Russ Rose had to slide himself back into the conversation during a news conference on the eve of an NCAA Tournament match against Nebraska in Lincoln last year.
Penn State had lost a very un-Penn State like nine matches in 2016, and the tone was that it had a bad season. Rose, the Penn State coach with a record seven NCAA championships, thought otherwise, and he did so because of how good the Big Ten Conference is in volleyball.
“As disappointing as the season is to a lot of people, we finished fourth in a conference where the top three teams took turns being No. 1 in the country,” Rose said last December. “The Big Ten was really challenging this year. There were a lot of great teams and players and coaches. We’re not ashamed to finish fourth in the Big Ten.”
His point? Hey, this isn’t intramurals. The Big Ten is the conference in college volleyball, and the envy of many involved in the sport because of how many good teams there are, the large crowds and the number of matches on TV.
And that Penn State team that had a bad season in 2016 was one point away from sweeping Nebraska in the NCAA Sweet 16. If the Huskers hadn’t rallied to win, Penn State may have beaten Washington the next day and been back in the Final Four as the No. 16 seed.
The college volleyball season starts again this week, in what should be another great year for teams in the Big Ten. There are eight conference teams ranked in the top 25, including four in the top 10.
Last year Nebraska won the Big Ten championship, which really means something now because it was only the second time Nebraska had done so in its six years in the league.
Just how competitive is the Big Ten? In each of the past four years a different team has won the Big Ten conference: Nebraska (2016), Minnesota (’15), Wisconsin (’14) and Penn State (’13).
The conference’s reputation in volleyball would be different without Penn State, which is tied with Stanford for the most national championships with seven apiece, and Nebraska, with its four NCAA titles, including in 2015.
But it’s not just those two. Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, six different Big Ten teams have played in the NCAA Final Four. Wisconsin made it all the way to the NCAA championship match as a No. 12 seed in 2013. Michigan was unseeded when it made the Final Four in 2012. Penn State, Nebraska, Minnesota and Illinois have each made it during that stretch.
About seven teams in the Big Ten are probably seriously thinking about, and putting the resources into, trying to win a national title in volleyball, Nebraska coach John Cook said. He wonders how many teams in the Big 12 Conference, other than Texas and Kansas, are thinking about the same thing.
Last year, six Big Ten teams made the NCAA Sweet 16.
Rose, who has coached in the league since 1991, said the 2016 season was one of the best in league history because it was the most competitive. There were years when Penn State won the league by five matches. Those days don’t look like they’re coming back anytime soon.
On the same day in October, three lower-ranked teams beat higher-ranked teams.
“If you’re not ready to go on the road, you’re going to get licked,” Rose said.
Cook has said several times that winning a Big Ten championship may be tougher than winning a national championship.
He defends his opinion by saying you have to play great for 10 weeks in the Big Ten, which requires great focus. Once you get to the NCAA Tournament, it's three weeks and you have the urgency of knowing if you lose, you’re done. The Big Ten may also require you to play on back-to-back nights in different cities.
Rose is the only other Big Ten coach who has won both a Big Ten and NCAA title. He offers a less definitive answer on which is more difficult to win.
“If you’re good enough to win the Big Ten, you’re certainly good enough to win the national championship,” Rose said last week. “Whether one is harder than the other, the schedule plays a very big part of who wins the Big Ten championship, based on schedule and home-and-away assignments. And the schedule has a lot to do with the NCAA championships because of how you’re seeded, and where you’re sent, or if you’re hosting. But clearly they’re both something that one should cherish, because they’re tough to attain.”
Last year, seven of the 14 first-team All-Americans were from Big Ten schools. Many of the Big Ten teams recruited the same players, Rose said.
Nebraska recruited Stephanie Samedy, the No. 5 recruit in the 2017 class from Clermont, Florida, who will probably start for Minnesota. NU also tried to recruit Haleigh Washington, Penn State’s All-American middle blocker from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Penn State being in the Big Ten has had a part in the program rising to a national power, after joining the league in 1991 from the Atlantic 10 Conference. When Rose began coaching at Penn State he could only offer three in-state scholarships, but after joining the Big Ten it became fully funded.
The Big Ten volleyball programs benefit from being at schools that play Division I football and get a big payout from the Big Ten media contract.
During the nonconference season and NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten teams may be playing against teams that don’t fully fund to the 12-player scholarship limit. Rutgers wasn’t fully funded in the past.
“Imagine how far behind the race teams are when they start two scholarships down before the match ever starts,” Iowa coach Bond Shymansky said.
It can be a challenge to try and keep up with the top teams in the Big Ten, but some schools are trying.
Indiana and Ohio State will each play in new arenas in 2018, and Iowa in 2019. Michigan has also discussed a new one.
“I think there is a difference between offering a sport, and supporting a sport,” Rose said. “I think the Big Ten has taken a leadership in both areas.”