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An embarrassment of riches: Big Ten football must invest in itself

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Money and resources can only get the Big Ten so far. It has to actually use those things, and use them just like the SEC does.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany gets a lot of flack for a lot of things. Sometimes it's because he says his league is going to go to Division III. Sometimes it's because he's too obsessed with the Rose Bowl. Sometimes it's because Rutgers is a mess.

But mostly, Delany gets made fun of because the Big Ten sucks at football, as evidenced by its horrific Week 2. And really, that's unfair.

Delany started the Big Ten Network before anyone else thought a conference network could catch on. Recognizing the importance of television revenue and the diminishing population in the Big Ten's footprint, he added the markets and recruiting grounds of New York/New Jersey and DC/Maryland/Virginia. He grew the amount of money the conference will distribute to each school to a projected $44.5 million in 2017-18.

For all the things Delany gets wrong, he's been effective and innovative. But now his biggest problem has become that you can't say the same thing about the coaches and schools he represents.

Big Ten athletic departments have struggled to turn that money into on-field success. That's strikingly obvious when you compare the top Big Ten schools' rankings in total revenue to their final 2013 Sagarin rankings in football.

Team Revenue Ranking Sagarin Ranking
Wisconsin 2 18
Michigan 4 44
Ohio State 5 16
Iowa 11 32
Penn State 12 52
Minnesota 15 58
Michigan State 17 6
Nebraska 26 38

The Big Ten (like one of its most talented alums) has become the rich guy who has no idea how to spend his money. Delany's job is to get the conference rich, and as he told ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, he's done about all he can do.

"I do what I can do, which is do my job," Delany said. "Each athletic director does his or hers, and each coach does his. We talk a little bit about what's a good TV approach, what's a good bowl approach. People develop stadiums. They recruit based on academic standards and where they believe they're strong. 

"I'm comfortable with how we're doing it. I would just like to have more success. I don't have a magic wand or a special idea."

While Ohio State and Penn State have gotten star recruiters who have proven themselves in other leagues, the rest of the conference is behind. Big Ten schools haven't invested in their head coaches or assistant coaches enough to compete with their college football brethren.

In 2013, the Big Ten only had four coaches ranked in the top 20 in assistant coach pay, and none from a school besides Nebraska, Michigan or Ohio State. The SEC had five in the top 10 alone. Even some of the Big Ten's better schools won't pay to keep assistants, and that was one of the reasons Bret Bielema left Wisconsin after three straight Rose Bowls to go to Arkansas. This is important, given that an ESPN survey showed assistant coaches are among the biggest influences on recruits. The trend is the same for head coaches: only five Big Ten coaches rank in the top 25 salaries, while 10 SEC coaches do.

It's not like there isn't coaching talent in the Midwest. Some of the best coaches and recruiters in the country have Big Ten ties, including Alabama's Nick Saban, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin, LSU's Les Miles, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Kentucky's Mark Stoops, and Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost.

Is it a failure of athletic departments to value the right things in the hiring process? Is it the refusal of schools to give coaches the resources they need to succeed, like more money for their assistants or better facilities? Is it a tendency to go after the wrong coaches? Or is it just a refusal to see that something is wrong?

It's probably a mixture, but on a philosophical level, there's an even bigger issue: Is the Big Ten too embarrassed to do what it takes to win at football, even if that means paying a coach $5 million and looking like a football factory?

The common Big Ten fan's response to the SEC's wins is that at least the Big Ten schools do it "the right way," disregarding the fact that there is nothing morally or academically wrong with being good at football. Stanford has invested in sports and succeeded, yet remains in a class ahead of the Big Ten academically. Harvard has had great basketball success in recent years due to what a rival coach called "a drastic shift" in its admissions policy. Yet the Big Ten — even though it has had schools under heavy NCAA sanctions and others that drastically lower admission standards for athletes — seems too afraid to admit that it wants to be good at sports.

If Big Ten schools want to compete in college football, they need to stop the faulty narratives and start spending their money in the right places. Otherwise, they're just going to keep ending up with piles of money and no wins to show for it.

Delany wants to win. He's helped give the Big Ten the resources necessary to do so, and he's even trying to invest more Big Ten money in players. Schools have to want to win just as badly.