Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will retire in June 2020, the conference announced Monday.
This is a big deal in college athletics. In a world without a true central authority, conference commissioners are some of the most powerful administrators, and nobody loomed as large as Delany, who led one of the most powerful conferences since 1989, through some of the biggest changes in its long history.
It’d be hard to argue Delany wasn’t accomplished. But the value of those accomplishments? Was he actually good for college sports? That’s a much tougher question.
Perhaps his biggest accomplishment was the creation of the Big Ten Network in 2007.
It’s easy to forget that launching a conference TV work was a risky move in the 2000s, and the channel had carriage problems at launch. But its spectacular financial success helped pave the way for the successful SEC Network, and the Pac-12 Network, which is certainly a TV channel.
Beyond lining the coffers of conference schools, I’d argue BTN has been a net benefit for fans as well. Every Big Ten football and basketball game and lots of other sports are now easily available with high production values. This wasn’t always the case. Delany deserves credit for that gamble.
The other biggest accomplishment? Turning the Big Ten into a 14-team league.
Delany wasn’t the first Big Ten official to talk to Penn State (Keith Dunnavant’s 50 Year Seduction claims the league first had talks with the Nittany Lions in 1980), but Delany was in charge when it finally happened (although the decision by Delany and the university presidents to not tell their athletic departments about it ... was not so popular).
Delany’s administration took an unsuccessful whack at adding Notre Dame, then grabbed Nebraska to get to 12 teams and a lucrative conference championship game. Maybe Nebraska’s underwhelmed athletically, but I don’t think you’ll find many Big Ten fans who are upset over those additions. And in my humble opinion, the Big Ten championship game is actually pretty fun.
The other two additions are more controversial.
The league added Rutgers and Maryland to help BTN make a bunch of money with East Coast TV sets, and lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened. With the exception of football, Maryland has mostly fit in, turning the Big Ten into a lacrosse powerhouse and boosting the basketball profile.
But Rutgers, like literarily everybody predicted, has been a disaster on the field. Those two schools further diluted the league’s Midwestern identity and bloated conference schedules and travel times. Maybe in 20 years, Rutgers will have a league-average athletic department, but they remain a reminder to every high-achieving team outside the Power 5 that life isn’t fair and college football is about which friends you make.
Especially if you aren’t a Big Ten fan, maybe you liked to tease the guy. It was easy to do!
In public, Delany played up to the sanctimonious Big Ten stereotype. He famously said the Big Ten could drop to DIII if they had to play players, because they simply didn’t have the money (which, lmao c’mon dude). He thought Leaders and Legends was a good idea. He whined about the SEC’s academic standards.
As Dan Wetzel notes, Delany is a “situational traditionalist,” happy to pound the table about respecting the past, until it was no longer expedient.
Thanks to Delany, the Big Ten is now mega-rich.
The league makes gobs of money now, and distributes that revenue evenly among all members. If you’re a fan of a less-heeled school, like a Purdue or Illinois, that helps pay for facility improvements or coaches.
But some of those big TV numbers have come at the cost of unpopular things.
Things like adding Rutgers, playing conference tournaments in Washington D.C. and New York City (also requiring significant changes to the regular season schedule), and playing regular season football games on Fridays.
Delany’s legacy for the rest of college sports is more mixed.
Delany was perhaps the biggest nemesis for anybody wanting a college football playoff or even a more direct path to a No. 1 vs. No. 2 postseason matchup. When the Bowl Coalition formed in the 1990s to facilitate true national title games, Delany’s Big Ten refused to participate, upholding the traditions of the Rose Bowl.
When the BCS finally established, Delany was one of the louder voices against a more formalized playoff. Maybe that postseason conservatism was best for the Big Ten, politically, with it undermining the Bowl Coalition and giving his league leverage. But man, it sucked for fans of the sport.
Adding Penn State weakened the value of the CFA TV deal (a joint TV package that included all of the major programs except the Big Ten and Pac-10) and heightened urgency for the SEC, ACC, and other leagues to expand in the early 1990s. The addition of Nebraska helped kick off another national round of realignment, especially with Delany announcing in 2009 they were considering expansion.
It’s not fair to say Delany lit the fuse for realignment explosions, but he poured a lot of gas on the fire.
Perhaps more than anything, the Big Ten’s Delany era represents the Big Money era of college football.
In 1989, when Delany took over the Big Ten, TV revenues from a deregulated television market (one that thanks to NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma, the NCAA could no longer control by itself) had yet to explode.
When he departs next year, Big Ten schools will be making $50 million plus a year, and the need to secure that money has driven almost ever major college football decision over the last three decades.
Now that consumers are shifting away from cable television, there’s a chance Delany could be leaving as college sports shifts into an entirely different era. It’ll require creative thinking, or schools might need to make tough calls to reduce costs.
If you’re a Big Ten administrator, you probably think Delany was awesome. If you’re a fan of a team just outside the top of FBS, someone who wants players to get a bigger cut, or someone who wanted a playoff in 1994, you perhaps think differently.