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Jim Delany leaves behind a complicated legacy after 30 years as Big Ten commissioner

Delany was at the forefront of revenue growth, expansion, and TV rights in college athletics. But he remained stubborn on student-athlete rights and promotion of B1G teams. Oh yeah, and there’s that whole Rutgers thing.

NCAA Basketball: Big 10 Media Day Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Delany announced yesterday that he will be stepping down as Big Ten commissioner after the next academic year, in June 2020. Over the past 30 years, Delany’s name has become synonymous with the Big Ten conference, and imagining a Big Ten without Delany is very tough. In addition, Delany has become one of the most powerful people in all of college athletics during this time — his ideas helped to shape the huge money-making business that college athletics is today. Delany has been a visionary, but he’s also had enough missteps that he leaves a mixed legacy behind, and that it might be time for new blood atop the conference.

Back when Delany became Big Ten commissioner in 1989, college sports were a much different world, more regional and less national. Hell, the Big Ten still actually had 10 teams back then. Cable was quickly growing and more games were being shown on channels like ESPN, and the fanbases in the conference were still as rabid as ever. But overall, the market had not quite been tapped for the interest in these games, especially for college football.

Delany helped to figure this out.

In the early 1990s, Delany added previously independent Penn State to the conference (bringing along with it a “hidden 11” logo which remains a masterpiece of a design even though it’s now defunct). Adding the Nittany Lions meant that the conference now had another program with a tradition of competing for national titles, along with Michigan and Ohio State, and that in theory, the conference would have three football teams who were always championship contenders, year in and year out.

At the same time, ESPN’s popularity was zooming as well, and Delany made sure the Big Ten’s product got into the homes of many cable subscribers every day during the season from the Worldwide Leader. Like football, college basketball was transitioning from regional to national popularity, thanks to guys like Dick Vitale at ESPN, as well as the excitement of March Madness. And Delany did get lucky that the first few years of his tenure coincided with the Fab Five up at Michigan. Big Ten fans have always valued the conference regular season and the fight for the conference title, and now, fans across the country and the world could see that passion from gyms in towns like Bloomington and West Lafayette and East Lansing and Urbana-Champaign.

But Delany also realized that Big Ten school fans and alums who weren’t in their home states wanted more access to games, and not just the marquee matchups on TV. So midway through his tenure, he created the Big Ten Network. In retrospect, BTN was a genius idea because not only did it create a dedicated channel for conference programming (unlike in ACC areas where you always had to channel surf for those Raycom Sports broadcasts), but it also created a lot more revenue for Big Ten universities, thanks to cable fees. Delany had another fortuitous stroke of luck with BTN as well though — the first college football game broadcast on the network in 2007 was then-FCS Appalachian State upsetting #5 Michigan in the Big House. Yes, a Big Ten team lost embarrassingly, but the upset immediately gave the network some cache as a place where you had to tune in on fall Saturdays. BTN also allowed more niche, non-revenue college sports to get broadcasted. In addition, studio shows and programs like The Journey further highlighted the conference’s best stories and players.

Delany saw the potential of rabid fanbases as well as major metropolitan areas in which he could get his network more subscribers. Almost 20 years after Penn State, Delany found another football fanbase with championship potential in Nebraska to add to the B1G, giving the conference the 12 teams needed at the time to create another revenue-creator: a title game on the first weekend in December. Delany also saw the movement of B1G alumni toward East Coast cities, and knew that adding teams in the DC and NYC metro areas would allow BTN to be in more households. So not only would fans of Maryland and Rutgers get BTN programming, but so would the Wisconsin or Iowa fan who lived in the Big Apple and wanted to see his or her team play week in and week out.

Delany’s strategy to get BTN and Big Ten programming in many places worked, and hasn’t been easy to replicate. When looking at the mess that Larry Scott has made of the Pac-12 Network, as well as the other curious decisions and scandals that have emerged out west, there is some reason to be thankful of the sturdy leadership that Delany has brought to the B1G over the years.

But this brings us to the downside of his tenure. Sometimes, Delany tended to push the envelope too far, occasionally to the detriment of the conference’s tradition and competitive balance. Yes, sometimes breaking with tradition was good — adding the Rose Bowl to the BCS meant the game was no longer annually a B1G vs. Pac-12 matchup on New Year’s Day, but it did put the Big Ten on a leveled playing field for a national title against SEC and Big 12 and ACC teams. But of course, the push away from conference tradition did have its setbacks. The “Leaders” and “Legends” divisions are still high comedy even though they haven’t been in use for years. Many top basketball rivalries such as IU-Purdue and Michigan-MSU stopped being prioritized until recently, and other football rivalries like Michigan-Minnesota and OSU-Illinois got cast aside. Expanding football games to Friday night has been very unpopular. And when something that Delany tried didn’t work, he rarely seemed to admit defeat but often doubled down on it.

And then there was the Maryland and Rutgers expansion. The motives as mentioned above were clear. But 5 years later, neither team truly has fit with the conference’s culture. Maryland at least has given the conference some good performances in soccer, men’s and women’s basketball, and lacrosse, but the DJ Durkin scandal in football left a really bad taste. Despite Steve Pikiell getting the basketball program more together, Rutgers hasn’t really moved the needle in terms of competitiveness. Its football program suffered a particularly embarrassing season in 2018. The East Coast expansion also led to the conference basketball tournament (another Delany revenue-making addition) to go to Washington, DC and New York City the past two seasons, an unpopular move away from its normal Chicago-Indy rotation. Overall, the eastward push has made some longtime Big Ten fans resentful of Delany.

In addition, Delany hasn’t been a leader on student-athlete rights. He remains deeply committed to the NCAA’s facade of amateurism in college athletes, even going so far as to propose a “year of readiness” for incoming freshmen that would take the game back to the 60s and 70s and ban freshmen from competing. While remaining committed to idea that there isn’t enough money, and whining that the Big Ten could become a D-3 conference if they ever had to pay players, Delany received a $20 million bonus himself at the same time.

Finally, the scandals of Big Ten member institutions under Delany cannot be overlooked. What happened at Penn State and Michigan State over the course of Delany’s tenure were terrible, and undermined the idea that the Big Ten had a higher moral ground than other major NCAA conferences. Delany had a lack of leadership on these scandals, even as they plagued the conference’s reputation.

While Delany had visionary ideas about how to get the conference everywhere, he also has not been as much of a promoter of his conference’s teams when compared to other commissioners. Delany was slow to get on board with the College Football Playoff, even when it was evident that the sport needed more than just 2 teams to compete for its title every year. Until very recently, he also was strangely opposed to CFP expansion, despite the fact that it could earn the conference even more revenue, and despite the fact that a Big Ten team has been shut out in both the past two years. In addition, Delany hasn’t pushed the idea of conference competitiveness and the grind of the season in the same way that Mike Slive and Greg Sankey have as commissioners of the SEC, and has ceded the focal point of college football to the southeastern United States, as the SEC and ACC have dominated the CFP aside from Ohio State’s win in 2014.

Overall, Delany will leave a mixed legacy behind in Rosemont, as the Big Ten conference moves along without him starting next year. Speculation about Delany’s replacement has already been discussed, and Northwestern AD Jim Phillips seems to be the frontrunner at the moment. Change is probably needed atop the Big Ten after three decades, but regardless, a Big Ten without Jim Delany in charge is hard to imagine.