Delany: Simply the Best

Jim Delany has opened the door to his retirement date as Big Ten commissioner. At 68, and on the job since 1989, he said he doesn’t plan to be negotiating the conference’s next television contract, which will begin in 2023.

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Given that he extracted the reportedly $2.64 billion dollar TV rights deal that begins in 2017, broadcasting executives must be breathing easier.

Delany plans to work through his current contract, which ends in 2020, and will step down at that point, a source told USA Today. Ever the negotiator, Delany said he has set no retirement date.

The biggest question I have is: Does the Commish have one more move in him? With the Big 12 looking shaky, it wouldn’t surprise me if Delany came up with another expansion coup. I have thought for a long time that college sports will settle into four leagues with 16 teams apiece at some point.

Texas. Oklahoma. Kansas. Who knows? Any Big 12 team would have to listen to the deep-pockets Big Ten. And most would probably jump at the chance.

Maybe Delany will work a little longer. Maybe he won’t. But obviously, his retirement is going to come sooner than later.

Let’s take a look at his amazing legacy.

It’s very simple: He is the greatest college commissioner who ever held the job. Period. And he’s among the most dynamic league executives in the history of sports, college or pro.

I say all of this with mixed emotions. Because many of the things he pioneered were not great for my beloved, but troubled newspaper business.

The Big Ten Network hasn’t eliminated the newspaper middle man. But it certainly has diminished it. The cameras go where writers can’t. The basketball press row, which used to be a sacred place reserved for the eyes and ears of millions of readers, now has been consigned to obscure corners of arenas, behind the Fathead signs in the student section.

Many of his moves also came at a price for college sports fans, for whom I have tried to be an advocate. Uncertain last-minute kickoff times are great for television, but brutal for spectators trying to make weekend plans. In basketball, 9 p.m. kickoffs and Sunday night games test ticket-buyers’ patience.

But that is the price of financial progress.

Delany is probably best known as a critical mover and shaker in college football’s march to a playoff. But his role as The Man Who Created the Big Ten Network, the first collegiate television network, looms largest in my mind.

BTN connected the Big Ten to its fans and alumni in an unprecedented way. And for the conference’s athletic departments, it was like winning the lottery. Each school will receive an estimated $50 million annually from overall media rights under the new contract.

The birth of BTN also put the Big Ten in a position where it had to expand, to grow its television audience and protect itself from aggressive moves by other leagues.

Not only were football and men’s basketball available at the flip of a television switch. So were many minor sports. But games now start later in the evening, and they continue to spread to more and more days of the week and time slots as the television/money chase keeps ramping up.

Once a novelty, the conference television network now is essential to a healthy collegiate league. The SEC and Pac-12 have them. The ACC will have one soon. And the Big 12 is in turmoil because it reportedly is not network-worthy.

Delany foresaw the importance of a conference network, and acted decisively, ensuring that the Big Ten would maintain its position as the nation’s foremost (and best-funded) college conference.

In a way, BTN brings his career full circle. As Ohio Valley commissioner, he came up with another innovative television idea—late-night basketball games that allowed OVC games to be seen on ESPN.

Delany’s impact also has been immense in college football’s evolutionary path toward the College Football Playoff.

All credit to other commissioners, notably the SEC’s Roy Kramer and Mike Slive, for nudging college football along the playoff path.

But without Delany’s muscle, the big advances would not have happened.

After Penn State went undefeated and uncrowned, unable to play Nebraska in 1994, Delany not only brought the Big Ten into the BCS. He convinced the Rose Bowl and the Pac-10 to go along with the plan. In the case of the Rose Bowl, I suspect he made them an offer they couldn't refuse.

Amid growing discontent with a controversial system that selected its two finalists via voters and computers, Delany altered his stance and helped bring about the current College Football Playoff.

Those are the major changes in which Delany played a large role.

But he also has been instrumental in other major strides.

Adding Penn State not only bolstered the Big Ten. It essentially took away a school that might have been a stalwart for the Big East, which withered as a football conference.

Under Delany, the Big Ten pioneered the use of instant replay to review questionable calls in football. It was a plan that soon was adopted across the nation.

Delany also steered the Big Ten into playing a men’s basketball tournament. That may seem like a no-brainer now. But in the ‘90s, Indiana coach Bob Knight, the league’s most influential coach, was opposed to the move, and other coaches also were reluctant.

He also has undertaken many smaller but important initiatives that have made Big Ten athletics better.

There certainly have been missteps. The Legends and Leaders nicknames when the league split into two divisions didn’t work. Nor did placing Joe Paterno’s name on a trophy. But those were minor in terms of the big picture.

More significantly, in the ‘90s, Delany made a dedicated but unsucessful effort to bring Notre Dame into the Big Ten.

I was in the middle of that fascinating process. Having covered the Irish before I moved on to the Big Ten, I had good sources on both sides. I thought Delany made a really compelling case. But in the end, Notre Dame wasn’t ready to sit around a table with partners. Even its current ACC arrangement, which fails to fully embrace football, gives the Irish a hole card.

In the scheme of things, though, that does not diminish the legacy of Jim Delany. Whether you agree with his all of his initiatives or not, his impact is unparalleled.