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The Big Ten commissioner is a leader and a legend in college football.
There might not have been two more polarizing words when the Big Ten announced it was naming its football divisions “Legends” and “Leaders” in December.
The new division names were welcomed as much as a plague.
“With all the great history and tradition available to it, the haughty Big Ten went low brow, corporate, generic,” wrote CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd. “Leaders and Legends? That’s the name of the trophy store down the street. What, were ‘Gods’ and ‘Superheroes’ already taken?”
James Edward Delany, the man ultimately responsible for the division names, was taken aback by the criticism and negative feedback.
“We wanted to build on the historic, legendary features, and then, what is intercollegiate athletics about if it’s not about building future leaders?” Delany says.
Ironically, the two words that have provided the most grief for Delany are actually the two words that best define the Big Ten’s commissioner — a legend and a leader.
This July marks his 22nd year leading the Big Ten. Only the fifth commissioner since the league’s founding in 1896, Delany has many achievements during his tenure — most notably league expansion and the formation of the Big Ten Network.
In August 2007, Delany also was the guiding force in the creation and launch of the Big Ten Network — the first national conference-owned television network devoted to the athletic and academic programs of a single league. In its first 30 days, it reached 30 million homes, the first network to post those numbers. It’s now available in 19 of the nation’s top 20 television markets and reaches an estimated 75 million homes overall.
Those are just a couple of reasons that in 2007, BusinessWeek ranked Delany as the 31st-most powerful person in sports. The only college official who ranked higher on the list was then-NCAA President Myles Brand.
The 63-year old Delany, who was a guard on two of Dean Smith’s Final Four teams at North Carolina in the late 1960s, remains one of college athletics’ heaviest hitters. Just ask Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson.
Last December in New York, Benson was part of a panel at the IMG Intercollegiate Forum in New York City. Benson was joined on stage by Delany and four of the other five BCS conference commissioners in a discussion of the BCS and its impact on college athletics. General Custer stood a better chance than Benson.
During the forum, Delany went on about how he already had testified three times before Congress. Delany also discussed at great length the media and public pressures that he and the other BCS commissioners had faced defending the BCS system. He even referenced something called “BCS-defense fatigue.” He said he felt the need to be “politically correct” when discussing the smaller conferences, such as the Mountain West Conference or Benson’s WAC.
Equal access for the non-BCS conferences is not a subject Delany enjoys discussing. At least on two occasions during the forum, Delany interrupted Benson to hammer his opinion home.
“The BCS has provided greater access,” Benson said. “Look at 120 schools, 11 conferences and to establish opportunities for those student-athletes. To play on the big stage, we’ve been to the big stage. …
“The problem,” Delany interrupted, “is your big stage takes away opportunities for my teams, to play on the stage they created in 1902.”
Responded Benson: “I think the group of five (non-automatic qualifying BCS conferences) has established value in the last five years.”
“The notion,” Delany said, “that over time by putting political pressure on, it’s just going to get greater access, more financial reward and more access to the Rose Bowl … I think you’re really testing. I think people who have contributed a lot have, what I call, ‘BCS defense fatigue.’
“If you think you can continue to push for more money, more access to the Rose Bowl, or Sugar Bowl — I have tremendous respect for Boise and TCU. … I think they are tremendous teams that can beat any team in the country on a given day. I think the only question is, ‘Does one team’s 12–0 and another team’s 12–0 equate?’ And that’s where the discussion plays out, not whether or not they’re elite teams or deserving access to the bowl system.
“I’m not sure how much more give there is in the system.”
In 1998, the BCS began when the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl agreed to join the SEC, Big 12, ACC and Big East as well as the Sugar, Fiesta and Orange bowls to ensure a No. 1 vs. No. 2 national title game each season.
In the 13 years since, the BCS has expanded access to the bigger-paying BCS bowls for teams in the non-automatic qualifying conferences (WAC, Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt) and has increased the revenue to those leagues. In 2009, the five non-automatic qualifying BCS leagues divided $24 million, with the Mountain West receiving $9.8 million and the WAC $7.8 million.
However, the Big Ten and SEC each received $22.2 million and the Big 12, Pac-10, ACC and Big East each received $17.7 million.
Benson supports the BCS but wants even more access and more revenue. This is not a popular subject with Delany.
“We gave up the Rose Bowl, the SEC gave up access to the Sugar Bowl, others were included, but they never had access to any of this before,” Delany said. “You have to understand who brought what to the table. Who’s continuing to give and who’s continuing to get.”
Then Delany made his stance on the subject crystal clear.
“The only thing I would say: If you think you (the non-automatic qualifying leagues) can continue to pressure the system and we’ll just naturally provide more and more and more, I don’t think that’s an assumption that our presidents, athletic directors, football coaches and commissioners necessarily agree with.
“Karl (Benson) says we like this contract and we want more. Well, we’ve got fatigue for defending a system that’s under a lot of pressure. The pressure is for more. It’s never enough.”
In 2009, non-automatic qualifying teams Boise State and TCU received BCS bowl berths. Last season, TCU earned an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl after the “Granddaddy of Them All” lost Pac-10 champion Oregon to the BCS title game. Delany didn’t hide his displeasure that Stanford, the Pac-10 runner-up, was not allowed to replace Oregon — instead of TCU — and play Wisconsin. Maybe we know why: Wisconsin went on to lose to TCU.
While the current BCS system runs through 2013, Delany suggested — no, make that all but promised — that if the automatic-qualifying leagues are pressured to give the smaller leagues even more money and more access to the bowls, the BCS leagues would likely go back to the bowl system before the BCS. In this scenario, the bowl games would align with the most attractive conferences and have the freedom to choose whatever team they wanted — i.e., a WAC or Mountain West team likely never would be selected by one of the big four bowls (Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, Orange) again.
Think the BCS schools won’t do it? Think again. And, if anyone has the power to make it happen, it’s Delany.
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Athlon's 2011 Big Ten Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Big Ten Team
Top 25 Players of BCS Era
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Will Michigan Surprise in the Big Ten title race?
Illinois: A Sleeper Team?