How Would UCLA, USC Moving To The Big Ten Impact College Baseball?
Reports on Thursday broke that Southern California and UCLA intend to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, moves that would take effect Aug. 2, 2024. The news was confirmed Thursday night, concluding a wild, landmark day.
USC and UCLA have been members of the Pac-12 since the 1920s when it was known as the Pacific Coast Conference. Over the years, the league has changed several times, but the two Los Angeles schools have been constants.
Now, USC and UCLA are headed to the Big Ten. The Big Ten and the SEC are already the two richest conferences in the country and are set to further open the gap between them and all other conferences in the coming years. The Big Ten is in the process of negotiating its next television contract, which is the backdrop for these moves.
As is the case with any conference realignment, baseball is not the driving factor for these moves. But it is along for the ride. So, what are the effects on the diamond of such a significant change? We examine from a few points of view.
So, what becomes of the Pac-12?
This is a more existential question than an on-field one. From a purely baseball perspective, the Pac-Whatever would chug along as a major conference with or without the Los Angeles schools. Stanford has played in the last two College World Series. Oregon State was a super regional team this year (and a top-eight seed), Arizona was an Omaha team last year (and a top-eight seed) and Oregon hosted a regional last year. Arizona State has been down but has a lot of built-in advantages that should help it rebound sooner or later. That’s a conference that should be set up to continue to put about four teams a year into regionals, just like it has in recent seasons.
But this is the kind of move that creates a lot of instability for the members left behind. When Oklahoma and Texas last summer announced their intention to leave the Big 12, the remaining schools were left scrambling. They ultimately opted to all stick together and find expansion candidates, but there’s no guarantee that’s how it works.
Big, market-driven forces are reshaping college sports. The last two summers have shown that schools outside the Big Ten and SEC, by far the two richest conferences, are concerned about getting left behind. What do schools like Arizona, Oregon and Washington do now? What does it mean for Oregon State and Stanford?
There are no easy answers to those questions. In the immediate term, the Pac-Whatever is fine in baseball. But the exit of the Los Angeles schools only serves to reinforce the narrative that the Pac-12 is sinking. It also could throw a wrench in the recruiting strategies of many schools in the conference. The Southern California region is one of baseball’s richest hotbeds and every Pac-12 school recruits there. Now, without a conference foothold in the region, perhaps recruits would be more willing to look elsewhere—and many already are leaving the West Coast.
The Big Ten gets stronger, but will it match that strength with investment?
Adding UCLA—a program that won the national championship in 2013 and has twice in the last decade been the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament—and USC—which has 12 national championships, the most of any program—unquestionably makes the Big Ten stronger on the diamond. UCLA is the real prize, as it has been one of the best programs nationally of the last 15 years, but USC is a sleeping giant waiting to be awoken.
The Big Ten itself has woken up over the last decade after a couple decades of slumber. Indiana broke through to Omaha in 2013 and Michigan played for the national title in 2019. Illinois, Indiana, Maryland and Minnesota have all hosted regionals in the last decade. Nebraska and Ohio State are big brands with rich history and recent success. The conference routinely puts 3-5 teams in regionals.
Add in UCLA and USC and the Big Ten is a really solid conference. What it’s short on, still, is true national title contenders. The Pac-Whatever still has Oregon State and Stanford operating at an elite level and the knowledge that Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon can all reach that level. The Big 12 has Oklahoma State, Texas Christian and Texas Tech in its upper echelon. The Big Ten’s answer is UCLA and … ? Michigan was one win away from the national title just three years ago, but the coaching staff that engineered that run is gone. Maryland and Nebraska have played at high levels since joining the conference, but neither has been to Omaha as Big Ten members. Ohio State and USC have the brands and the history but not the recent success.
If the Big Ten is making this move and its revenues really are going to grow to more than $100 million per year, per school in the near future, there’s no excuse not to continue its investment into baseball. Over the last decade, the conference has done a good job of upgrading facilities. Now, it’s time to invest in coaching salaries to retain top talent like Erik Bakich and John Szefc, who bolted for the ACC, and, when the time comes, to commit to funding as many baseball scholarships as are allowed. The NCAA’s transformation committee is exploring concepts to uncap scholarships and countable coaches. If those measures come to pass, the Big Ten, with all of its wealth, needs to meet the new maximums, whatever they are.
Otherwise, the Big Ten will continue to be what it is today: a solid, competitive conference, but not one that can consistently register at a national level.
UCLA enters a new world
More than just the new conference foes UCLA will become acquainted with—goodbye Beavers, hello Hoosiers—the Bruins will find themselves in a new position in the Big Ten. As good as Big Ten teams have been over the last 10-15 years, no one has come close to UCLA’s consistency.
John Savage took over the program after the 2004 season. The Bruins struggled in his first year in charge and went just 15-41 but have missed the NCAA Tournament just three times since. They’ve gone to Omaha three times (though not since 2013), landed a Top 25 recruiting class 14 times and developed six first-round picks. In the same time span, the Big Ten has been to Omaha twice, had eight Top 25 recruiting classes and developed six first-round picks.
So, does UCLA become the Big Ten’s behemoth from Day 1? Probably. This could well be an East Carolina in the American or Connecticut in the Big East situation, at least initially. No one in the Big Ten is poised to provide the Bruins with a reliable foil. No one has recruited at their level and only USC can match their weather advantage. The Bruins aren’t infallible, but there’s just no one ready to stand in their way year in and year out.
The move does come with some real detriments for UCLA. The cross-country travel will be tough on the Bruins as they make four or five trips east a season (depending on how many conference games the Big Ten plays). It probably won’t be a real drag on recruiting as long as UCLA keeps developing top-level talent, but it will lose opponents familiar to players in southern California like Stanford and Arizona State and replace them with Michigan and Nebraska. RPI has become a real problem for West Coast teams, but UCLA has still hosted seven regionals under Savage thanks in part to the strength of the Pac-12 schedule. The Big Ten consistently rates lower in RPI than the Pac-12, so the Bruins may need to beef up their non-conference slate to maintain their position.
Like all sports at UCLA, the Bruins will benefit from the increased revenues the Big Ten can provide. That should help offset some of the downsides on the diamond and make this a positive move. But there will be some new challenges for Savage and the Bruins to navigate.
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USC’s initial road back just got easier
USC has won the College World Series 12 times, more than any other program. It is, in many ways, college baseball’s original blue blood. It also has made the NCAA Tournament just twice in the last 20 years.
The reasons for the Trojans journey through college baseball’s wilderness are legion. A series of bad decisions and lack of investment have led them to this point. Does the move to the Big Ten give them a lifeline?
In the short to medium term, it should. USC this spring finished last in the Pac-12 for the second time in five years and this month fired coach Jason Gill, who lasted just three years in the job. The Trojans’ built-in advantages—access to the homegrown talent of southern California, the history, an elite degree—haven’t cut it in the Pac-12. Perhaps Gill’s successor (the search is on-going) would have unlocked the right formula. But he will be USC’s fifth coach since Mike Gillespie was fired in 2006 and only once has USC finished in the top five in the Pac-12 standings.
A clean break with the Pac-12 has to be a positive for USC if only because of how poorly it has gone for it for 20 years. In the Big Ten, USC will be at a significant weather advantage over every program except for UCLA and its access to homegrown talent may matter more. USC hasn’t recruited like UCLA, but it has had nine Top 25 recruiting classes since 2010. Developing that talent has been an issue, as it hasn’t had a first-round pick since Grant Green in 2009, but it’s a starting point.
USC has fallen so far that just getting back to regionals on any sort of regular basis would be a big step on the road back. Playing in the Big Ten should provide it a better platform to do that. If USC wants to get back to competing for trips to Omaha and national titles, it has as much work to do as any Big Ten school. Frankly, right now, that can’t be the Trojans’ primary concern.
College sports is changing rapidly
The news last summer of Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 was a shock that set off a significant round of conference realignment last fall. That rippled heavily through lower-tier conferences, but this is different. This is the creation of a conference that stretches from coast to coast. This is the Big Ten growing to 16 teams, matching the SEC’s growth. This is an existential crisis for the Pac-12.
At the same time, college sports were already reckoning with new rules allowing athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness rights, rules that have allowed them to not only sign endorsement deals, but have also opened the door to something close to pay-for-play. At the same time, athletes in all sports are eligible to transfer once without having to sit out a year. The NCAA’s transformation committee is dealing with even bigger concepts, such as what it means to be a Division I school and whether to raise the current caps on scholarships in sports like baseball.
The Big Ten’s move Thursday opens the door more than ever to the idea of super conferences that could break away from the rest of the enterprise of college sports. That concept likely remains well into the future, but the path is clearer today than it was a year ago.
Where all of that leaves baseball is anyone’s guess. There are many that will hope it leads to a world where college baseball is freed from the limitations that have governed the sport for decades, most notably the 11.7 scholarships the sport has been stuck with for the last 30 years. But that may well come at the expense of many smaller programs competing at the highest level.
One thing is unmistakable: college sports have dramatically changed over the last year and the tectonic plates underneath aren’t done shifting. Baseball must remain flexible to adapt in these changing times.