Eight years of Big Ten scandals paint unflattering picture, but connecting dots may be unfair
Eleven of the Big Ten's 14 programs have been involved in a serious incident over the last eight years
Jim Delany knew the phone call was important enough to take Sunday, even while he was on vacation somewhere in Peru high in the Andes Mountains.
That's because the Big Ten commissioner knew the subject matter. Drawing unflattering connections to his conference during its current seven-year run of scandal, alleged athlete abuses, coaches run amok, even death, might seem unfair.
Unfair ... but not impossible.
It must be acknowledged that arguably the nation's richest conference is going through one of its roughest off-field patches. Since 2011 -- the year the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke at Penn State -- to the current Maryland investigation, there have been at least 16 high-profile instances of alleged wrongdoing in Big Ten athletic departments involving 11 of the conference's 14 schools.
In that span, four football coaches were fired for issues unrelated to winning football games. Two more might join that group soon in Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Maryland's DJ Durkin.
As the season nears, that means almost 30 percent of football coaches in the Big Ten East (two of seven) are on paid administrative leave.
"Of course we're concerned," Delany told me. At 70, he is considered one of the most powerful figures in college athletics. "We know the institutions; we know the coaches. First and foremost, the players.
"They stand for the proposition that, when allegations come forward, you try not to wait for others. Take them seriously."
13 football players hospitalized (rhabdo)
Jim Tressel resigns for lying to the NCAA; "tatoogate" scandal
Jerry Sandusky scandal breaks; Sandusky jailed
|2012||Nebraska||Extra benefits violations (textbooks)|
Six lacrosse players hospitalized (rhabdo)
|2014||Ohio State||One track & field member hospitalized (rhabdo)|
QB Shane Morris concussed, reinserted into game
Tim Beckman fired for influencing medical, injury reports
Kyle Flood fired for influencing player academic status
Kevin Wilson reigns for allegedly abusing players
Tracy Claeys fired for standing by boycotting players
Larry Nassar scandal breaks; Nassar jailed
Two football players hospitalized (rhabdo)
Richard Strauss scandal breaks; under investigation
Urban Meyer placed on leave; under investigation
Player dies; DJ Durkin placed on leave; under investigation
There have been plenty of those allegations lately. Since 2011, there has been the hospitalization of at least 22 Big Ten athletes after they were seemingly overworked in practice.
Those were part of nine incidents in that span involving player safety that included the death of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair in June.
In addition to the Sandusky scandal, team doctors at Michigan State (gymnastics) and Ohio State (wrestling) have been accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of athletes.
"The fact of it is these are sexual predators," Delany said. "When you see something, you have to say something. We have to get much better than that. We have to become more skeptical. We have to be more skeptical of our coaches, of our doctors, of our commissioners, more skeptical of anybody in power."
Delany sees the criminal behavior as more of a reflection of society. He quoted Center for Disease Control statistics that state nearly one-fifth of all women report experiencing rape. The ratio is 1-in-18 for men.
"It's a problem for us, but it minimizes an epidemic that is a problem in our country," Delany said. "I, as a conference commissioner, don't have the answer."
The Big Ten isn't exactly an outlier. Conferences routinely have runs of scandal. The old Southwest Conference broke up in part due to multiple NCAA investigations that corroded its image.
Former Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive, at one time, set a goal to have zero SEC's teams on probation.
And for a time, he largely succeeded. The SEC remains the leader -- by far -- in NCAA major infractions cases (72).
For now, attention has shifted to the Big Ten. Durkin and Meyer are both subjects of independent investigations for different reasons. Durkin was suspended Saturday following allegations of player mistreatment. Meyer is awaiting the results of an investigation regarding his knowledge of alleged domestic assault by former wide receivers coach Zach Smith.
Central to that issue, Meyer apparently lied about his knowledge of a 2015 abuse allegation involving that coach. Meyer later said he wasn't "adequately prepared" for questions regarding that incident at Big Ten Media Days.
"It's possible that he lied," Delany said. "It's possible that he wasn't prepared. Those are the two extremes. I'm more than willing to let the investigation play out. … I'm not going to pre-judge."
Delany said both Meyer and Buckeyes' athletic director Gene Smith have been "straightforward with me in the past." But Delany later added: "Before I came and after I came, there were a lot of hall of fame coaches that didn't finish their career here. That's not true at a lot of places. That's the definition of institutional control."
That's a reference to at least three hall of fame coaches: Jim Tressel and Woody Hayes at Ohio State, and Bobby Knight at Indiana. All were fired at Big Ten schools for wrongdoing off the field/court.
In addition to the aforementioned sting of incidents since 2011, all of this has occurred in the last two years:
- Former Michigan State team physician Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault. Hundreds of alleged victims came forward at his sentencing.
- Rutgers football was put on NCAA probation in 2017. Former coach Kyle Flood was given a one-year show cause penalty and a three-game suspension.
- Earlier this year, Nebraska had two football players hospitalized with exertional symptoms following a workout.
- Ohio State continues the investigate the actions of deceased wrestling team doctor Richard Strauss, who allegedly sexually assaulted several athletes.
In his 30th year as commissioner, Delany concentrated on how his schools have responded to wrongdoing rather than the volume of misdeeds.
- Minnesota fired coach Tracy Claeys in 2017 coming off a nine-win season after the coach supported players who had threatened to boycott a bowl game over sexual assault allegations.
- Kevin Wilson (Indiana, 2016) resigned and Tim Beckman (Illinois, 2015) was fired in the midst of player abuse allegations.
"That's the very definition of institutional control," Delany repeated. "You see the problem, you see the allegation, you investigate, you see the pattern, and you act.
"Anyone who has the idea that is isolated to a school or a conference or a region of the country, I think you're really not looking at what is going on.
"I make a big distinction from criminal conduct on one hand, and on the other hand, Maryland has announced its investigation. There is the terrible death of one person. They'll work through that. They'll investigate that."
Delany also had a problem with what he called "conflating" sexual predators such as Sandusky and Nassar with NCAA violations.
"I give you one example that bothers me," Delany said. "I have not said this publicly before."
He went on to recount ESPN's reporting of the Nassar situation, which he said was fair. But when the network featured a split screen with Nassar, basketball coach Tom Izzo and football Mark Dantonio, "That's scandalous," Delany said.
Izzo and Dantonio had been implicated in ESPN's reporting for allegedly covering up sexual assaults by athletes. Nassar was accused of directly assaulting hundreds of women while in his position as team doctor.
Izzo and Dantonio remain at their jobs.
Still, the possibility of two Big Ten football coaches losing their jobs 2 ½ weeks before the season looms largest at the moment in the proud Big Ten.
"These are high-wire acts," Delany said. "Lots of responsibility. Lots of exposure. Lots of authority. But they're all accountable to the institution."
Since 2011, four schools -- Nebraska, Penn State, Rutgers and Ohio State (twice)--– have been sanctioned in major NCAA investigations. That's actually the fewest number of major cases (five total) among the Power Five schools in that span.
Those 22 Big Ten athletes at Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State were hospitalized for rhabdomyolysis between 2011-18. "Rhabdo" is a condition brought on by overexertion. Symptoms include brown urine and organ shutdown.
There is seemingly no thread connecting all these events, other than the conference in which the programs reside.
That's not suggesting Delaney, college athletics' renowned power broker, is running a loose ship. To be fair, who knows what is happening in other conferences we don't know about?
If this was the SEC, it might be much easier to take up pitchforks and torches against the league because of its sometimes less-than-savory compliance reputation.
As for the Big Ten in these troubled times? It is home to both football and academic powerhouses. Because of that diversity, it considers itself a cut above its peers.
Its commissioner is used to lofty heights. Delany has scaled Mount Kilimanjaro. The journey to the ancient Andean city of Machu Picchu this month may be his last at such altitudes.
Closer to sea level, there are different hurdles for his troubled conference.
"We don't tiptoe around these issues," Delany said. "We never have."
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