Big Ten takes a look in the mirror
Jim Delany spent last week visiting six Big Ten campuses, a mini tour that simply reinforced what the commissioner already assumed about the league.
He saw large, iconic stadiums built in the 20th century modernized for the 21st-century fan. He saw top-of-the-line practice facilities, training tables, academic support programs and local branding efforts, including the can't-miss markings of social media. He saw the upshot of a league delivering its schools record revenue shares, thanks in large part to the success of the Big Ten Network.
"Our reach is national," Delany said Sunday during a phone interview with ESPN.com. "There's national awareness, and the schools are of national quality. We have resources and commitment. These are phenomenal places with rich traditions, and they've all been captured exceedingly well. We want to recruit nationally, we want to play nationally, we want to telecast nationally.
"We want to do everything we can to be nationally impactful."
But the most nationally impactful thing the Big Ten can do to boost its perception has become its greatest challenge -- win a national championship in football. More than a decade has passed since Big Ten hands hoisted the coveted crystal football. The Big Ten has been a no-show in the title game in the past five seasons. The league is 3-9 in the Rose Bowl during the BCS era. It has sub-.500 bowl records in 10 of the past 13 years.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten's top rival, the SEC, has captured the past seven national titles, ascending to the pinnacle of college football, and letting everyone know about it.
Tradition is at the core of the Big Ten's fabric. Although Legends and Leaders are (thankfully) going away, no league celebrates its past as publicly as the Big Ten does. But the Big Ten's recent tradition hasn't provided much to celebrate.
"The SEC has so dominated the national championships in football, the rest of us are just wanting to break through," Delany said. "That's the reality."
The SEC has so dominated the national championships in football, the rest of us are just wanting to break through. That's the reality.
--Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany
Big Ten coaches are tired of the SEC love, but as Michigan head coach Brady Hoke acknowledges, "they've earned it." He notes that Michigan has performed well against current SEC opponents (24-11-1) and was "11 seconds away" from another win before blowing a lead against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
But the SEC is winning the games that matter most and continuing to set the agenda in the sport.
"It's like anything else, you get tired of hearing your wife tell you, 'Take out the garbage,'" Hoke said. "What are you going to do? You're going to go take out the garbage so you don't hear it anymore."
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who helped start the SEC's run of championships by guiding Florida past Ohio State in the title game following the 2006 season, said there's a gap between the Big Ten and the SEC that can be gauged by recent bowl performances and NFL drafts (the Big Ten had only 22 players drafted in April's draft, its lowest total since 1994; the SEC produced a record 63 picks). But Meyer has faith the Big Ten can rise up, and not just Ohio State and Michigan, which many assume will recreate the Big 2/Little 8 dynamic prevalent throughout the league's history, because of their recent success on the recruiting trail.
"I've been around the Big Ten my entire life," said Meyer, who grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio. "There was a time where Iowa was No. 1 in America. There's Penn State, there's Wisconsin, there was a time when Illinois played in the Rose Bowl, Northwestern right now is playing at a very high level and recruiting well, Michigan State is always right there. I do believe it is happening.
"I just hear what I hear and see what I see, and everybody is working really hard because the Big Ten has got to go [forward]. The bottom line now is go win some big-time bowl games. That's the best branding you can do."
Although the Big Ten brand is arguably stronger than ever, there are ways to make the football product more appealing, especially to recruits. The Big Ten is gradually warming up to night games, even during the month of November, and recently released a 2017 schedule that features a conference game (Indiana at Ohio State) as the season opener, a dramatic departure from the traditional model (nonconference games, then conference games).
"From afar, I do like the fact that Georgia and South Carolina are always early and Tennessee and Florida are always early," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "It adds some relevance to your league. Right now, when we're all playing nonconference, you're going to play some teams that are a little bit more on paper and with perception, a little bit average, we don't have the ESPN value, we don't have the Big Ten Network value. So I do think we've got to get those night games when they're relevant in November. Whether we're playing stronger nonconference or kicking the conference games into Week 1, 2, 3, 4, we need to do that. All for it."
Despite the championship drought, the Big Ten's core objective hasn't changed.
"Being viewed as the gold standard of athletic and academic balance," Delany said.
Such a mission statement might draw eye-rolls among college football fans and some media, but the Big Ten will continue to trumpet its success with graduation rates, broad-based athletic programs and other traits that are overshadowed by the race for the crystal football. Delany certainly wants more titles in the major sports, but he notes, "Sometimes when you win championships, you may lose sight of [the core message]."
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The message reaches coaches like Hoke, who mentions the large number of varsity sports Michigan and other Big Ten schools offer when asked about Big Ten perception. It's those components, Hoke said, that "make our league different and special."
But all the academic feats and national titles in non-revenue sports won't help Big Ten perception as much as on-field success in football. Coaches often talk about the cyclical nature of the sport, and while the SEC's current surge is unprecedented and shows no sign of abating, there's hope the Big Ten's turn is coming.
"I really look for the Big Ten to really start taking back over again," said Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who has coached in the SEC (Florida) and Southwest Conference (Texas A&M), as well as with Notre Dame. "I can tell you this, of all the places I've been, having been in a lot of different conferences, my respect for the Big Ten is maybe greater now than it was 10 years ago."
At the preseason coaches' meeting in Chicago, Delany asked the 12 men in the room to think about the names who had come before them, and those who would follow. He told them to value the positions they have as the Big Ten begins its 118th football season.
Delany's message hit home for Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, a " raised, born and bred ... Big Ten guy."
"As a league, we've kind of gone down a little bit from a standpoint of coach stability, and now we're coming out of that hole," Fitzgerald said. "The talent level's up, the competition's up. You watch the way that we played in the bowl games last year. Maybe we didn't win 'em all, but we were one, two, three plays away from getting those things done.
"The Big Ten's coming back. It's not about talk, it's about action."
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