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Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Power play: Mike Slive vs. Jim Delany

By Adam Rittenberg and Chris Low

Silve/Delany
SEC commissioner Mike Slive, left, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany are among the most powerful men in sports.
Sports Illustrated recently came out with its list of the 50 most powerful people in sports. Two college conference commissioners made the rundown: the SEC's Mike Slive at No. 17, and the Big Ten's Jim Delany at No. 26. The men who lead the nation's richest and most popular conferences have been rivals throughout the years, and they've both made moves to strengthen their leagues and shape college football.

Bloggers Chris Low (SEC) and Adam Rittenberg (Big Ten) weigh in on Slive, Delany and which commissioner -- in the immortal words of Snap! -- has got the power.

Chris Low on Slive

The easy part would be starting with the rings, although Mike Slive himself doesn’t have a jewelry box overflowing with national championship bling. He’s content to let the SEC schools display their own hardware. And for those not keeping count, it’s up to seven straight national championships now for the SEC.

There's such a thing as power, and then there's the kind of power you command when you're on top.

The SEC is looking down at everybody else in the college football world and has been for a while, and Slive's a big reason why. The administrators and coaches in the league have supreme confidence in him to make the right moves in the ever-changing landscape of college athletics.

They don’t necessarily fear Slive, but they also know better than to cross him. Lane Kiffin and Tennessee got a dose of his wrath.

One of the most obvious examples of Slive's power is the four-team college football playoff, which will begin in 2014. Remember that he was the one who proposed a playoff back in 2008, and not enough other people were on board at the time.

Well, everybody's on board now, and it's a reality. Not only that, but the format is basically what Slive wanted. There aren't any restrictions about having to win your conference championship, and the games will be played at bowl sites ... and not on college campuses.

Slive didn't want the playoff party to be limited to conference champions. The rest of the country moaned and groaned over the all-SEC BCS National Championship Game in 2011 between Alabama and LSU. Slive wanted to make sure the door was open for multiple SEC teams to get into the four-team playoff, because more times than not, at least two SEC teams will be deserving.

Most people would agree that conference expansion is far from over. But with all of the jockeying to this point, did any conference benefit more than the SEC with its addition of Texas A&M, which secured a foothold in the state of Texas?

The value of that move will be front and center when the SEC negotiates its next television contract with CBS and ESPN. You better have a good calculator to tabulate those figures.

And, oh yeah, Slive knows a thing or two about steering clear of serious NCAA trouble.

The SEC is always going to be the SEC. After all, the league's unofficial slogan is, "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying."

Slive's not real fond of that slogan, by the way. But the NCAA has done its share of poking around several different SEC programs over the past several years, and the last school to be hit with a postseason ban in football was Mississippi State in 2004.

Nobody's suggesting that Slive has a direct line to the NCAA enforcement staff.

But he also has clout, and probably more importantly, a keen understanding of how the NCAA process works. He can be a huge asset when SEC schools are trying to navigate choppy waters.

Just ask Auburn and Cam Newton.

Slive, a former district court judge in New Hampshire, jokingly refers to himself as a recovering attorney.

Now a proud grandfather, he looks the part with the white hair, warm smile and stooped-shoulder walk.

He's quick to deflect any talk about his role in making the SEC the juggernaut that it’s become.

Of course, the most powerful people don't have to talk about what they've done. Everybody already knows.

Adam Rittenberg on Delany

This discussion essentially comes down to how much a commissioner's power stems from the number of football national championships that are won in his conference. If crystal footballs are the sole basis for determining which commissioner carries more clout, Slive wins in a landslide. After all, the SEC has won the past seven national titles, the league's total during Slive's tenure as commissioner (2002 to present). Delany has been Big Ten commissioner more than twice as long (1989 to present), but the league has claimed only two football national titles (1997, 2002) during that span, and none in the past decade.

But let me remind everyone that neither of these men plays football or coaches football. They have no direct control over whether their teams hoist the crystal football. They can put their leagues in the best possible positions to compete for championships by increasing revenue and TV exposure, and by shaping the BCS/playoff format, but their work is done outside the lines, not between them.

Although Slive has done some great things as SEC commissioner, his timing also has been impeccable. Was Slive's predecessor, Roy Kramer, a bad commissioner because SEC teams won only three national titles during the 12 football seasons in which he served? Such a notion seems absurd. The Big Ten's lack of championships in the major sports is part of Delany's legacy as commissioner, but can anyone reasonably argue that Delany has put the league in a weaker position to win titles? Also absurd.

If anything, Delany has strengthened the Big Ten's chances to win championships and continued to build the league even when it wasn't winning championships. His teams simply have let him down over and over -- not just in football, but in men's basketball -- while Slive's teams have come through time and again.

If we're basing this on how much a commissioner has done in his role, Delany has built more power than Slive. He fundamentally changed the television landscape by spearheading the Big Ten Network, an idea many thought would crash and burn but instead has flourished. The Big Ten pioneered the use of instant replay, which is a staple around college football these days. Delany expanded the Big Ten with home-run additions, first from the East (Penn State) and then the West (Nebraska). Some blame the Big Ten for launching realignment fever in December 2009, but you can also argue Delany was ahead of the curve in sensing what would come around in college sports. Although Delany's latest expansion moves -- Maryland and Rutgers -- and possible future moves (Georgia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina) aren't overly popular among Big Ten fans, his goal to expand the Big Ten footprint into new markets and create new revenue streams for the league is understandable.

Although Slive is older, Delany has been around longer and has accomplished more. His name resonates throughout the sports world more than Slive's. And while Slive and other conference commissioners have brokered historic television deals, Delany and the Big Ten are the last in line -- the current deal expires in 2016 -- and are poised to cash in really, really big.

The past few years have been tough for the Big Ten, both on and off the field. The scandals at Penn State and, to a much lesser extent, Ohio State, damaged a reputation Delany helped to build. Delany's strong support of the BCS system also didn't help his cause as public opinion shifted sharply toward a playoff. But the notion that Delany "lost" the playoff debate is a farce driven by media members who didn't actually listen to what he said throughout the process (Delany has smartest-guy-in-the-room syndrome and sometimes talks over people rather than to them). He was first to mention using a selection committee, which will be adopted. And while the playoff participants won't all be conference champions, league champions will get preference over non-champions at the 4-5 margin, as Delany wanted.

SI.com's Andy Staples recently wrote the gap between Delany and Slive is thin and gives Slive the edge based on the SEC's championships. That's fair. But if you want to base power on what each commissioner actually has done, Delany gets my vote.