NEW ORLEANS – Still reeling from Florida running over Ohio State in last year's SEC-Big Ten battle for national supremacy, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany hammered not just the SEC's quality of play, but the character and intelligence of its players.
In a stunning "open letter to fans," the most powerful person in college athletics attacked SEC football players, particularly those with "speed" in a statement loaded with social stereotypes.
As the two rival leagues prepare to meet again for the Bowl Championship Series title Monday – this time Ohio State and LSU – Tigers coach Les Miles bristled at Delany's offseason comments, which are more relevant than ever.
"Mr. Delany is sitting on the outside not knowing of what he speaks," Miles said Saturday.
The rivalry between the Big Ten and SEC is real, on the field, in the living rooms of recruits and perhaps even in upcoming negotiations over an expansion of the BCS. But it became painfully personal with Delany's broadside shot that SEC players may be fast but they lack the academic acumen and character to play in the Big Ten.
"I love speed and the SEC has great speed, especially on the defensive line, but there are appropriate balances when mixing academics and athletics," Delany wrote on the league's web site during the offseason.
"Each school, as well as each conference, simply must do what fits their mission regardless of what a recruiting service recommends … winning our way requires some discipline and restraint with the recruitment process.
"Not every athlete fits athletically, academically or socially at every university. Fortunately, we have been able to balance our athletic and academic mission so that we can compete successfully and keep faith with our academic standards."
For Miles, the assertion that his fast players are, by Big Ten standards, not academic or social fits (essentially dumb thugs) is as absurd as it is insulting. He's a graduate of the University of Michigan, where he played under icon Bo Schembechler and later spent 10 seasons as an assistant. Now he is in his third year at LSU, giving him perspective.
"(He's) misinformed," Miles said. "All I can say is this, getting a degree of choice, a competitive degree that allows you to compete in society, while playing championship football (is what) I think this conference represents fully."
Delany's statement carries additional weight because it didn't come during the heat of an interview. This was a deliberate, purposeful, public letter.
Big Ten spokesman Scott Chipman said Saturday that Delany was responding mostly to a newspaper story which claimed the SEC had signed better and faster recruits in February. The league, he said, stood by the letter, which remains on the web site.
But the Big Ten, an elite conference, never should resort to such a tactic.
Delany's assertion of his league's academic and behavioral superiority among football players is open for endless debate – both conferences can point to various statistics and awards to make their cases.
Conversely, both leagues deal with some low graduation rates (the latest numbers have LSU and Ohio State at 51 and 53 percent, respectively), occasional academic fraud and various player suspensions and legal issues. The SEC and Big Ten have long ranked 1-2 nationally in total major NCAA infractions.
There are no angels in college football. No pure devils, either. In terms of football rosters, there is little difference between conferences, but Delany chose to throw rocks in his glass house anyway.
Of course, this is how the powerful in college athletics long have dealt with defeat they can't fathom; they tear down the mostly powerless athlete, often with sweeping generalities that stick.
When writing the book "Glory Road" about the historic 1966 Texas Western basketball team, I came across scores of comments from NCAA officials and rival coaches dismissing the first all-black starting five with the old, same loaded code words.
When the Miners won the national title, the NCAA even dispatched an investigator to campus to dig for academic misconduct under the premise that a team like that couldn't possibly be legit.
Indeed, the team was.
These pathetic attacks on the kids by the establishment suits should have ended long ago. College athletics should be better than this, yet here we went, right back in the gutter.
There were real players with real families and real reputations getting hit with Delany's wild claims.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, which tried everything imaginable to limit potential bulletin board material this week, some of those real players are going to show up Monday at the Superdome perhaps with even more to prove in the next clash of this ever-intensifying rivalry.
That would include 25 seniors, all of whom Miles claims could earn their diplomas by the end of summer.
"He doesn't know," Miles said, shaking his head.
They never do.
- Ohio State