Maybe 15 or 20 years ago, ego and image would have prevented Johns Hopkins from joining the Big Ten. But university officials put those aside any of those lingering issues as the Blue Jays announced Monday that they will be joining the conference in 2015.
Hopkins became the last of the big-name independent holdouts to announce an affiliation with a conference, and it was the right decision for not only the Jays, but the Big Ten as well.
When the Blue Jays failed to make the 16-team NCAA Division I tournament this spring for the first time in 41 years, it might have been the deciding factor to force school officials to make the decision, but potential plans were already being discussed by coach Dave Pietramala and athletic director Tom Calder two years ago.
It was really a no-brainer.
At schools like Syracuse, Virginia and Hopkins, teams are expected to challenge for a national title every year. As an independent, the Blue Jays had only one shot at the NCAA title with an at-large bid. Now they will have at least two because of the automatic qualifier associated with winning the Big Ten title.
"The change in schedule was a big reason why we looked at this," Pietramala said. "As more schools became involved in conferences, it became more challenging for us as an independent to schedule these games. More conferences wanted to play their conference games during warm weather so they could draw larger crowds, thus putting us in an awkward position.
"We are excited about our schedule now, and no longer will strength of schedule be an issue. No longer will the RPI be an issue. On any given year, if the team happens to be down — when you have traditional rivals [like] we have, and then you those games we have coming up — well, we put ourselves in a tremendous position."
It had to be a tough decision for Hopkins, which was to lacrosse what Notre Dame is to college football (though the Fighting Irish maintain their independence). The Blue Jays are one of the sport's most storied teams, having won nine NCAA titles. But with the growth of the sport and the parity that comes with it, Johns Hopkins couldn't dominate like in the past. The landscape was and will continue to change.
In 2009, there were 59 Division I programs. By 2015, 26 will have changed conference affiliations.
"We feel extremely good about this, something we had to do at this time," Calder said. "Division I men's lacrosse had changed so much over the years. If we had not moved forward, we would not have been doing the right thing for our lacrosse program."
Calder said the Blue Jays considered other conferences as well, but there were no serious talks with the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"The ACC wasn't an option," Calder said. "I had tried to reach them and did not hear anything back from them. My assumption is that because they do not allow non-full time affiliate members or associate members, it really wasn't an option."
Regardless, the Hopkins addition has made the Big Ten a super conference along with the ACC. The Blue Jays have dominated teams currently in the Big Ten, including a 30-4 record against Rutgers, 4-0 against Ohio State and 5-0 against Penn State, even though they haven't played the Nittany Lions since 1946.
But Ohio State and Penn State are up-and-coming programs and it's only a matter of time before Michigan makes a similar commitment to lacrosse.
"If you look at the lay of the land, look at the success of the ACC, in particular the growth of Duke, and you look at the Big Ten with Penn State, Ohio State, and then add a national power like Johns Hopkins, that's an impressive gantlet of teams you have to play," Pietramala said. "So if you want to use the term super conferences, I guess you can look at it that way."
The Blue Jays are looking at other things as well. Hopkins was playing lacrosse 12 years before the Big Ten became a conference in 1895, so the Blue Jays will be more than just a part of the conference. They will become innovators and leaders. The affiliation also should help Hopkins' recruiting base in terms of national appeal.
It's a win-win situation for the Big Ten as well. The Blue Jays' TV contract with ESPNU will remain intact, creating more exposure for the conference. Hopkins also allows the conference to get into the East Coast through the ever-growing sport of lacrosse.
"We will be learning. We know how excited our coaches and athletic directors are to establish this relationship," said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. "We are now in two regions of the country. We want to be here, we want to collaborate and learn from the Hopkins experience and their culture of success. To be the best, you have to compete against the best, and now we have Maryland and Hopkins here in the East."
Hopkins will maintain its long-standing rivalry with Maryland, which has already become a member of the Big Ten. Pietramala also has been in contact with some of the other traditional favorites that have been on the schedule, like Syracuse, Virginia and North Carolina. He wants to continue playing some of the local schools, like UMBC and Towson.
But all of that is highly unlikely. The Blue Jays have one more year, and it's off to the super conference of the Big Ten.
It was the right move at the right time.