Jim Delany on 25 years with Big Ten: ‘Change is constant’

MINNEAPOLIS — When Jim Delany started this thing, a guy named Darrell Thompson was scurrying all over the Metrodome AstroTurf on the way to becoming Minnesota’s all-time leading rusher.

Ghostbusters II was a hit. So was Nintendo’s Game Boy. The Minnesota Timberwolves were born. So was the young lad authoring this piece. Legendary Twin Cities sportswriter Sid Hartman was a spry 69 years of age.

The world made more sense then. The Big Ten had 10 teams. The Big Eight had, well, eight. The Southwest Conference existed and believe it or not had all of its teams located in the southwest.

Sure, college football endured its fair share of controversy, chief among it the death penalty administered to Southern Methodist just two years prior. Realignment wasn’t that far in the future, either, as the latter two aforementioned conferences were on their way to merging into the Big 12.

But times just felt a little simpler, a little less tornadic than today, perhaps.

“Then,” Delany said in reference to conference expansion but speaking to his entire 25-year tenure as Big Ten commissioner, “the world changed a little bit.”

Cutting-edge action, reaction and evolution have defined Delany’s 2 1/2 decades in charge of the Gophers’ age-old league. The former North Carolina basketball star and NCAA enforcement officer has added four colleges, helped create the Bowl Championship Series, negotiated a lucrative television contract and exclusive network deal and been at the forefront of nearly every firestorm topic that continues to shape a landscape that’s shifting every day.

College football, in the meantime, has morphed into a multimillion dollar cash cow.

“If you don’t like change, you wouldn’t like this job,” Delany said Thursday, appropriately surrounded by artifacts of Minnesota football lore enshrined inside the Gibson-Nagurski Complex. “Because change is a constant. It’s always been a constant, but there’s even more movement today.

“We’re all in a wholly different environment than we were even 10 years ago.”

Minneapolis was just one of three final stops Thursday on Delany’s conference-wide tour commemorating his longevity milestone. His job description always has included heavy and frequent adaptation, keeping a tradition-rich conference at the forefront of modern transitions in the athletic and entertainment industries.

And if he thinks the past 25 years were dynamic, just wait till the next 25.

Not that Delany necessarily plans on being around that long — though for someone in his mid-60s, attending football practices at Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska all in one day is nothing to scoff at. Last year, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

But it’s on the man who brought in Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers and television revenue beyond some stakeholders’ wildest dreams to oversee the next age of college football and its effect upon the entire American sports scene.

The tricky part is that no one knows exactly what to expect.

Delany’s reign has brought newfound stability in a turbulent time, to be sure, but high up, at the institutional level. His goals there now are fairly clear-cut: integrate 2014 conference additions Maryland and Rutgers, a task he plans to devote most of the next calendar year toward, and reworking the conference’s auxiliary television contract outside of the highly successful Big Ten Network.

The Big Ten’s agreement with ABC and ESPN expires in 2016. BTN and FOX have another 14 years on their deal, one which helped the league distribute about $24 million to each member school last year.

It’s expected those numbers will only grow with the addition of the Washington D.C. and New York television markets, though Delany is quick to point out nothing is guaranteed.

“Nothing goes up in a straight line,” Delany said, “but I think we’ve got incredible content and I think that we’ve got an incredible brand and we’ve got entertaining sports.”

Delany estimates about one million Big Ten alumni — mostly from Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State — reside in the area the conference snatched from the ACC, not including graduates of the two schools it added. Happy for now with a lineup of 14 teams that spans two geographical regions, the impetus shifts to ensuring a smooth transition for Maryland and Rutgers while pushing the Big Ten brand eastward.

“We’ll build a presence,” said Delany, who grew up in New Jersey himself. “It’s the most competitive corridor. If it’s competitive here, it’s more competitive in New York City. So it’s not gonna be easy, but we think that over time we can build a presence and be impactful.”

Another major focus is deciding how to take better care of the athletes themselves — a mission he has made plainly clear during a summer chock full of heated debate over amateurism and player compensation.

“We still think we’re in the college sports and education business,” Delany said. “We’re not in the professional business, but a lot of us feel like we could do more for the athletes than we do.”

It’s for that reason Delany issued the following “four-point plan” at Big Ten media days and has re-emphasized it any chance he’s received:
   1) Establish educational trusts that allow players who don’t graduate to come back at any point in time and have the completion of their degree fully funded. Delany: “I think we can make a lifetime commitment. In terms of someone who doesn’t get their education finished in four years, why can’t they come back, and why can’t we stand behind them?”
   2)  Take a look at time demands and possibly tweak the NCAA’s rule that allows 20 hours per week for organized collegiate athletic activities.
   3) Offer “at-risk students” a year to transition into college life — not the old-style freshman ineligibility, but basically identifying and allowing players who may come from tougher backgrounds or struggle academically to adjust before operating as a fulltime student-athlete. A “year of readiness,” Delany calls it.
   4) Find a better way to take care of players’ miscellaneous expenses — more or less, give athletes a stipend on top of their scholarship “up to the cost of education.”

Nowhere in Delany’s famed bullet points does he call for the pay-for-play systems offered up by college football progressives. He’s not buying the arguments surrounding Johnny Manziel — he has to play by the rules just like everyone else, Delany has said — or other athletes who many think should earn some chunk of the revenue they’re responsible for producing.

He’s not exactly on board with the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit against EA Sports for using player likenesses in its “NCAA Football” franchise. Minnesota players Moses Alipate and Victor Keise III raised their hands as plaintiffs in that case, though Keise has since withdrawn his complaints.

The Big Ten did, however, end its agreement with EA to license the conference’s trademarks in the video game.

Yet, with every concrete action come more questions about where the monster that is college football — which Delany has helped build — is going.

They’ll remain until the NCAA, conferences and schools make the wholesale changes he and so many others are calling for.

With Delany and other commissioners, athletic directors and high rollers urging, some alterations already have taken place. The NCAA pulled replica jerseys off the shop portion of its website and reportedly has been holding and scheduling meetings to discuss its policies and enforcement protocols.

“We have an incredibly popular game — that’s the good news,” Delany said. “The bad news is we’re under scrutiny, and a lot of the regulatory systems that are in effect today were in effect in 1975, and some of us have more resources where you’d like to do more.”

After riding out the waves of conference expansion and realignment (for now), the Big Ten vessel finds itself floating in a lagoon murky with dissent — a tug-of-war between the ideal of the student-athlete and the reality of today’s athlete-student.

Good thing the conference has an experienced navigator.

Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter