Jim Delany, who oversaw the seismic expansion of the Big Ten’s geographic and economic footprint over his three-decade tenure, will step down from his role as the conference’s commissioner when his contract expires June 30, 2020, the conference announced Monday in a statement.
“Jim has had an extraordinary impact on the Big Ten Conference, its member institutions, administrators, students and coaches since 1989,” Morton Schapiro, Northwestern University president and chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, said in a statement. “He has been a forward-thinking, collaborative and decisive leader in every aspect of conference proceedings. We thank him for his dedicated service to date and look forward to working with him through the conclusion of his contract.”
The Big Ten’s membership numbers matched its name in 1989, when Delany became commissioner after 10 years running the Ohio Valley Conference. His first major move was shepherding Penn State into the conference, an expansion that did not sit well with some of the Big Ten’s more hidebound members, who griped about the Nittany Lions’ isolated campus and the secrecy with which the decision was made. Nevertheless, the Big Ten became 11 in 1990.
It stayed that way until early this decade, when Delany and others began to notice just how much money the Southeastern Conference was making off its football championship game. Needing one more team to create two six-team divisions — a championship-game prerequisite at the time mandated by the NCAA — the Big Ten poached Nebraska from the Big 12 in 2011 and then added Maryland and Rutgers three years later.
The addition of the Cornhuskers made a certain amount sense for a conference that is rooted in the Midwest. Adding the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights did not, at least on paper: Neither team had strong football tradition, and neither was an obvious geographic fit. But what those East Coast schools lacked in tradition they made up for in cable-television subscribers — to the benefit of the Big Ten Network, a Delany idea that launched in 2007.
It led to quite the windfall. In 2013, each fully vested Big Ten school received $25 million from the conference. Last year, that number grew to $51.1 million.
“I don’t think you can overestimate the impact of television, which is sort of our ‘campfire’ today — it’s what brings us together around political events or sports events,” Delany said.
Delany will step down before his contract expires if his successor is found before June 30, 2020, according to Hammel. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors hired a search firm to help find the next commissioner, with Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips seen as a strong candidate.
“It’s been an amazing opportunity to serve and lead these preeminent institutions, presidents, administrators, coaches and students,” Delany said in a statement. “It is incredibly fulfilling to support the hundreds of thousands of young men and women who have been afforded an opportunity to obtain best-in-class educations as a result of the invaluable, one-of-a-kind lessons learned through the unique combination of athletic and classroom competition. I would like to recognize and thank each of my colleagues for being such invaluable members of, and contributors to, the Big Ten Conference team, while acknowledging that there is still plenty of work to be done. I look forward to continuing that work through the balance of my term.”
The new commissioner certainly will be asked to weigh in on potential College Football Playoff expansion. Delany resisted calls for any sort of playoff during the Bowl Championship Series years before coming around, and in December he said he would be in favor of expanding the CFP from four to eight teams (perhaps because the Big Ten champion has been left out of the playoff in three consecutive seasons).
Phillips already is on the record supporting playoff expansion.
“What I would like to see is anything we can do to take it out of the boardroom and put it more back on the field and have the student-athletes decide it,” he told the Athletic in December. “I’m supremely confident that we can figure this out across all of our conferences across college football, and I think we can get it to a better place. It really is up to us as caretakers and stewards of this great game that we really do things together collaboratively and have really open and honest discussions about it.
“We don’t think that conference champions have been properly respected as intended by the founders of the playoff system. And, regarding strength of schedule — or you could look at the other end, weakness of schedule — it’s been turned upside down. It’s been inconsistently applied and those that have been intentional about challenging themselves with their 12 games, I don’t think they’ve been rewarded for those. It’s clear to me that we have enough data after these five years, and I don’t see the trends changing.”
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