CHICAGO — The widely speculated Big Ten expansion story took another twist on Tuesday, one that might require sunglasses to clearly see.
Commissioner Jim Delany and some of the league's athletic directors spoke about growth in terms of demographics, specifically the swelling population in the Sun Belt region.
"In the last 20 to 30 years there's been a clear shift into the Sun Belt, and that has demographic meaning long term, with the economy, jobs, the recruitment of students, the recruitment of athletes," Delany said.
By definition, Missouri and Nebraska, two Big 12 schools strongly speculated to be expansion targets, aren't part of that region.
Neither are any in the Northeast, where Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Connecticut are seen as targets.
Delany talked about tax bases in growing areas large enough to support universities in the future.
The 2010 Census is expected to show a continued trend of population shift to the Sun Belt. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 10 states with the greatest population percentage gain from 2000-2009 were located in the Southeast, Southwest and West. None are in the Midwest or Northeast.
"The demographic shift for any planner, whether they're planning expansion of a medical facility or a conference is a relevant factor," Delany said. "So I think what you want to do is look forward to 2020, 2030, and see what the impact would be on our schools."
Delany then called the changes in demography the most important factor in expansion plans, ahead adding television markets to the ultra-successful Big Ten Network."You're on track with the thought process," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said when pressed on the issue.
The idea may widen the circle of prospective candidates. The Sun Belt stretches across the country, from the Southeast through the Southwest.
"Jim's looking out into the future," Michigan athletic director David Brandon said. "Population growth is part of the analysis that's being looked at."
Is the Big Ten seriously considering schools from conferences like the SEC, ACC along with the Big 12?
Georgia Tech? Vanderbilt? Texas?
Smith wouldn't say.
"I'm trying to give you a hint," he said with a laugh.
You wonder how such news will play in the South. In April, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said his conference would be proactive if the college landscape started rumbling.
"We've always been known to be a creative league," Slive told reporters. "We're not going to relinquish our role as one of the premier conferences."
One area where Delany remained unequivocal was the expansion timetable. The December announcement of 12 of 18 months stands, he said Tuesday.
"It continues to be roughly 12 to 18 months," Delany said. "Could it be 19 months? I hope not. Could it be 11? It may."
That runs contrary to some media reports that suggested an announcement could happen soon, or at least in early summer.
"There have been a lot of reports that have been premature," Delany said. "That would be a kind way to describe some of the reports."
And don't bother looking for answers at the Big Ten meeting of presidents.
"I don't think there will be any earth shattering moments on June 6," Delany said.
But maybe a picnic.
"You bring the beer, we'll cook the brats," Delany said.
Delany wouldn't even guarantee expansion.
"We won't expand for the sake of expansion," Delany said. "We're not looking to achieve a championship game. That's not our motivation. If it was we could have done that many times over the past 20 years."
Academic excellence also was stressed at the meetings. Delany said membership in the Association of American Universities would be "very important" in determining prospective members. Missouri and Nebraska are members of the AAU.