Nov. 16, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- When Jim Delany took over as Big Ten commissioner, the football landscape had a much different look. For starters, the numerically-challenged conference that we know today was a 10 -- not 11, not 12 -- though it was not a level playing field for all 10. Some were bigger than others.
This was 1989 and Delany, a former North Carolina political science major and basketball player, was moving up from the Ohio Valley Conference to succeed Wayne Duke as commissioner.
This was 1989 and John Mackovic was at Illinois, Bill Mallory at Indiana, Hayden Fry at Iowa, Bo Schembechler at Michigan, George Perles at Michigan State, John Kutekunst at Minnesota, Francis Peay at Northwestern, John Cooper at Ohio State, Fred Akers at Purdue and Don Morton at Wisconsin.
Delany remembered touring the UW campus with then-chancellor Donna Shalala.
"The facilities were unremarkable and older," he said. "And the fan base was not as active as it is today. The program was bleeding red ink because the football stadium was not full. So they (ultimately) had to cut baseball - which was a sad thing - while trying to raise revenue and cut costs."
Delany was in Madison last weekend and he was asked if he thought then - 1989 - that the Badgers could make such a successful and dramatic turnaround in football. "I didn't," he said.
But he did have faith in Shalala making the right decisions for the future of the program. That started with the hiring of athletic director Pat Richter, who, in turn, brought in head coach Barry Alvarez.
"Donna is one of the great leaders I've ever worked with," Delany said of Shalala, who's now the president at the University of Miami. "And I thought that Pat was a person who was intimately familiar with the challenges as well as the opportunities. And, of course, Barry was the good hire.
"I really do believe the foundation that was laid here in the early `90s by Donna, Pat and Barry has created not only a renaissance with respect to facilities but also real quality across the board and pushed the Wisconsin Badgers into very elite company in terms of success on the broad-based scale."
Delany noted the cyclical nature of sports and the challenge of sustaining success.
"You look around the country the last 25 years," he said, "and every one of the quote, unquote major traditional powers in football has gone through years where they have fallen off competitively."
He listed Alabama, Michigan, Penn State, UCLA, Oklahoma, Texas and Notre Dame.
"The quality of competitiveness - in the conference and nationally - and the following or fan base has continued to grow and be maintained," he said of Wisconsin. "They have very good coaches here, not only in the revenue sports but in the Olympic sports."
The Badgers are hoping to update and upgrade facilities to stay current in the Big Ten.
"I get it," Delany said. "I don't know everything they do have here or don't have here. But it's on-going and very important because young people are impressionable. Facilities are where you live and train - where you spent time - and they're more important to some people than others.
"But I think they're a worthwhile investment. Once a facility ages a bit, if you don't either renovate it or rebuild it, then it falls into a state of where it's not as functional. If you have the resources to do these things, it makes it a more appealing destination for prospects."
Delany was reminded of Shalala and her aggressiveness in pushing forward projects, especially if she had a direct link to them. Prior to Shalala being named to President Bill Clinton's cabinet as the Secretary of Health and Human Services, she was in Chicago for a Big Ten meeting.
Shalala was staying at a hotel near O'Hare Airport and she was upset with the workout accommodations. So she asked Delany if she could work out at the Big Ten offices. "I told her we didn't have a workout room," Delany recounted. "She said, `Well, I'll get you one.'
"Sure enough, she got us some money and we put in some facilities - some rest rooms and showers in the Big Ten office, which are still there. In fact, we got a picture of Donna and named it the Donna Shalala Secretary of Health and Human Services Health and Fitness Center."
Delany smiled knowingly when the topic of Big Ten basketball was broached. Given the number of quality teams in the conference, this could be a banner year on the national stage. "We have very good players," Delany said, "and we have the best collection of coaches in the country."
One of those coaches is Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, who has never had a team finish lower than fourth place in the Big Ten. "Anyone who has won four national championships (at Platteville)," Delany said, "I don't care if you're Jim Tressel or Bo Ryan, you can coach."
Delany went on to draw some interesting parallels between Tressel, the Ohio State football coach, and Ryan. Most notably, Tressel also proved himself at a lower level of competition - winning four national titles at FCS Youngstown State - before getting his opportunity to coach in the Big Ten.
Delany pointed out that Tressel and Ryan had the benefit of having a coach in the family - their dads. He also cited their apprenticeship as assistant coaches at Ohio State and Wisconsin, respectively.
"So you don't have big eyes (when you take over the program)," Delany said of Tressel and Ryan. "You know the size and the scope of the stage. Both Jim and Bo came in not only as very seasoned and accomplished head coaches, but also as people who were familiar with the surroundings."
Those surroundings have changed here dramatically since 1989.