By Josh Peter, Yahoo Sports
January 5, 2007
They shout on talk radio shows, write screeds on message boards and plead with the sports gods in a futile effort to be heard by the faceless Bowl Championship Series. They are the growing number of fans who want a college football playoff. They want it now, dammit. They want to know how to get it done. They want to know who the hell to call.
Lucky Jim Delany.
The madmen and mad women crying out for the death of the BCS may recognize Delany's name but probably wouldn't recognize his face. They likely have no idea he rose from humble beginnings, took over as commissioner of the Big Ten in 1989 and brokered deals that extended his influence far beyond the Midwest. Chances are they have no clue Delany, 58, has emerged as a man widely considered the most powerful figure in college sports and the biggest obstacle to a Division I-A football playoff.
BCS haters may decide Delany is public enemy No. 1. But inside the corridors of college athletics, he is respected, envied and, in some cases, feared.
Delany, according to one colleague, can exhibit "Doberman-like aggressiveness." With a bite to match his bark, he further has enriched the wealthiest conferences and cemented the BCS system that has drawn the ire from two of the most powerful men in his own conference – Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr.
But as he has done with the public outcry, Delany largely has ignored the coaches' call for a playoff. He readily admits a playoff could be good for Division I-A football at large but quickly adds, "I don't work for college football at large."
From Big Ten headquarters in Chicago, Delany presides over a college sports monarchy. The Big Ten is the nation's biggest conference, a collection of 11 universities that covers an area with almost 25 percent of the nation's TV households and prompts television networks to genuflect. When Delany arrived at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., this year, employees wore buttons that proclaimed "Bristol is Big Ten Country."
Despite the royal treatment, Delany dismisses talk that he is the king of college athletics. But at times one would think he wore a crown.
Earlier this year, for example, when Notre Dame's athletic director and the commissioner of the Sun Belt conference devised a plan to modify the BCS, the two men immediately took the idea to Delany.
"If you're going to make it work, you've got to get Jim to sign on to it," said Wright Waters, commissioner of the Sun Belt conference.
That's one reason playoff advocates have ventured to Big Ten headquarters and trotted out plan after plan, all of which Delany has sacked. Never mind that a playoff is used to determine the football champion in Division I-AA, Division II and Division III, not to mention every other sport sanctioned by the NCAA. Never mind that the president of the University of Florida has vowed to press the issue with his colleagues. Or that commissioners from the other major conferences now say they're open to the idea of a playoff as it gains traction faster than Adrian Peterson accelerating off tackle.
Disregarding the howls for change could test Delany's power. For now, he stands positioned to battle not only the likes of Paterno and Carr but also the force of public will.
Polls show more than 50 percent of college football fans favor a playoff. Those percentages figure to spike now that undefeated Ohio State will play in the BCS title game against one-loss Florida rather than Boise State, which improved to 13-0 after its remarkable, highlight-heavy victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
Eventually the consumer will get what he demands, Delany said. But he cites TV ratings and attendance figures as evidence that the consumer has yet to truly demand change.
Defending his assertion, Delany said revenue from college football has grown to $900 million from $200 million since 1990; average attendance for Big Ten games has increased to 71,000 from 58,000 over that same period; and the rising TV ratings and sponsorship dollars suggest the game is as healthy as ever.
"There's probably more of an outcry than there was 15 years ago for something different. I don't disagree with that," Delany said during a recent interview in Chicago. "But what I've also seen simultaneously is the growth in interest in the BCS and the regular season.
"If the public walks away from our games during the regular season and walks away from television during the regular season and walks away from the bowls, they're saying, We won't support this anymore. We want something else.' But I don't see them walking away from anything."
There's no sign Delany will walk away from a very lucrative position.
Studies indicate the slightest step toward a playoff – seeding the teams in four BCS bowl games and pitting the two top-rated teams emerging from those games in the national championship – could generate another $50 million. But with a new system, Delany and the commissioners of the other BCS conferences could lose control of the knife that guarantees them a huge slice of the financial pie.
The so-called BCS conferences – which include the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC – outnumber the less powerful conferences six to five. Thanks to that slim majority, the six conferences grant themselves automatic bids to the five BCS bowls and this year will take in more than three-quarters of the estimated $120 million the BCS will generate.
The annual yield since has widened the financial gap between the haves and have-nots, and since the formation of the BCS eight years ago, no conference has benefited more than the conference Delany runs. He appears determined to protect the Big Ten's economic interests even if it means preserving a flawed system.
The NCAA can do nothing about it either. The organizing body for college sports controls the men's basketball tournament and the billions of dollars that come with it because 31 conferences compete in Division I basketball. Furthermore, CBS has agreed to a $6 billion, 11-year contract for the TV rights not just to air games between teams in the BCS conferences, but for a tournament that features the likes of George Mason, Gonzaga and other giant-killers and spurs millions of fans to try to match the glass slipper with the next Cinderella while filling out their 65-team brackets.
Despite Boise State's electrifying victory over Oklahoma, college football fans seem less consumed with upsets than showdowns between the traditional powers. That has enabled the six biggest conferences to form the BCS, control about 80 percent of the postseason money and perhaps prompt Delany to declare last year that the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl would abandon its BCS partners if they took even the slightest step toward a playoff.
That sentiment has frustrated the likes of DeLoss Dodds, athletic director at the University of Texas who fought for a playoff for 10 years. He finally abandoned his efforts in part because of Delany. Dodds said it became increasingly clear that the alliance of the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl would block his efforts or any others to implement the playoff.
Of course without Delany, there might not even be a BCS.
They needed Delany, who played a lead role in bringing the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl into the system designed to match the nation's two top-rated teams in a national championship game. He also was the man most responsible for securing a sweetheart deal for the Rose Bowl, which annually pitted the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions and, under most circumstances, still gets the winners from those two conferences.
"He's pretty darn good," Mitch Dorger, CEO of the Rose Bowl, said of Delany's negotiating skills.
The current BCS deal stipulates the following:
"It's a matter of independence and control is what it is," Delany said when asked about the advantage of the separate TV contracts. But the Sun Belt's Waters said he sees potential conflicts of interest.
In the last round of TV negotiations, for example, Delany helped secure the Rose Bowl an eight-year deal with ABC reportedly worth about $300 million.
According to a source involved in the negotiations, the deal is worth $3 million less a year anytime the Rose Bowl hosts a non-BCS team such as Boise State. But that's a non-issue after Delany ensured as part of the new four-year contract between the BCS partners the Rose Bowl won't have to host such a team.
After the Rose Bowl signed its deal with ABC, concerns lingered because the rest of the BCS package remained unsold. Conference commissioners worried the separate Rose Bowl contract would dilute the value of the other BCS bowls – the Orange, Fiesta, Sugar and BCS title game – especially if ABC remained the only bidder.
But during an exclusive negotiating period between ABC and the BCS, Delany visited Fox's offices in New York and told network executives that ABC was no shoo-in for the deal, according to a source familiar with the visit. When ABC made what the commissioners felt was an inadequate offer for the rest of the BCS package, and when the exclusive negotiating period expired, there was Fox, agreeing to a four-year deal reportedly worth $320 million that a source involved in the talks said far exceeded ABC's offer.
Kevin Weiberg, commissioner of the Big 12, said the BCS didn't need Delany's help to draw Fox into negotiations. But there's no denying Delany's strong relationships.
Because Disney owns ABC and ESPN, the same executives who signed off on the Rose Bowl contract signed off this year on ESPN's $100 million deal to broadcast Big Ten football and basketball games. Fox, which for the next four years owns the broadcast rights to every BCS game except the Rose Bowl and the title game that will be held in conjunction with the Rose Bowl in 2010, bought 49 percent ownership of the Big Ten Network set to launch next year.
Disney and Fox – the two companies helping enrich Delany's conference – could view the Big Ten commissioner as an important ally. After all, the future rights to the BCS could spark a fierce bidding war if Delany & Co. agree to any form of a playoff. While cynics might think Delany is extracting extra money for the Big Ten from networks that could benefit from his influence in future BCS negotiations, Waters said, "Welcome to the world of Jim Delany."
A POTRAIT OF POWER
Like the BCS, Delany ignites controversy. His friends describe him as brilliant, creative, principled and persuasive. His foes describe him as shrewd, smug, long-winded and arrogant.
It's easy to find Delany critics, like the one who sniped, "He's almost as smart as he thinks he is," or another who cracked, "Jim's a legend in his own mind." But it's almost impossible to find critics willing to take shots in plain view, supposedly for fear of reprisal.
Those who fear Delany's power point to Rick Bay.
In 2001, when Bay was athletic director at San Diego State and in position for a spot on the NCAA men's basketball selection committee, Delany formed a coalition that killed Bay's candidacy. Bay, in addition to being an ardent critic of the BCS, also happened to be athletic director at Minnesota in 1991 when Penn State joined the Big Ten and Bay criticized Delany for the way in which it was handled.
After Delany's power play in 2001, Bay accused the Big Ten commissioner of retaliating against Bay for the anti-BCS remarks. In the end, Delany looked like the BCS beast crushing a harmless gnat.
"It probably does smack of that," Delany said. "But I thought Rick was affected emotionally about the way Penn State was [brought into the Big Ten], and I thought Rick was very furious also about the exclusion on the BCS side. I don't think Rick could disconnect me or the Big Ten from his analysis of our value in any other event, and that was my position."
Countered Bay during a recent interview: "That I would be biased against BCS schools impugned my integrity and was about as far from the truth as anyone could be. But I think it demonstrated how small Jim could be in some circumstances when challenged."
Delany drew more derision when it became clear that southern schools were cashing in on the rising popularity of the College World Series. The Big Ten commissioner cried foul.
Complaining that the Big Ten schools and schools from the north faced an unfair advantage because of the cold climate, he pushed for the college baseball season to start in March. That meant the College World Series might drag into July, and one fellow commissioner urged Delany to ask the Big Ten baseball coaches what they thought about parts of the plan.
"I don't even know the names of our baseball coaches," Delany replied, according to two commissioners who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
He certainly knows the names of the Big Ten's presidents, and their spouses, and quite possibly their children, and perhaps even their pet dogs, cats and goldfish. Conference commissioners might rule college athletics, but their power source stems from the college presidents. Few commissioners have gained as much influence over the men and women in the ivory towers as Delany has – and at times he has done it at risk of alienating the powerful men in the football towers.
HOW HE GOT HERE
Those men in the football towers, such as Michigan's Bo Schembechler, weren't sure what to make of Delany when the Big Ten hired him as its commissioner in 1989. He was only 41, but he was a rising star with an intriguing resume.
Delany played basketball for Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina. He was a scrappy guard on two Final Four teams and a captain on the 1970 squad. He never earned much playing time in Chapel Hill, but he did earn a law degree. He spent a year as counsel for the North Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee, a year as staff attorney for the North Carolina Justice Department and four years cracking down on rule breakers as an investigator for the NCAA Enforcement Staff.
From there it was off to the Ohio Valley Conference and into the spotlight.
He convinced the OVC presidents to pay ESPN for airtime when the network agreed to broadcast games as long as they tipped off at midnight. (Students showed up in pajamas and the OVC showed up on the national radar.) He convinced power brokers he deserved a spot on the prestigious men's basketball selection committee. And in 1989, having become the first commissioner of a mid-major conference to serve as chairman of the men's basketball selection committee, he convinced Big Ten presidents he was ready for the big time.
Then he became the most despised man in Big Ten athletics.
Shortly after Delany's hiring, Penn State initiated talks to join the Big Ten. Working on behalf of the presidents, Delany kept the talks top secret. In fact, he kept the talks so secret that most of the Big Ten athletic directors (including Bay), coaches and faculty members learned about Penn State's joining the conference when they read it in the newspaper.
They were furious.
Since then, Delany has repaired many of the damaged relationships. But as he said during the turmoil that followed Penn State's addition to the Big Ten and has repeated since, "I work for the presidents, and I work with everyone else."
If the presidents trusted him, Delany realized, they would empower him. And so it happened.
Delany enriched the conference, driving annual revenue to more than $100 million a year, a triple-fold gain since his arrival. He protected the conference's image as an academic leader, spearheading NCAA legislation that penalizes athletic programs with chronically low graduation rates. And when he and former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer forged the Bowl Championship Series eight years ago, Delany reasserted the Big Ten's place as a big dog in college sports.
Of course, the runts tried to chase him off the porch.
THE BCS BACKLASH
A group of presidents representing the non-BCS schools threatened legal action against the Big Ten and other power conferences for restricting access to the BCS. Congress called for special hearings. And there was Delany, sitting before the Committee on House Energy and Commerce, extolling the virtues of the BCS and decrying the ills of a proposed playoff.
Yet during a recent interview, Delany softened his views. He may have had no choice.
Henry Bienen, president of Northwestern University, told Yahoo! Sports that Delany actually favored a playoff-type system that Delany decried in 2005, but that the Big Ten commissioner hadn't built a strong consensus among the Big Ten presidents needed to approve it. In that system, the so-called Plus-One model, the two top-rated teams that emerged after the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Orange Bowl were played would advance to a national championship game.
This year, such a model could have created an opportunity for Boise State to play for the national championship. Yet at the time of his congressional testimony, Delany warned the model would lead to a full-blown playoff and declared the Big Ten would abandon its BCS partners if they adopted such a system.
"There probably was a level of poker or posturing on it," Delany said of those threats.
It was a startling admission, but not the only one.
Asked about the rampant cynicism over arguments against a playoff, he said, "I think some of the arguments that have been advanced against the playoffs have not been credible. The academic effect, it's just not a credible argument. I haven't advanced it, but it's been out there."
In Delany's congressional testimony, he devoted ample time explaining why the bowl system, as opposed to a playoff, was more consistent with the academic missions of Big Ten universities. Presidents allegedly worried that a playoff would extend into the second semester and cause players to miss too much class time.
Without the benefit of a copy of the testimony, Delany recently added, "You could certainly create a playoff that didn't advance into the second semester. I could make an argument that a playoff has got better academic consequences."
Furthermore, Delany said, BCS advocates have failed to use their best argument: that the current postseason system maintains the value of the regular season. Forget the Big Ten's longstanding relationship with the Rose Bowl, or the tradition of the bowl system, or the other arguments to counter critics who contend power and money alone have driven the effort to preserve the BCS.
"There's no doubt in my mind that there's far more money out there than what we have," Delany said. "But there's also no doubt in my mind that there would be a huge sucking sound coming out of the regular season towards the postseason because I know, as a fact, that there is a consumer dollar, there is a marketing dollar, there is an advertising dollar and it's not an unlimited dollar.
"It's a migratory dollar. And the dollar tends to follow those areas of those elements of a competitive season that are most attractive. And right now what I would say is that we're at some sort of equilibrium of a bowl system and a championship game on the one hand. There's some gravitas from an economic perspective, from a public interest perspective in the regular season. I see there being a balance."
Others see a huge imbalance. The importance of the regular season drives up fees networks pay for the TV rights to regular-season games, and conferences like the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 sign multimillion dollar deals while the Western Athletic Conference, Mountain West Conference and other non-BCS conferences fight for table scraps.
By Delany's reasoning, increased playoff money that would be shared by all conferences would reduce the non-shared revenue from regular-season TV deals. And that's a big concern.
Citing estimates that the BCS would generate 30 percent more money if it adopted the Plus-One model, Delany said the risk doing so outweighs the potential reward. At least for now.
"I would guess someday there would be a playoff," he said. "Someday."
But for those who expect Delany to cave in to public pressure anytime soon, he cites an important aspect of the latest contract he helped broker between the Rose Bowl and ABC that officially begins this year.
"We have an eight-year agreement with ABC in the Rose Bowl," he said. "So that speaks for itself."
That will give Delany, the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl leverage to fight any move toward a playoff until 2014.
Until then, Delany sounds braced for the battle against Paterno, Carr, Florida's president and the growing public support for a college football playoff. It's a fight that might determine just how powerful Jim Delany is, and a fight he intends to win.
Josh Peter is a writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Josh a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Friday, Jan 5, 2007 11:00 pm, EST