- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The first day of 2011 wasn't a fun one for the Big Ten Conference.
The league went winless in its record five New Year’s Day bowl appearances, dropping to 2-5 in this year's bowls. A 0-3 mark against the SEC and a Rose Bowl loss to non-AQ power TCU put a hurting on the Big Ten’s national reputation.
I caught up with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany earlier Sunday to discuss the conference carnage.
What was your reaction to what happened Saturday?
Jim Delany: It was a very long day for the first day of 2011. It felt longer than a normal 24-hour cycle. The first thing I would say, from Alabama to Mississippi State, Florida, Texas Tech and in particular, TCU, all really good football teams, teams that beat us on the field fair and square. So I tip my hat to them. In particular, I thought Alabama was fabulous. They are an elite team, certainly among the very best. TCU was great, mistake-free, certainly deserved and earned their way to the Rose Bowl and earned a Rose Bowl win. As disappointed as I was for our guys, I really respect what they’ve been able to accomplish there.
In the big picture, we were hopeful but not necessarily optimistic about a big day [Saturday]. We were underdogs in seven of the eight games, so I can read the paper as well as anybody else. Illinois and Iowa came away with good wins, hard fought. I think both Michigan and Michigan State were disappointed, the fact that they didn’t measure up or compete very well. And the other games, we were in them. They were winnable games and losable games and we lost five, and that’s a long day and disappointing. I was realistic enough to know it was possible, but hopeful that it wouldn’t happen that way, but it did. You accept it, congratulate the winner and try to get better.
What does it say about the league? This is the lasting impression.
JD: I’ve always said the season breaks down into three segments. We had a good September. We didn’t play enough elite teams, but we had some good wins, not a lot of wins. I don’t think it was the strongest nonconference schedule we’ve ever had, but it was representative, it was solid. I thought the league race was good. We really had three levels of teams. We had the three that were 11-1 and then we had a bunch of 7-5s and 6-6s. So it was a good league race, good attendance, good television, good competition, good conduct by everybody.
We got into the bowl season, we got two BCS opportunities, played one close, we’ve got another one in a couple nights. We got a couple wins that I wasn’t sure we would get in Illinois and Iowa, but they played hard. I wasn’t shocked that we struggled with Mississippi State and Alabama, they were really strong teams. Wished we had been more competitive, and then we had three other games shoulda, woulda, coulda.
We’ll take our fair share of criticism. When we win, we get our fair share of accolades, so if you’re not prepared to take your criticism with your accolades, then you shouldn’t be playing big games on big stages.
You’ve always been adamant about doing that. Do you still like this bowl lineup where you have no easy ones?
JD: From the time I was a young kid to now, I’ve always sought out – myself, my friends and the people I was working with – the best competition. Whether it was going to Philadelphia or New York to find the best playground game or go to North Carolina to find the best competitive opportunity, I never have been looking for anything other than playing up. That’s how you test yourself.
It’s not always the most fun. I was at North Carolina and we went to the Final Four three years in a row and three years in a row we did not win the championship. It’s always really disappointing. But I’d rather be there than playing in some other tournament. Likewise, I would love to be beating Alabama or Mississippi State or TCU, but our fans, our players, our coaches want to play against the best. And I think that the SEC has proved to not only me but everybody else that they have the strongest football-playing conference. But you know what? The ACC has proved that in basketball, and we’re not going to stop playing either of them.
How far does the Big Ten need to go to catch the SEC, the league to which you’re most often compared?
JD: They’ve won four national championships in a row. That says everything to me. We’ve had some competitive success, but they have the edge. Until we beat them, they deserve the edge. Whether it’s in an individual contest or a conference contest, you test yourself against the best and you get measured. If you want to be .500 or if you want to win 70 percent of your games, you can schedule that. A lot of people do in September. What it really comes down to is how you play big games against great opponents on big stages.
Some years we’re going to do better than other years, and right now, it’s a disappointing year because we couldn’t get it done. But let’s tip our hats to the people that beat us. I know our coaches and players played their hearts out, whether they win by a touchdown or a point or lose by two touchdowns. They’re our guys and I’m going to embrace them and support them.
Was Saturday the toughest day you can remember for the Big Ten?
JD: I think it was. That’s fair. It was a tough day. I’ve been disappointed before. We’ve never had five games on New Year’s Day, so you never could lose five. I still think it’s the right place to be and the right opponents. If we had won against Florida or if we had won a game in the Cotton Bowl or won the Rose Bowl, we’d feel a bit better. But you play the games because you don’t know the outcomes, you play big games because they’re more exciting than ones that are scripted, that you’re supposed to win. I don’t think any expert went into this thinking we were going to win seven of the eight. Most experts said we were going to lose seven of the eight.
How important is it for Ohio State to carry the banner for the Big Ten?
JD: It’s more important than it was if we had been 7-0, that’s for sure. But it’s not going to change Jim Tressel or the Ohio State team. They’re going to get ready and do their best, and win, lose or draw, our coaches, I know how hard they work, I know how hard our players play, and at least there’s one commissioner who’s going to embrace them whether they win or whether they lose.”