ROSEMONT, Ill. – When the Big Ten announced in November that it would play six games on Friday nights in 2017, it caused a ripple of backlash from high schools across the Midwest.
It also did not sit well with some of the league’s 14 members.
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, whose school had two games scheduled for Fridays, managed to convince the conference last month to move them both to Saturday. One of them was the Wildcats’ home game against Michigan State, which was shifted to Saturday, Oct. 28.
“I think part of this has to be the local politics, if you will,” Phillips said Monday at Big Ten headquarters. “What does it feel like in Evanston versus what does it feel like in Lincoln or feels like in Iowa City or Columbus, Ohio. And the more we can allow those schools to locally have influence over what we do on Friday nights, the better off we’ll be.”
Administrators from a number of high school associations in the Midwest met for two hours Monday with the 12 Big Ten athletic directors, who are having their annual meetings at conference headquarters. Phillips said it was vital for the college representatives to hear the high school perspective on the impending Friday night move.
The Big Ten’s new television agreements with ABC/ESPN and Fox stipulates the conference will play six Friday games per year over the next six seasons.
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman likes the idea of his Illini playing two Friday night games this season.
“Obviously you play at whatever time on a Saturday afternoon, you’re competing with dozens of other games,” Whitman said. “A chance to be on a national platform, I think, is great for our program.”
Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said he understands that viewpoint.
“If you remember when we were building our men’s basketball program, it was ‘Anyone, anywhere, anyplace, any time.’ It was to get that exposure,” he said. “We have so many more teams in the Big Ten that trying to find those windows that allow you to get that exposure for the whole league is important. I’m not surprised, because you always want to be on TV, you want to create those windows.
“You understand the challenges with high school but I also think if you have that communication early on it gives the ability to create some pretty special times in those communities and high schools can adapt.”
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he supported the idea of Friday night football “100 percent.”
“We have to be creative for our league,” Smith said. “Any time you have change of that nature, of that magnitude, there’s going to be some challenges. You just gotta fight through them.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said on WXYT-FM (97.1) the same day that “I’m for traditional Saturdays. Friday is for high school games.”
Penn State quickly voiced its disapproval for the Big Ten’s decision, issuing a statement that it would only consider hosting a Friday game the day after Thanksgiving. Leaders at Wisconsin and Iowa both also expressed the same two stipulations as MSU.
Phillips cited a number of factors for why it doesn’t work for Northwestern. He added that Purdue has been working with high schools around West Lafayette to move games to Ross-Ade Stadium on the Saturday after the Boilermakers play the Bobcats in September. That, Phillips said, is one way both groups can make things work cooperatively.
“Friday night football is beautiful,” he said, “and no one wants to disrupt that.”