Primed and dangerous: Big Ten looks to get back on title track
Jim Delany has positioned his league to succeed in the new postseason landscape
The Rose Bowl remains the Holy Grail for a conference with 1.5 titles in 40 years
To snap SEC's streak, Big Ten must field a team as competent as its commissioner
Behold Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, whose gimlet eyes and gleaming pate are as iconic in this conference as the Horseshoe and "Hail to the Victors." Widely regarded as one of the smartest men in college athletics, the 64-year-old has been on a serious roll since 2007. He was the driving force behind the groundbreaking Big Ten Network. Launched five years ago amid considerable skepticism, it is now available in 80 million North American households and has basically given the conference a license to print money. Two years ago, as SARDS (Superconference and Realignment Derangement Syndrome) swept the nation, Delany calmly plucked Nebraska from the Big 12 and called it a day. By so doing, he prudently avoided the temptation to expand for the sake of expanding but gave his conference enough teams -- an even dozen -- to cleave itself into divisions, enabling it to host a lucrative championship game.
Once a point guard and a co-captain at North Carolina under Dean Smith, Delany has long been accustomed to dictating terms, calling the shots. But in the high-stakes drama that dominated this past offseason -- shaping the format of the Football Bowl Subdivision's now-inevitable playoff -- he found himself working with less leverage than usual. That will happen when the conference you represent has won exactly 1½ national championships in the last 40 years, while the conference represented by your main rival has won the last six. Thus did Delany find himself in the unaccustomed role of beta male to SEC commissioner Mike Slive's alpha in the ongoing discussions about what a playoff will look like when it arrives in 2014.
As a longtime playoff proponent, I'd come to view Delany as a rigid thinker, lumping him and his conference in with the then Pac-10 as an Axis of Obstruction. And certainly, on any subject that threatens to devalue their beloved Rose Bowl, Delany and his cohorts are obstructionists. But in a more general sense, my assessment was way off. Look at last spring's playoff negotiations. While the SEC basically drew a line in the sand -- a four-team college football playoff should include the four best teams, period -- Delany and his allies were flexible and open-minded.
A once-and-former anti-playoff zealot, Delany became a kind of shape-shifting pragmatist. Rather than engage the SEC head-on, he employed skirmishing tactics. His strategy was basically to throw a bunch of ideas against the wall and see what stuck. If that meant doubling back, contradicting himself and confusing a wide swath of football fans along the way, so be it.
And in the end the Big Ten came out ahead of where it would have if the commissioner had been less willing to compromise. Delany, you may recall, had raised hackles in the SEC with his contention that only conference champs should be considered for berths in the new playoff. In one widely dispersed quote he told the AP in May that he didn't "have a lot of regard" for a team that worms its way into the championship game without winning its own league title. (This was interpreted across the South as a swipe at the current national champion, Alabama -- until Delany reversed his field and insisted that it wasn't.)
Then, on June 20, the BCS commissioners emerged from a conference room in Chicago and decreed that the selection committee would choose the "best four teams" -- but with an emphasis on conference champions. That "emphasis" was a win for Delany and the Big Ten, which hasn't put a team in the national title game since January 2008. Thanks to Delany's insistence that conference champions be given most-favored-nation status, as it were, Big Ten teams will show up more often in the national title mix than they would have otherwise.
Delany and his lieutenants also excited the Big Ten fan base with the bold idea of hosting playoff games on the campuses of higher-seeded teams -- only to disappoint those fans by nixing the concept when it got no traction elsewhere in the nation.
Still, it's an idea the Big Ten should revisit at some point. On-campus playoffs would save fans money on travel and pump revenue directly into local economies. Such megagames would showcase for a national audience the sublime, surreal gameday lunacy at such storied venues as Camp Randall and the Big House and Kinnick Stadium. They would give Big Ten teams -- better equipped than an SEC or Pac-12 opponent to play in raw elements -- a distinct advantage.
Alas, the idea was nothing more than a trial balloon, quickly impaled by other conferences ... and a powerful lobby in Pasadena. Of course there's another reason the Big Ten backpedaled from its idea of on-campus playoffs: the concern that it might harm its longtime inamorata, the Rose Bowl. No matter how progressive they might be in other areas, the power brokers in this conference are hopeless romantics when it comes to the 110-year-old Granddaddy of Them All.
What is it with the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl anyway? Why is the conference, so savvy in other ways, willing to undercut its economic interests for the sake of a once-a-year-game played two or three time zones away?
That grand old bowl "is a great brand, that continues to show an openness ... to change," Delany told the Chicago Tribune in May. Really? The Rose Bowl has seemed about as open to change as Augusta National or the Vatican. But the commish is partly right: It is a great brand. The Rose Bowl ranks second, behind only the BCS title game, in terms of ticket price and demand. ESPN just gave it a massive raise, agreeing to pay the bowl an average of $80 million a year from 2015 through '26. And so the Big Ten abandoned its push for on-campus semifinals, as Yahoo.com columnist and Death to the BCS co-author Dan Wetzel wrote, "because it just couldn't bear the thought of cheating on a bowl game."
On other fronts Delany and the Big Ten have been admirably progressive. Delany's criticisms of the human polls driving the BCS selections were trenchant and spot-on. His call for a March Madness-type selection committee, to choose the four playoff participants, was creative and correct.
If some SEC supporters seemed lukewarm to the idea of a selection committee, it could be because BCS computers and pollsters have long favored the SEC over the Big Ten. Starting in 2014, those polls and computers will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Wetzel won -- he and Playoff PAC and the rest of the anti-BCS forces and everyone else who objected to college football's choosing its champion with the equivalent of the flame-belching apparatus operated by the great and powerful Oz.
College football is headed for a brave new world. The Big Ten is better positioned than most to thrive in it, thanks to some hard-fought victories eked out by Delany. Might some Big Ten squad snap the SEC's six-year streak of national championships in 2012? That will happen only if the conference can field a team as competent as its commissioner.
This article originally appeared in the Sports Illustrated Presents Big Ten 2012 preview.