving behind its East Coast and/or mountain identity and Big East affiliation to play sports on the Great Plains with the Big Twelve.

Boulder, Colorado now thinks it can see the Pacific Ocean as part of the Pac 12.  Austin, Texas flirted with the same geographically curious conclusion.

The Big East is recruiting teams from California, Idaho, and Texas.  Boise State is not even in the eastern part of Idaho.  Texas is a Southern state, a Western state, and a Mex-American state, but no one has ever accused it of being an Eastern state.  So SMU from Big D in is the Big E.  And sun-drenched Golden State icon San Diego as an Eastern city? Go figure.

It is obvious that the proximate cause of the shuffling is the enticements of money and the Bowl Championship Series.  The necessary cause, however, is the erosion of distance by twenty-first century technology.

When teams traveled by train or motor bus, it was pure practicality to play relatively close to home.  Air travel now puts every college in the Lower 48 within a day’s travel, or much less, of every other, so train schedules and speed limits don’t much matter.

When television had only three broadcast networks with limited sports programming, fans had to rely on local radio and sometimes locally produced TV, with little opportunity to develop familiarity with athletes in distant places.  On a sample fall Saturday (I picked November 12, 2011), I had a choice of twenty-one televised college football games from all over the country, not to mention games aired earlier in the week.  I could watch Oregon and Oregon State, but I could also watch Georgia, Nebraska, VPI&SU, and Harvard.

Regional rivalries still matter, as football coaches in Ann Arbor and Columbus know, but college football and basketball are increasingly national rather than regional products responding to a national market like other businesses.  Although he was not thinking about the regional identity of college sports, perhaps Karl Marx was right about the constant change of modern life:  “All fixed, fast frozen relations . . . are swept away . . .  All that is solid melts into air” (or at least into the airwaves and airport terminals).

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