The Big Ten was getting ridiculed as a has-been conference. Sure, it was raking in a lot of money, but it hardly won anything anymore. And by adding nondescript Maryland and Rutgers in the latest round of expansion, commissioner Jim Delany was thought to be losing his touch.
All that changed, dramatically, in a span of four months.
After almost certain to be shut out of the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Big Ten barely snuck in after Ohio State thumped Wisconsin in the conference title game. The heavy-underdog Buckeyes then shocked both Alabama and Oregon to claim the CFP title, ending the conference’s 12-year football title drought. Then two Big Ten teams made the men’s basketball Final Four, with Wisconsin taking down unbeaten Kentucky in the national semifinals before losing to Duke.
So pardon Delany for being once again his confident (some would say smug) self. The Big Ten has a lot to crow about – with its abundant cash and hardware – and that’s not even counting the biggest hire in the football offseason, pro or college.
The Big Ten Media Days in Chicago last week was quite an attention-grabbing festival. These are our five biggest takeaways:
1. Jim Harbaugh is in the news, whatever he does
Unless you lived under a rock (or on a rock in outer space), you couldn’t have possibly missed the Harbaugh Show the entire offseason. Michigan landed its unicorn with the celebrated hire of its former All-American quarterback and he immediately set the football world on fire. Whether it’s his never-banal tweets, or tossing a football on Ile Saint-Louis in Paris, or visit to the U.S. Supreme Court, Harbaugh attacked each day with an “enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
Though he’s not even won a game for Michigan yet, he’s already done much to restore luster to the winningest program in college football history. But as the real games approach, Harbaugh made it known that he’s crystal clear on what’s the task at hand.
“Not striving to be creating any buzz,” Harbaugh insisted. “Just striving to coach the football team. Not trying to be popular or anything. Anyone who is popular is bound to be disliked. So just coaching football.”
2. Urban Meyer is on top of the world, but he has issues
While his new rival is getting all the buzz, Meyer’s team is making news of its own, though not all in a good way. After ending the Big Ten’s football title drought in January, Ohio State is favored to repeat as national champions. But Meyer has an unsettled situation at quarterback – even if it’s an embarrassment of riches – and also he’ll be missing four players for the season opener at Virginia Tech.
Meyer said that he’s primarily concerned with three things with his players: Academics, the social element and the weight room. So far, he’s liked what he’s seen and he’s ready to move forward even if the season opener will be fraught with uncertainty against the only team that beat the Buckeyes last year.
“Every team is different. And every day is different,” Meyer said. “I can’t say we have a set way that we’re going to approach training camp. It all depends on the pulse. So the indicators other than (the suspensions) has been not good; it’s been great. But tomorrow is another day. And so we just keep pushing forward.”
3. Can a nice guy like Mike Riley win in Nebraska?
Nebraska dumped Bo Pelini after a successful run but one that never met the lofty expectations of the program or its rabid fan base. Pelini, a fiery sort who’s had a few run-ins with his bosses and Huskers fans, then not burned, but napalmed the bridge on his way out of Lincoln with an expletive-filled tirade.
So the Huskers went out to hire the anti-Pelini. In Mike Riley, Nebraska now has possibly the nicest guy in college football as coach. While Riley has done more with less at Oregon State, questions abound on whether he can thrive in a demanding environment that expects championships.
“I don’t know about all that with the ‘nice guy’ thing,” Riley scoffed, sort of .”I just hope they see a guy that loves what he does. And I also tell people that the personality part of it, the neat thing about any – probably any teacher that you’ve had in the past, personalities are different. But different kinds of personalities in our business have all been successful. So I really think that – my dad always taught me just be yourself, enjoy what you do – because players see through phonies.”
4. Confident Big Ten is done with cupcakes
In 2016, the Big Ten will join the Pac-12 and Big 12 as Power 5 conferences to play nine regular-season conference games. But the athletic directors have upped the ante – despite opposition by the coaches – on future schedules. Delany said that each Big Ten school is mandated to play at least one out-of-conference Power 5 team each season and that, after existing contracts are done, conference schools will no longer play FCS teams.
“I think that’s responsive to what the College Football Playoff committee is looking for,” Delany said. “It took a little while to get here because of schedules and expansion. But … we think it’s what our fans want. We think it’s what our players want. And we think it’s what the College Football Playoff committee wants.”
And let’s face it, this is what the Big Ten’s TV partners want. The conference will be the first among the Power 5 to negotiate a new television contract after its current deal runs out at the end of the 2016-17 season. In a fast-changing landscape with more people cutting the cord with cable, Delany obviously concluded that playing Sisters of the Poor isn’t going to help the Big Ten to land the next windfall.
5. Delany is mindful of how to keep raking in the cash
While the SEC might’ve nipped the Big Ten in the money race this year, the conference schools still took home around $32 million each in 2014-15. But it’s the future that has everyone concerned, as declining revenues at TV networks – particularly ESPN – threaten to pinch on what should’ve been a record-busting upcoming contract for the conference.
Delany is well aware of the turbulence ahead. He’ll be the last guy caught flat-footed.
“It’s a dynamic time in the communications world that we live in,” Delany said. “We’ve had a great period running up to this. I’m quite optimistic about our position in the marketplace even with the dynamic change which is occurring. We’ve prepared
for it. … We read the trades like you do. And we’re hopeful, look forward over the next year to figure out where we end up.”