The Big Ten's 116th football season will be like none other in its storied history.
Nebraska arrives as the conference's 12th member, and the Big Ten will introduce division play and a football championship game. There's good news off the field as the Big Ten Network continues to thrive and Indianapolis was selected as the home of the Big Ten title game through 2015, but the Ohio State infractions case dominated the headlines throughout the offseason and cast a negative light on the league. After a rough bowl season in 2010, the Big Ten starts fresh and hopes to win its first national title in nearly a decade -- and end the dominant run of the rival SEC.
Jim Delany joined his commissioner colleagues last week in calling for reform in college athletics. Last week at Big Ten media days, Delany met with the football coaches and discussed the surge of infractions cases at major programs, including Ohio State and Michigan. Considered one of the most powerful men in college sports, Delany's influence will be important in the coming months.
I recently checked in with Delany, who's entering his 23rd year as Big Ten commissioner.
As you know, the SEC has won the past five national championships with four different teams. How equipped is the Big Ten from a depth standpoint to compete for a national championship?
Jim Delany: That's to be determined. The SEC's record on the field, anybody who watches college football has to respect that. What I say is tee it up, tip it off, our goal is to play the best internally. We want everybody in our group to do it the right way. I'm sure Mike [Slive] wants the same thing for his group. And we'll play it. The history is the history, and it's clear. The future is unclear. I'm not an offensive coordinator or a defensive coordinator or a talent evaluator [laughs]. I'm as clairvoyant as you are.
Then you're in trouble.
JD: I don't have any way of knowing. We've got great athletes, great coaches, great teams, and sometimes you win and sometimes you don't. The SEC's success is unprecedented. I don't remember anybody winning four in a row unless it was us back in the '30s or '40s. Miami and Florida State had nice runs as independents. I don't worry about the past and only look forward, but I can't predict it.
If Nebraska were to win the Big Ten in Year 1, how do you think it would affect the way people look at the league?
JD: If Nebraska wins the league, they'll be regarded as a very good team, as any team that wins the Big Ten would be. Penn State won it in their second year and they were 12-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. A lot of people thought they should have been ranked 1. But I don't think it was disrespect toward the Big Ten. Penn State had five or six NFL first-round draft choices. Likewise, if Nebraska comes in and wins it, it's because they have the best players and the best coach in that year. I wouldn't be shocked, I wouldn't be surprised.
I think they're going to be a team ranked in the top 10 in the country. Any team that comes in ranked in that top tier with the kind of players they have is capable of winning. I don't think we brought in somebody that wouldn't have a chance to compete. That's why the fit is there. Penn State was expected to compete; Nebraska's expected to compete. It wouldn't be shocking to me to see them win in Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, Year 4.
Have you received any feedback from the coaches since you met with them in Chicago?
JD: No, not really. We had a good, candid conversation, respectful, and it was from the heart. Everybody understood. We're not perfect, and we've made mistakes in the past. A lot of people think that leadership or being a leader is carrying around trophies or being mistake-free. I don't believe that. I believe leadership is about recovering from mistakes, going forward, correcting mistakes, having openness to reform and change where it's necessary. It doesn't mean you don't make mistakes. We've had bad cases, we've had cases that are not so bad. There have been a dozen cases in the last year or 14 months that have happened at major institutions, some of which were very, very bad, some of which are less bad. But at the end of the day, that's not my call, it's the NCAA's call.
All of those [coaches] work for someone else, they don't work for me. My job is to articulate, encourage, suggest, prod. And it's not a problem. Those 12 guys, I was trying to explain how much confidence I have in them, trying to explain where we want to go. There was an incredible amount of receptivity. The message was given in I thought a very respectful way, and I think it was received that way. Maybe it wasn't reported that way, but that's what happened.
What are your thoughts on the coaches' proposal to play conference games earlier in the season?
JD: I would be open to that. We have schedules for the next couple years, but I would look at that. They make some good points. A lot of it has to do with television-wise, what we do in the out years. We want to talk to a partner. But I can see the benefit of taking some selected games, I don't know how many. Our coaches, especially in the last 10 years, have been pretty progressive, sometimes led by Coach [Joe] Paterno, sometimes led by others. I love their ideas, agree with them sometimes. They sometimes agree with me and they sometimes do not, but we always get along.
The perception is you can't disagree. Our coaches are expected not only to comply, but to compete, so you want them to have a competitive edge. But they're also smart guys and they understand to some extent the marketplace and what's appealing, whether it's Wrigley [Field] or playing a game in the Rose Bowl or play a game at Yankee Stadium or playing [Big Ten] games early or having a championship game. They want it to be fair, and yet they want it to be good. Early season games are something that deserve a lot of consideration and study.
You mention TV. I know you follow some of the recent agreements from other leagues. You're a fair number of years away from that, but how much do you think about where the Big Ten fits in with its next agreement?
JD: All the time. That's one of the things I think about every day.
How has what you've seen from other leagues affected the potential for the Big Ten's next agreement?
JD: It's great. I couldn't be happier to see this continuing value growth in college football. We've got to do everything we can to keep it an intercollegiate game and keep the intercollegiate system as healthy as we can. That's why the reform agenda is so important. If we're nothing but another professional league, it's not going to work. If we can maintain the intercollegiate character and make sure that we are distinctive and we have an athletic, competitive mission but also an academic, intercollegiate mission, we'll be healthy.
This doesn't surprise me. I thought that before the Big Ten Network, there was a lot more value here, but for a variety of reasons it hadn't been unlocked. It's becoming unlocked to a greater extent. The SEC deal, the ACC deal, the Pac-12 deal do not surprise me. I couldn't be happier for the growth and the resources that have been unlocked, and I expect when we have an opportunity, all things being in a healthy environment, that we will be very successful.