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All-in on reform, Big Ten needs others to join its fight for change

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ROSEMONT, Ill. -- No league gets its people on the same page quite like the Big Ten.

As key figures in other Power 5 conferences gripe about issues like graduate transfers and satellite camps, Big Ten athletic directors convened Monday through Wednesday here at the league offices outside Chicago, emerging from closed-door sessions in orchestrated harmony on topics that strike at the core of college athletics.

To the Big Ten, cohesion is a fundamental requirement. Eight athletic directors who spoke to the media and commissioner Jim Delany presented a unified front on the importance of widespread reform.

They’ve hammered at it for months now, but only this week did their agenda turn clear in pushing Delany’s “year of readiness” argument.

League leaders don’t expect to pass -- or even officially propose -- freshmen ineligibility. Many of them don’t want it. What they want is to lead a national discussion on how to enhance the student-athlete experience.

“It’s actually accomplished what we hoped to accomplish,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said. “It’s created a great national dialogue.”

And only in a league where the lieutenants fall neatly in line behind the mastermind could such a strategy stand a chance.

No one spoke out of turn this week. It was all buttoned up nicely, from the message presented by leadoff speaker Jim Phillips, the Northwestern AD recently elected chair of the new Division I council, to Delany, who answered questions Wednesday at the close of the meetings for 24 minutes and not a second more.

Lingering in the air aside the wasted breath of reporters upon Delany's quick exit, a bigger question hangs over these meetings that will ultimately define their relevance: For all the talk about the important of academics and the need to reduce the time demands on football and basketball players, what happens next?

Delany said the Big Ten is collecting input generated by its year-of-readiness discussion. The league plans to dissect the results and continue to push for meaningful change next January at the NCAA convention.

Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague said Delany summarized the predicament before the latest effort for reform began in earnest.

“We have to do something,” Teague said, recalling their conversation, “or something will be done to us.”

So do what? Delany points to Big Ten victories in helping foster the cost-of-attendance measure passed this year and a movement toward multiyear scholarships.

Still, the next steps in this fight remain vague.

Delany said the 20-hour rule, which limits time per week student-athletes are permitted to spend on athletics, does not work. Initial-eligibility standards for football and basketball, he said, produce flawed outcomes.

“We don’t have the answer about exactly how to make sure that education,” Delany said, “at least from the NCAA standpoint, is more primary than secondary. But we wanted to have that discussion.”

They’re having it, all right, even if leaders from other leagues have yet to fully engage.

“We’re trying to sound the alarm bells,” Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. “Get in the game. Don’t sit on the sidelines or just give a sound bite to ESPN and that’s it. It’s going to be a thoughtful discussion.”

Burke said he understands the skepticism over big talk on academics.

“I think we’ve been part of enough of these philosophical discussions that if you keep it at 50,000 feet, everybody agrees in principle,” Burke said, “but they don’t know what they’re agreeing to.”

Even so, he said, make a suggestion.

"Status quo is leading us in the wrong direction," Burke said.

In the national context, the Big Ten essentially pushed its chips to the middle of the table this year.

“This is a time for change,” said Minnesota’s Teague, “a reset button on the collegiate athletic model.”

With its unified front, the Big Ten is betting big on serious talk about change. Because if reform fails to materialize and the league finds itself trumpeting the same agenda next year at this time, few are likely to listen.

What else we learned at the Big Ten meetings:

  • Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez doesn’t know about academic redshirts, coming to a school near you in August 2016. Alvarez pleaded unaware of the increase in minimum eligibility requirements, passed in 2011, that will create a new category of student-athletes next year who are ineligible to compete as freshmen if they fall between the old and new standards.

  • Rutgers AD Julie Hermann works out of a cubicle. OK. Nice to know.

  • Only Delany speaks for the Big Ten on the progress of negotiations for its new TV contract. Oh, and Delany did not address it. The current deal expires in 2017. “It has been a non-stop conversation in our league meetings,” Hermann said, “and we’ll let the commissioner take it from there.” Said Alvarez, rarely at a loss for words: “That’s a question for commissioner.”

  • Cost of attendance is set to soon turn into a major issue. Just wait until the first checks are received next fall and student-athletes at Wisconsin, for example, learn that they get $5,000 per year, compared to $3,000 for their peers at Indiana. Those were the figures quoted by the school’s respective athletic directors this week. The cost-of-attendance stipend was designed to cover living expenses not included in athletic scholarships. Inevitably, it will impact recruiting. Indiana AD Fred Glass said he hopes the stipends are not “leveraged into an advantage for athletic purposes.” Good luck with that.

  • The Big Ten is largely uninterested in a debate on satellite camps, which have drawn the ire of coaches and administrators in the SEC and ACC. Several Big Ten programs are set to take their staffs on the road soon to serve as guests as camps in the South. Said Purdue’s Burke: “It’s not high on our list of items to talk about. Why should it bother us?”