Jim Delany is retiring after 30 remarkable years as Big Ten commissioner. After watching Wisconsin and Oregon in the Rose Bowl, Delany will hand over the reins of the nation’s oldest conference to Kevin Warren, who was chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings.
Here’s a tribute I contributed to This Is B1G, the hot-off-the-presses official history of the Big Ten written by longtime Chicago Tribune writer Ed Sherman. This huge (five pounds) and comprehensive (125 years) volume is loaded with fascinating tales and little-known facts. Did you know, for example, that Bobby Knight recruited Delany to play basketball at Army? It’s available atbigtenbook.com
Much has changed in the college sports world since 1989. Two things, though, have remained constant. The Big Ten’s standing as a collegiate pillar, and Jim Delany’s steady leadership as commissioner.
A New Jersey native who played on two of Dean Smith’s Final Four teams at North Carolina, Delany has carved out quite a legacy since becoming the Big Ten’s fifth commissioner in 1989. His record for change and innovation makes him arguably the most influential administrator in the history of college sports.
Delany made one of his most significant moves right out of the gate, when Penn State was invited to join the conference in 1990. This bold move broadened the Big Ten’s reach into the East and added another historic football program, ensuring that Delany and the Big Ten would remain an influential voice in college athletics.
That voice has been heard prominently in the evolution of the way college football chooses its national champion. After Penn State went undefeated and uncrowned, unable to play Nebraska in 1994, Delany not only brought the Big Ten into the BCS. He convinced the Rose Bowl and the Pac-10 to go along with the plan. Amid growing discontent with the BCS, which selected its two finalists via voters and computers, Delany altered his stance and helped bring about the four-team College Football Playoff.
Delany initially showed his aptitude for innovative sports TV management as commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference. He agreed to schedule late-night basketball games to enable the OVC to receive ESPN exposure. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it was Delany who created the Big Ten Network, the first collegiate television network. With BTN, the Big Ten controls its own destiny to makes scheduling decisions, to reach its fan base and in negotiations with television partners. That power and financial control only figure to grow in the future.
Delany’s resume also includes many other notable accomplishments. In 1992, the Big Ten became the first conference to voluntarily adopt participation goals for female student-athletes, which included a 60/40 percent male-female participation ratio over a five-year period. On his watch, the Big Ten pioneered the use of instant-replay review in college football.
Delany also overcame the objections of influential old-school coaches and administrators to create a men’s conference basketball tournament in 1998. The league has moved the tournament around—mainly in Chicago and Indianapolis, but also with forays to Washington and New York—to maximize exposure and interest.
Always alert to the winds of change, Delany oversaw the Big Ten expansion to 14 teams with the addition of Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers. While many other conferences struggled with expansion questions, these additions strengthened the Big Ten—giving it a broad reach from the East Coast to the nation’s heartland. Expansion also enhanced the reach of the Big Ten Network, a linchpin in the future financial health of the league.
It all adds up to three decades of remarkable leadership under Jim Delany.
Delany is probably best known as a critical mover and shaker in college football’s march to a playoff. But his role as The Man Who Created the Big Ten Network, the first collegiate television network, may be his greatest legacy.