The Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse team’s move to the Big Ten as the conference’s first affiliate member in any sport was assisted by the program’s biggest rival.
Maryland, which has battled the Blue Jays 110 times, proposed to the Big Ten that the conference reach out to Johns Hopkins shortly after the Terps and Rutgers announced that they were joining the league after leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East, respectively.
“The people at Maryland were the ones that suggested this to us, and immediately, the light went off because of the academic standing of Johns Hopkins and because of the standing of their lacrosse program and the location of the university and the fact that we’re going to be in this region for decades,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said at a Monday morning news conference at the Blue Jays’ Cordish Lacrosse Center. “So for us, it was an opportunity and the timing was right. Our conference is in the Midwest as well as this corridor. It just seemed like it was a win-win for both parties.”
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Rivalries can make strange bedfellows, but the irony of the Terps aiding Johns Hopkins did not surprise coach Dave Pietramala.
“It’s been a Hatfields-McCoys type of thing for years,” he said. “Yet if you asked us, we have tremendous respect for the University of Maryland and make no mistake, that has always been an important game to us and to our staff and to our administration and to our players and to our alumni. So to see that maybe they were the ones that kicked this into gear, I think the feeling is mutual, to know that that game is as important to them and to their history as it is to ours. It’s nice to hear that.”
The Blue Jays will join Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers for the 2015 season. The women’s programs will include Maryland, Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers. The Blue Jays women’s team will remain an independent.
A conference tournament for the men is still in the works, but with six teams, the Big Ten figures to earn an automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament.
Johns Hopkins’ decision was hailed by many, but not unanimously endorsed. ESPN analyst and former Blue Jays All-American goalkeeper Quint Kessenich said his biggest reservation is the quality of competition in the Big Ten.
“I believe that teams – whatever the sport – when they change conference, they ultimately play themselves to the level of that conference,” Kessenich said. “It’s kind of like a marriage. After 20 years of marriage, how often do the husband and wife look the same? That being said, you’re joining a league with teams like Michigan. We’re not sure how they’re going to look like in 10 or 15 years although all signs are positive. You’re joining a league with Rutgers. Rutgers hasn’t had any kind of success, has never been to championship weekend, and has had one quarterfinal appearance. I worry about putting yourself in a league with other teams who aren’t championship caliber and ultimately as a program, you become just like them.”
Next season, the addition of a pair of six-team leagues in the ACC and Atlantic Sun will increase the number of conferences with automatic qualifiers to 10. According to NCAA rules, the number of spots in the NCAA tournaments must be equally shared among automatic qualifiers and at-large teams. So the NCAA tournament could be expanded from 16 to 20 teams.
Johns Hopkins will compete one more year as an independent, the program’s 131st free from conference affiliation. The weight of the university’s move was not lost on president Ronald J. Daniels, who said, “This decision may represent the single greatest change in Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse in more than a century.”
But the decision was necessary, according to school officials, to keep pace with the changing landscape of men’s lacrosse. In 2011, Syracuse announced that it would leave the Big East for the ACC, and Notre Dame followed the Orange in September. The month before the Fighting Irish’s announcement, Loyola, which captured the national championship in 2012, said it would switch from the Eastern College Athletic Conference to the Patriot League for the 2014 season.
In November, Maryland and Rutgers announced that they would join the Big Ten.
“I think it was just something that we had to do at this moment in time,” Blue Jays athletic director Tom Calder said. “Division I men’s lacrosse has changed so much in the last 10 years that if we did not move forward, we would not have done the right thing by our lacrosse program.”
Delany and Calder said Johns Hopkins’ contract with ESPNU would not be impacted by the move to the Big Ten, which has its own network. Both men said the Blue Jays’ home contests would continue to be broadcast on ESPNU, while discussion regarding games involving other league opponents is still ongoing.
Delany insisted that the university’s deal with ESPNU, which runs through 2017, was not a sticking point with the Big Ten.
“There was no negotiation,” he said. “There was simply a strong desire on behalf of the Big Ten to involve itself with the university and its lacrosse program and to make friends and build relationships in this part of the country. We truly want to be in this corridor, and we think there is no better place to start than this new relationship with Johns Hopkins.”
Johns Hopkins officials are painfully sensitive to criticism that the school’s decision to join the conference comes on the heels of the program getting left out of the NCAA tournament last month for the first time since 1971. Both Calder and Pietramala pointed out that they began conversing about conference membership two years ago.
“Some will think of it as a knee-jerk reaction to what happened this year, and obviously, these discussions have been going on for quite some time,” Pietramala said. “It’s just that the timing of it fits when you think about what happened to us. It makes sense. Our RPI will get better, our strength of schedule will get better, our ability to potentially compete in a tournament. … To have a second bite at the apple through the conference and then as an at large, it’s something we have not enjoyed. If you look around us, a lot of other teams are enjoying that and we are not.”