Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Jim Delany has seen the point spreads, and he knows the odds are against his league this postseason. The Big Ten commissioner also doesn't downplay the significance of the seven bowls that will feature Big Ten teams (Iowa is the only Big Ten squad favored to win).
After going 0-4 in BCS games the last two seasons, the Big Ten has taken its lumps nationally. Ohio State's selection to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl elicited grumbling from those who were thoroughly unentertained by the Buckeyes in the last two BCS title games. But as Delany knows, public perception can change quickly, and Big Ten victories in the Rose and Fiesta bowls could put the league back among the nation's best.
I caught up with Delany this afternoon as he was driving from New York to New Jersey to visit family. Here's the first of my two-part interview with the Big Ten commissioner.
What was your initial reaction when the Big Ten bowl pairings were announced?
Jim Delany: We're fortunate that everybody that's bowl eligible has a good game, a challenging game. The matchups are great. I noticed we're not favored to win many, but that's sort of the nature of what we do. You've got to play the best, whether it's Southern Cal or the SEC or the best in the BCS. So it will be a challenging schedule but one that we could have some success. But it's big stage, big risk, big reward. If we do well, we'll get due credit. If not, we'll probably take some criticism because we've had a couple years where we haven't performed well on the big stage. If we do do well, that will go a long way. A few years, we were 8-5 in the BCS and we were leading the way. And after going 0-4, we're in a different situation. The only thing that's going to cure that is winning games.
You mention high risk, high reward. Is this a critical bowl season for the Big Ten?
JD: I think it is, more than normal. If you're on a four-game winning streak, nobody really mentions much. And when you're not, it's mentioned often.
For a team like Ohio State, do you see this as a big opportunity for the Buckeyes after being criticized heavily the last couple years?
JD: They're kind of in line with the conference because they won a national championship in 2002, they won two Fiesta Bowls, they handily took care of Kansas State and Notre Dame. They were swimming along like we were as a conference, which was more than holding our own at the top of the heap from 2000-05. The last two years have been tough for us. It's not we haven't won games. We have won big games. But at the highest level, we haven't been as competitive as the coaches want, the players want and the fans want. So whenever you're not competing at the level you want to, all you can do is go compete harder [laughs]. There's nothing else you can do. You don't stop competing.
As someone who covered the league, I felt that this fall, Penn State in some ways paid the price for the league's BCS failures the last couple years in terms of getting national respect, BCS rankings, et cetera. How did you view that situation?
JD: I don't know, I'm sure there's some spillover, but it would have been interesting to see how it would have played out [had Penn State gone undefeated]. They were clearly third [in the BCS standings]. I would say that because we haven't won big the last two years, there are certain impacts on other teams. If you look at Penn State, they've won three bowl games in a row. They defeated Oregon State handily. They had a good, competitive game with Ohio State. You'd have to ask the people who are voting whether or not there's spillover. Maybe they just thought they were the eighth-best team in the country.
Does the league's bowl performance shape the next season going into it, as far as hype?
JD: It does because voters, especially in the Coaches' Poll -- not so much in the Harris Poll because it comes out [five] weeks into the season -- there's no doubt that the teams that win national championships, if you looked at Michigan in '97 or Ohio State, any of those polls, when you have a poll that occurs before you play a game, what else do you have but past performance? So we've got four, five games at the top of our ledger. The coaches get it, fans get it, players get it. The only people who walk away feeling good are the guys who win. The other guys just go back and work harder and compete harder.
A lot of people saw this as a transition year for Michigan, but from a league perspective, how important is it for Michigan to be good, just for the way the league is looked at nationally?
JD: They've been to 33 straight bowl games. They've won X number of football games, a very winning program. So there is a level of measurement [for the league], but when I look around the country during that timeframe, I've seen USC way down. It doesn't mean the Pac-10 couldn't execute. I've seen Oklahoma way down, Texas way down, Notre Dame way down, Alabama way down, Florida way down. So if you're a reasonable person looking at the Big Ten or any of those conference and you see a program like Michigan that has never been down -- they've had one season since they lost to BYU in '84 where they won fewer than eight games -- I think they'll bounce back. It's a great program, great tradition, great history. They lost four or five players to the NFL off the offensive side, changed systems. They had transfers. I expect [improvement] if not next year, the following year. I don't expect Michigan to be without players, and I know that [Rich] Rodriguez is a very good football coach. He's proven that over a decade. I don't expect [the struggles] to be long lived.