Aug 15, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- The last time Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany made an August tour of all the football training camps in the conference … Bo Schembechler was in his 21st and final season at Michigan and Don Morton was in his third and (unbeknownst to him) final season at Wisconsin.
The last time Delany made the rounds was also his first time -- 1989.
In part because he’s celebrating his 25th year on the job -- “I thought I’d go five years; five and out,’’ he said -- the timing was right to hit the road again. Last week, he hopped aboard the Big Ten Network bus in Chicago and traveled to Bloomington, Ind., Columbus, Ohio, and State College, Pa.
From there, he flew to Detroit and drove to East Lansing and Ann Arbor before taking a timeout from the tour to attend Rose Bowl meetings in California, Monday through Wednesday of this week. On Thursday morning, Delany showed up in Madison and visited Camp Randall Stadium.
Reflecting on what he remembered from his 1989 visit, Delany said, “The facilities were in bad shape and the fan support wasn’t here. It was more about the party than it was about the game. Everybody loves a good party, but it’s better to party after you have the win.’’
One year after Delany arrived in the Big Ten, Wisconsin brought in Barry Alvarez to clean up the football mess. Since 1993, the Badgers have made six trips to the Rose Bowl -- more than anybody else in the conference. “They’ve had sustained success,’’ Delany said, “so it’s a national program.’’
Alvarez, the athletic director, hired Gary Andersen to be the next link in the chain of success.
“Barry gives him the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and it’s good enough for me,’’ said Delany, who then shared some of his first impressions of Andersen. “Good guy, straight shooter. I think the words and the actions synch up. It looks like he really connects with the players.’’
In response to another question Delany confessed, “I can only tell coaches after they have success. I can’t tell what a coach is before he has success. I’m not a film guy. I’m not close enough to the game to be able to break it down that way. So when Barry tells me the guy is well-prepared …’’
He’s going to take him on his word; especially since Alvarez was a Hall of Fame college football coach. “He’s got a lot of credibility in and around that sport,’’ Delany said. “On top of being a good guy, he’s got a lot of credibility with the coaches and the administrators. He has good perspective.’’
Alvarez has been leading the charge to strength Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule and it has already led to a neutral-site matchup against Alabama in 2015 and the potential for two more. “I don’t know if Coach Izzo was advising Coach Alvarez or what,’’ Delany cracked.
Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo has been known to schedule all-comers.
“It’s aggressive scheduling and you can recruit to it,’’ Delany opined. “You can make a franchise out of playing anybody, anywhere at any time. Kids love that. I think it really raises the profile because you can even win when you lose because you create an atmosphere of challenge.’’
Beyond the higher profile intersectional games, Delany has been encouraging Big Ten schools to get away from scheduling FCS opponents. “It’s a goal, it’s the best way to describe it,’’ he said. “We don’t have any penalties for those who don’t; it’s not like a violation of our rules.’’
While acknowledging that there have been upsets, most notably Appalachian State over Michigan in 2007, Delany pointed out, “They have 20 less scholarships. It’s like a junior college team playing against a high school team or a high school team playing against a JV team.
“I don’t think the players are as excited. I don’t think the fans are as excited. I don’t think the media is excited. I don’t think the television companies are excited … we’re just trying to create a better package that’s more interesting to the fan, more interesting to television … it’s a work in progress.’’
Given this is the final season of the Bowl Championship Series, how will history look back on this era?
“As you get away from it,’’ Delany said, “you’ll see it as probably a transition point from a sport that was mostly regional … after the BCS, what you saw was the emergence of games maybe of not national stature but of national interest because everybody is watching everybody else.
“They’re watching Oregon, they’re watching TCU, they’re watching Boise, they’re watching Wisconsin, they’re watching Auburn … (the BCS) helped grow the game. You got 1 and 2 and really they did a much better job of matching 1 and 2 than the NCAA basketball tournament did.
“So what do you want? Do you want to reward people for what happened in the 12 (regular-season) games? Or do you want to create a tournament where you may get upsets but you’re not getting 1 and 2?’’
In summary, Delany said of the BCS, “It did a great job of getting 1 and 2, nationalizing the game and creating a lot of interest. Controversy, interest and success. Let’s see, I hope the College Football Playoff contributes as much to college football as the BCS did.’’
Delany used the word “fabulous’’ to describe Wisconsin’s renovated facilities, a far cry from what he saw in ’89. “As I travel around, it’s amazing,’’ he said of the upgrades throughout the conference. “Of course, a lot of these facilities were built in the early part of the 20th century.’’
Camp Randall Stadium was completed in 1917. “You have three choices,’’ Delany said of the so-called facilities arms race. “You can let them fall down; you can renovate them on the cheap; or you can build them to endure and to pay for themselves. I think most people have chosen the third option.’’
Delany left Madison around the noon hour and headed to Kenosha, the site of Northwestern’s preseason training camp and his next stop on the tour. “All of a sudden you look around,’’ he said, reflecting again on all his years of service to the Big Ten, “and it’s 25 years.’’
He added that he was feeling good, and pretty energetic -- he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro last year and plans on another climb in Nepal -- but noted, “I won’t be going another 25.’’ For now, it will take all his energy to get a Big Ten football team into the national title game, a job in itself.