The Big Ten will one day erect some sort of monument in honor of Jim Delany; statue, building or obelisk, it will have been earned by the man who took control of a college athletics conference and turned it into a media empire with tendrils stretching from Nebraska to the Jersey Shore.
In 30 years as its commissioner, Delany changed the Big Ten Conference so fundamentally and irrevocably that it’s difficult to imagine there is anywhere Kevin Warren can take it. The Vikings’ chief operating officer will officially replace Delany sometime in 2020, and whatever frontier is left for him to conquer will already have been explored by Delany’s scouts.
Delany is as responsible for the state of college sports as anyone, and while one can and should mourn the state of big-time college athletics, it also must be accepted that Delany didn’t just see the future, he created it — and brought every Big Ten school with him.
Since succeeding Wayne Duke in 1989, Delany has been behind myriad moves that have made the Big Ten the most powerful conference in the country, from creating the Big Ten Network, the first of its kind, to expanding conference membership. Not all of these ideas were palatable — the conference’s foray into ice hockey has been lamentable — but most have been wildly successful.
Under Delany’s leadership, the Big Ten began playing postseason conference tournaments and added a football championship game between two division winners. He was a key player in the creation of the College Football Playoff and the so-called Power Five group of conferences who share (a little bit of) profits with their athletes.
Big Ten revenue sharing is the envy of every athletics consortium, congress, club and clique from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon. Alabama and Southern Cal might have won more conference and national championships since the Beatles broke up, but Minnesota gets more TV money.
Consider that the conference was founded in 1896, the same year Thomas A. Edison, Inc., was established. Led by one of the world’s great visionary inventors, with patents on the phonograph, movie camera and light bulb, Edison, Inc., went out of business in 1985. The Big Ten survives with contemporaries Allianz Life, Libman Company and Tootsie Roll.
The conference has, in fact, never been stronger — or more out of control. Does Warren keep feeding the beast Delany created, or does he tame the unfettered beast? In either case, he has his work cut out for him.