Big Ten ADs still at odds over Friday night football

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Rosemont, Ill. — When the Big Ten announced in November it was planning to play Friday night football games beginning with the 2017 season, it wasn’t universally praised.

While some schools in the conference were open to and supportive of the plan, others like Penn State and Michigan said they had no interesting infringing on what has traditionally been a night reserved for high school football.

As the Big Ten’s athletic directors convened for their spring joint meetings at conference headquarters on Monday, the topic was still being discussed as high school administrators from throughout the Big Ten footprint — MHSAA director John E. “Jack” Roberts included — were on hand to tackle the issue.

“Friday night football is beautiful,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. “No one wants to disrupt that. We just had a wonderful session with them for two hours and had a chance to hear their perspective on it. I don’t think anybody jumped at the opportunity to create Friday night football at the college level but there was a window and it was part of our television negotiation.”

That negotiation finished last fall and resulted in six Friday night games involving Big Ten teams. Four are nonconference matchups while two — Nebraska at Illinois on Sept. 29 and Iowa at Nebraska on Nov. 24 — are Big Ten matchups.

Northwestern had originally been scheduled to play twice on Friday nights, hosting a game on Oct. 27 against Michigan State and playing at Maryland two weeks before that. However, the Wildcats balked at that plan and it was changed.

Phillips said the reason for the push to keep from hosting a Friday night game was more of a local issue as there are logistical problems in the greater Chicago area in getting to Evanston for a Friday game.

“I think part of this has to be the local politics if you will,” he said. “What does it feel like in Evanston versus what does it feel like in Lincoln, or Iowa City or Columbus, Ohio? The more we can allow those schools to locally have influence in what we do on Friday nights I think the better off we’ll be.”

Michigan State has played a Friday night nonconference game to open the season in each of the past six seasons, hosting five times and traveling to Western Michigan in 2015. The Spartans have made it clear they are only comfortable hosting a Friday night game if it continues to occur over the Labor Day weekend.

“Our stance, at least at home, was that’s the only time we wanted to host at Spartan Stadium,” Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said. “It’s obviously been what I would call a very good tradition and we would like to see it continue. Just waiting to hear word on that one. It would not be ideal for us nor did we put that in as a variable to play other than Thanksgiving weekend or Labor Day weekend.”

This season’s opener against Bowling Green is scheduled for Sept. 2, a Saturday, but there’s still the chance it gets moved. However, finding a TV slot could be difficult considering Rutgers and Wisconsin host nonconference games on Sept. 1.

“The networks are still going through that,” Hollis said.

Michigan’s Warde Manuel did not address the media on Monday but he made it clear in November the Wolverines were only comfortable hosting conference games on Saturdays.

One school that has been more than willing to jump into the Friday night mix is Illinois.

In addition to hosting Nebraska, the Fighting Illini will head to South Florida on Sept. 15, providing a national television audience the Illini rarely receive.

“I think the Friday night games are a great opportunity for programs like Illinois to gain some national spotlight,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. “You play at whatever time on Saturday afternoon competing with other games and the chance to be on a national platform is great for our program.

“I talked with Coach (Lovie) Smith about it and he shares that enthusiasm so it’s a little bit different for our league, but we are embracing the opportunity and hope it helps to advance our program.”

Roberts wasn’t available on Monday but in November, he made it clear the MHSAA did not support the move.

“We are saddened by this decision,” Roberts said in a statement. “We had hoped that the Big Ten Conference would stay above this. We think this cheapens the Big Ten brand. Fans won’t like this. Recruits won’t like this. And high school football coaches won’t like this.”

There will no doubt be an adjustment, Ohio State’s Gene Smith said, but he still supported the choice to play on Friday’s, even though the Buckeyes are not included this season.

“We need to be careful with it and communicate effectively,” Smith said. “We need to make those decisions early like the conference has done so high schools know when those games are coming and hopefully they have some ability to adjust if they feel it impacts them.

“I think anytime you have change of that nature and magnitude there will be some challenges and you just got to fight through it.”

Where the Friday scheduling goes from here remains to be seen, but the chances of adding another day of the week are not an option at this point.

“We really made a conscious decision of that and who knows what the future holds, but I would say we have incredible strength that we are not going off of that,” Phillips said. “We are just not going to do that. I hope that we stay true to our word about that.”