Jim Delany made it official on Monday. He announced that he will step down as Big Ten commissioner in June 2020. It’s a job he has held for three decades.
I imagine that senior college athletics officials around the nation are viewing that development with a mixture of nostalgia and relief.
Nostalgia for when he was on their side. . . Relief for when he was on the other side.
I have said this before: He is the most influential commissioner who ever shepherded college sports. And he is in the discussion with Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Pete Rozelle and David Stern for most influential commissioner in any sport.
And I will say this now: It’s going to be difficult to top his act—because the things he did were so monumental. . . I am sure there are things left to do. But not many of them will be as dramatic.
Adding an 11th team to the Big Ten, Penn State? Check.
This served the dual purposes of planting the Big Ten flag in the East, where it would turn on millions of television sets, and removing the anchor the Big East needed to build an important football league.
Maybe the latter was an aside. But it was effective.
Bringing the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl into the college-football post-season fold to create the two-team BCS? Check.
Signing off on the current four-team College Football Playoff when the BCS had worn out its welcome? Check.
These things do not happen unless Delany approves, sometimes with arm-twisting (Rose-Bowl).
Creating a Big Ten men’s basketball tournament? Check.
There was a time when three leagues (the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Ivy League) remained holdouts from post-season basketball tournaments.
Some old-guard coaches, notably Bob Knight and Gene Keady, resisted Delany’s desire to create a conference tournament. Knight remained indifferent to the tournament even after it started. Taking on coaching legends was formidable opposition for a young commissioner.
I remember having conversations with Jim about his vision for a Big Ten tournament—and how he would make it happen. He even talked about bringing the Big Ten tournament to Madison Square Garden, where the Big East had turned the ACC’s post-season conference tournament concept into a sports classic.
Delany got that done last year by playing a week before the Big East.
Pioneering the use of instant-replay review to correct officiating errors? Check.
Many collegiate keepers of the flame opposed replay on the grounds that not all games would have an equal number of cameras, so using replay would not be equitable.
Delany knew the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. Take a look around the nation and see if he was right.
Initiative to assure female student-athletes had their share of opportunities? Check.
In 1992, the Big Ten became the first conference to voluntarily adopt participation goals for female student-athletes, which included a 60/40 percent male-female participation ratio over a five-year period.
Creating the Big Ten Network? Check.
The Big Ten was the first conference to have its own network. BTN looks like a no-brainer now. It’s copied by every conference that has its act together.
That was not an easy sell initially, either. The Big Ten had to do battle with some cable/satellite providers who did not see the light—or the financial numbers.
Moving forward, the creation of BTN might wind up being Delany’s best-remembered legacy. Because it eliminated the media middle man. That allows the conference to deliver its message and keep a tight rein on a financial bonanza.
I say this with mixed feelings. Because the rise of things like BTN has contributed to the decline of institutions like newspapers, where I hitched my career horse.
And I do mean horse.
If I want to wax even broader, I would say that the rise of television and fall of people, um, reading has not been a good thing for . . . oh, never mind.
Expanding the Big Ten to 14 teams to solidify BTN’s appeal? Check.
By adding Nebraska, a great football ``brand,’’ along with the vast television reach of Maryland and Rutgers, the Big Ten broadened its imprint from the East Coast to the Midwestern heartland.
Other conferences have expanded their geographical/broadcasting reach. But under Delany, no one has done it better.
Oh yes. There was a price.
Delany's aggressive leadership did come with a price. Traditional rivals form the 10-school era play each other fewer times. Illinois, for example, sees less of Michigan and Ohio State to make room for Rutgers and Maryland.
Games start at all hours. Basketball can be played every day of the week. Friday football is creeping in. The cost of tickets has gone up considerably. And if you don't have access to BTN, good luck.
And while Delany appreciated the importance of the press, on his watch The Eyes and Ears of millions of readers have moved from courtside to a far corner—or even the upper deck.
Of course, these things are happening nationwide—not just in the Big Ten.
And now for something completely different?
The logical favorite to succeed Delany is Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips.
If that turns out to be the case, the Big Ten will be in extremely capable hands. Phillips, among the ablest ADs in the nation, has built Northwestern, which was an historic under-performer in major-sport athletics, into a model program. It routinely exceeds expectations in football. It finally broke the galaxy’s longest NCAA drought. It became a juggernaut in women’s lacrosse. NU now has top-notch facilities across the board. And its academics remain rock-solid.
That’s what you call a worthy successor.
Here’s the thing: While Phillips does a stellar job of getting things done, if he becomes Big Ten commissioner, I don’t see him playing hardball the way Jim Delany did.
For one thing, that’s not in Phillips’ nature. He's more of a gentleman than Delany, who never shied away from wheeling-and-dealing.
For another, given the hand Delany has dealt him or her, the next Big Ten commissioner won’t have nearly the same set of challenges Delany faced.
The Commissioner to End All Commissioners saw to that the last 30 years.