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Jim Delany doesn't play favorites, but he does, apparently, root for players who nearly maul him on the sideline.
The Big Ten Conference's commissioner laughs as he tells the story -- and, because he's hanging out in the Big Ten Network's green room, he figures he might as well ask if there's footage -- of the time he got laid out on the sideline by Nebraska wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr., about eight minutes before the Cornhuskers and Illinois kicked off Oct. 1.
"I got my hands up," Delany says, miming his self-defense. "And I got right up, but my ears were ringing a bit afterward. Coach (Mike) Riley came over to check on me. I told him, 'Check on No. 8.'"
Delany chuckles. He's serious as he asks -- again -- for BTN to look for the footage because he's rather proud of taking that hit. He's rooted for Morgan ever since; later, while watching Nebraska play Ohio State, he'll clap when Morgan hauls in a 26-yard catch for a first down in the first quarter.
Role of commissioner
This college football Saturday isn't necessarily typical for Delany because it keeps him at home in the Chicago area, but it touches on three areas that serve as a good starting point to explain Delany's unmatched impact on college athletics: a Big Ten football game; the Big Ten Network, his brainchild; and the Big Ten officiating command center.
He starts in Evanston, Ill., site of that day's game between Wisconsin and Northwestern, attending a brunch hosted by Northwestern President Morton Schapiro before spending the pregame on the sidelines greeting coaches and wishing them luck. In the second quarter, he visits Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez in his box; the first topic of conversation is the Big Ten's move to add Friday night games, which, despite some schools' public resistance, is happening beginning in 2017.
Delany gives Alvarez some information on the Friday games; he'll make sure to hand-deliver or mail the same details to all the conference's athletics directors. But for now he says farewell to Alvarez and leaves the former coach hollering at the field at missed tackles and big receptions alike.
"The role of a commissioner has changed a lot, but it's been evolutionary until I would say the last five to seven years," Delany says as he drives through Chicago on his way to the Big Ten's new office in Rosemont, Ill., which houses the officiating command center.
"We're managing more. It's more public. It's more national. There's more interest in football. The issues were all within our control for a long time. With the advent of more litigation, it narrows the issues that you have direct control over and moves your attention and resources to defending what you think is defensible and settling what you think you should settle ... a series of existential threats you're thinking about regularly ... while you still have to do all the transactions you do day in and day out, whether it's trading officials or doing television deals. Then it makes you very, very sensitive to the idea that there's some areas that you still have a lot of control over that you simply need to do better at."
Those include issues of reform, education, student-athlete time demands and enhancements that can now be made because of the autonomy of the Power Five conferences. The public nature of a commissioner's job is something that's grown immensely in recent years, starting with the advent of individual conference networks -- the first, the Big Ten Network, is approaching its 10th anniversary -- and including the chess-playing that was conference realignment, which created a new East Coast footprint for Delany's Big Ten. Social media also has amplified the voices of commissioners and athletics directors.
As television deals and their negotiations have grown to such lucrative levels, the commissioner's role has only taken on more importance. In the latest round of negotiations, Delany and the Big Ten landed a six-year deal with three partners in addition to the Big Ten Network: Fox, ESPN and CBS. It takes effect next year.
No slowing down
USA TODAY Sports reported in July that Delany plans to retire as commissioner in 2020. He has said publicly that he does not expect to be in his current role when the Big Ten's new television deal expires in six years.
Though he has a potential target retirement date, Delany shows no signs of slowing down. He remains focused on creating ways to reduce student-athlete time demands and increase player health and safety in an era of greater awareness of concussions and permanent brain damage. A midseason rule change this year forced football officials to stop play if any player goes down with a head or neck injury, even if no one knows what exactly happened live.
It's a topic that comes up later in the night as Delany sits in the Big Ten's officiating command center alongside his wife, Kitty, and coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo, who likes to show replays of controversial targeting calls to gauge the room's opinion before sharing his -- the right one.
Like the Big Ten Network's studio, this is a space Delany is quite proud of. If he's not in Columbus, Ohio, or Madison, Wis., or anywhere else for a game on a Saturday, he and Kitty stop by here to watch games, eat dinner and perhaps cap the night with a glass of red wine.
Earlier in the week, Delany said, he had all the Power Five commissioners in this very room to watch a World Series game. They'd ordered in platters of barbecue and taken in Game 6 together while breaking for actual business in between innings. Delany, a big Chicago Cubs fan, had attended Games 3 and 5 and had procured a World Series champion hat by this Saturday, a day after the Cubs' victory parade.
Before he sits down to dig into some of the same brisket and wings he'd had earlier in the week, Delany sees Nebraska's Morgan make a big catch. He claps and cheers and tells one of his favorite stories of the season again.
Ohio State will go on to win the game 62-3, another victory for a résumé that ultimately would earn the Buckeyes the No. 3 seed in the College Football Playoff. Though two other Big Ten teams rounded out the selection committee's top six, the league was unable to land a second team into the four-team field.
Delany was not necessarily keen on the idea of the Playoff at the beginning. Much like any endeavor that uproots the current system -- like a conference network or a more centralized officiating system, for example -- there is going to be doubt. But there might be unanticipated success.
Managing both has been and continues to be what makes Delany such a powerful figure in college athletics.
"There's risk," Delany said. "It's not perfect, but the fact of it is if you wait for the good, you don't make the good the enemy of the perfect. You do what you can do to move it forward and with that will come some criticism, because reasonable people can disagree."
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