Exiting Big Ten commish Jim Delany on his 30-year tenure and the future of college sports

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Jim Delany plans to climb Mount Everest this year. Some would suggest he has already been there many times.

Delany ended a 30-year run as Big Ten commissioner on Wednesday, Jan. 1. During his time atop one of the nation's biggest conferences, he arguably became the most powerful person in college sports. Certainly the most influential given that he oversaw a conference whose members were in states that accounted for a quarter of the nation's population.

Under Delany's watch, instant replay for college football was created. His vision for the Big Ten Network has surpassed anyone's wildest dreams. The league pulled in $750 million in revenue in the last financial year, surpassing even the SEC. For his efforts, Delany was rewarded with a $20 million bonus in 2017.

Delany, 71, foresaw conference expansion that rocked college sports -- after he causing it. His first major move was inviting Penn State to the Big Ten in 1989, basically without the knowledge of conference athletic directors and coaches.

We told you he was powerful.

Delany defended his conference doggedly and owned problems when they arose.

"College sports is the tail of an institution; it's not the dog," he said. "It can bring people together, but it can also set people against each other."

Delany was proactive enough to bolster a conference centered in the Rust Belt with new blood. Nebraska was a brand, if not a population center. After failing to land some combination of Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia, Delany "settled" on Maryland and Rutgers.

Not a bad fallback considering Maryland is at the center of mid-Atlantic coaching hub. Rutgers has been a disaster on the field, but Big Ten dollars have rescued it from irrelevance. Delany's biggest accomplishment: The Big Ten's footprint now spreads halfway across the country from Nebraska to the Atlantic Ocean.

In this conversation, Delany discusses his legacy, the future of college sports and that attack on Mount Everest.

"I hope to get in some shape this summer to get up to base camp this fall," Delany said. "I'm not going to the top."

Some would say he has spent his whole career there.

[Editor's note: Some of Delany's answers were edited for brevity.]


CBS Sports: What is the collegiate model right now?

Delany: "In transition, for sure. I have a lot of confidence that underneath all of this there is amazing public support for college sports. That will play out in the long run. Nobody wants to destroy college sports. But we've done a pretty unique thing in uniting the left and the right around this one thing.

"[There are] civil libertarians, economic people and also social justice people who feel this is an unfair state of affairs. That's going to get debated. That's going to get resolved. There's a lot of people who think this is going to happen quickly. It almost has to, doesn't it, given the constraints of states adopting their own name, image and likeness laws?

CBS Sports: Can such monumental change take place that quickly, like this year?

Delany: "Yes and no. There's going to be litigation about those [state laws]. Once it gets into the court, I think there will be stays until the litigation is finished. I don't think anybody is going to try to administrate college athletics under 25 sets of rules. I think there will be a hearing in Washington, D.C. or hearings where the different sides articulate their position on this. If the NCAA can't legislate without reasonable belief [they won't] be sued, there has to be another national path. … The solution has to be national so that automatically sends you toward Congress."

CBS Sports: As part of that, can an anti-trust exemption happen that would eventually cap coaches' salaries?

Delany: "I don't know if it can. It's got to be discussed. Has to be. Because we're going to need some guidance from the Department of Justice and Department of Education, both on the area of Title IX and the anti-trust. Right now, we're an object for plaintiffs' attorneys to [attack] the regulatory system. ... My crystal ball is not clear, but it tells me there is tremendous support for college sports [in Congress]. It is the area besides the U.S. military that is an opportunity engine. Does it have fault? It has fault.

"What do we do? We compete. If there are to be caps of some kind, the only way that will happen will be getting some guidance from the federal government. I can't for the life of me imagine what that looks like."

CBS Sports: NCAA president Mark Emmert has gone 180 degrees on federal intervention. Why?

Delany: "The environment is radically changed because, from 1950 to 1985, the NCAA didn't lose a case. We've actually won quite a few cases, but we haven't won them all. You have to have a system that is has a certainty to it as well as fairness. I don't get upset with people who litigate for disagree. Whether it's in the courts or legislature, in a country that values the rule of law, for the colleges to be different than the pros, we have to have a place to resolve that. We've been challenged in Alston and O'Bannon, but the success in court hasn't been fully digested by all the fans. They turn on TV and see no difference between Duke playing [North] Carolina and the Lakers playing the Celtics.

"When I was in school, all the games were sold out. All the games were on TV. All the players many of whom who became NBA or ABA players all felt like college students. There area a lot of kids who are coming into the system today who don't feel like college students. There is too much training today. It looks like professional training. They ask a lot more. That's an area we could use some help in. Clearly, we haven't done a good job.

"When kids come to college today at age 18, they're really -- from the time they're 10 -- they have to choose. The coaches who used to be players, that's what they grew up with. A lot of this that didn't exist in the '50s and '60s. Who would think kids would play 400 basketball games before they got to college?"

CBS Sports: The College Football Playoff, if and when it goes to eight teams, what kind of pressure does that put on coaches? It seems like everything now is about getting to the playoff.

Delany: "I just think the irony is [that] nothing gets smaller. It doesn't seem like you can go back. Basketball found a three-week event that people have access to that works [NCAA Tournament]. I think we could have settled at two [in the old BCS], but the public didn't want that. There's more angst even though we've doubled the access points. We've at least doubled or tripled the damage that comes from not participating. There's conference interest, there's a conference championship interest, there's an independent interest. Unwinding it would be difficult.

"I never, as Big Ten commissioner, never emotionally felt we were excluded from the BCS. You got a couple of programs that are pulling away. You don't have uniform scheduling. People are acting in good faith, but I don't know what the standards are. Game control, eye test, you can say what you want to say. ... It's supposed to be about the resume. We knew there would be a human element. I've been frustrated about that. I'm just not sure we'll change immediately. There is also a strong case to be made between the BCS and CFP the interest has grown."

CBS Sports: There is a lot wrong with college sports. What's right?

Delany: "I do think [major conferences] may need more autonomy. Once we know the parameters of what comes out of Congress ... the rules of engagement will change. ... This is not about a money grab. It may be about too much money. We will get to a place of balance in postseason play, and I do think we'll get to a place in governance. What are the limits of a collegiate program?"

CBS Sports: When you say more autonomy, what do you mean?

Delany: "You can't have the smallest programs telling the larger programs what they can spend."

CBS Sports: What are the issues expanding to more than 14 teams in a conference in realignment? Do you ever foresee that?

Delany: "There is an outer limit where you're no longer a conference, you're a small association. If you can't play each other in something that resembles a round robin ... We [the Big Ten] addressed it by going to nine [conference football] games. We've addressed it by going to 20 games in basketball."

CBS Sports: You once told me that, if there is a next round of conference realignment, it will be spurred by technology. What do you think of the Pac-12 talking to Apple about a possible partnership?

Delany: "It continues to evolve. We grew up in a black-and-white three-network (TV world), then 50 channels, now 500 channels. Apple is interesting. They've going to have a [platform] that doesn't have a lot of content. They need some content. Everybody is sort of waiting to see if that occurs."

CBS Sports: You've owned the problems the Big Ten has experienced over the years – the Sandusky scandal, Ohio State probation etc. 

Delany: "At our institutions over time, over time, there were very powerful coaches who eventually left the scene. That means they didn't leave voluntarily. That removal didn't happen immediately. What happened with Woody Hayes, what happened with Jim Tressel, what happened with Bob Knight. You look at a look around the country at a lot of places, they don't happen a lot. You have to understand that eventually that's what institutional control, as messy as it is, has to happen. The school itself doesn't have an owner. It's called shared governance."

CBS Sports: The Big Ten Network might be your most lasting legacy. How proud are you of its success?

Delany: "As much as anything, [network partner] Fox has allowed us to brand it in a way that is comfortable to us. It's the only network that I know of that made a commitment to men's and women's sports across the platform. After 1985, conference executives were thrown out there to compete against each other. I wasn't sure in 1991 how we were going to get to 50-50 on the men's and women's sides [in terms of opportunities]. How are we going to rebuild stadiums that were built in the 20s and 30s? We did it because we were creative and entrepreneurial."

CBS Sports: You've accomplished so much. Is there anything you regret not getting done?

Delany: "I have some really old-fashioned ideas, as you know. I always felt that the more collegiate we were, the more sustainable we were. The further away we got from the educational connection, [the worse off we were].

"I do think one of the biggest mistakes we made was getting rid of freshman eligibility. We're not going back there, but when we test marketed it [in 2015], it dropped like a thud. It used to be there was a year of academic and social acclimation. The reason the transition occurred was really a financial decision. In the sense that you would have that recession in the early '70s tied to the world market. You were also having unlimited football squads. Then you were having discussion … of equity for women. Immediate eligibility made some economic and social [sense]."

CBS Sports: What is the future of the Rose Bowl? As it stands now, it can never host a national championship game again.

Delany: "All the bowls, including the Rose Bowl, have taken a seat when not superior to the playoff. Having said that, the Rose has evolved with us through two BCS systems. Most years, the Rose Bowl ratings were close to or better than BCS. Going forward, if there is another evolution, you're going to have to get the support of the SEC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12. All the conferences have bowl tie-ins.

"While I won't be in that role of making those decisions, I'm making an argument that the brand of the Rose Bowl today is as powerful as it was 20 years ago. It has maintained its day, maintained its time slot, maintained the support of the two conferences. The others have gotten out there and got down on their hands and knees and realized what a mecca of college football it is. It's probably one of the top five sports brands in the world."

CBS Sports: In an eight-team playoff, would you ever envision the Rose Bowl as a quarterfinal?

Delany: "It's going to be a challenge. But we've met a couple of challenges since 1998. There are a lot of different ways you could slice and dice it. I won't be around to do it. There are a lot of smart people around. To lose the Rose Bowl would be unacceptable in terms of its brand."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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