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Delany's competitive drive takes him from ACC to Big Ten

More than four decades later, Eddie Fogler can still see Jim Delany dumping their North Carolina basketball teammate Rusty Clark on the floor during a practice at Carmichael Auditorium.

It was payback for the hard screen that Clark, one of the team's stars, had set on the feisty backup point guard from North Jersey. Clark then had a few choice words for Delany as other Tar Heels scraped him up from the court.

"Rusty got him good, and he said, 'Hey Delany, don't do that again — you're not getting through my screens," Fogler recalled recently. "The next time Rusty set a pick on Delany, Jim took his knees out and knocked him on his butt and said, 'I'm still here.'"

The competitiveness with which Delany played at North Carolina has carried through in his professional life as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, an investigator for the NCAA and an administrator in college athletics, including the past 25 years as commissioner of the Big Ten Conference.

But there is a difference. The man who first broached the idea of bringing Atlantic Coast Conference founding member Maryland into the Big Ten in the fall of 2012 — and who will be in Baltimore on Monday to officially welcome the Terps for their entrance Tuesday — has gone from a role player to one of the most influential powerbrokers in college sports.

Not that Delany looks at himself that way.

"I think that's hyperbole," Delany said in a telephone interview Friday. "I think because I work in the Big Ten and there are very powerful, important institutions and we have scope and we have success and we have quality…whoever is leading is going to have a strong position in the pecking order. From being there for a long time and [the league] doing good things, I get credit for that."

From getting independent football power Penn State to agree in 1989 to join the league, to helping launch the Big Ten Network in 2007, Delany takes on obstacles as he once did his teammate's picks.

"He does have a unique sort of competitive quality about him," said former Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg, who served as Delany's deputy for his first five years with the Big Ten. "He's not afraid to get in there and mix it up. That's one of the characteristics I enjoyed when I was working with him."

Delany said a lot of who he is today goes back to his childhood, growing up as the middle of five siblings. Frank Delany, a history teacher and high school coach who is in Seton Hall's Hall of Fame for both baseball and basketball, encouraged his two sons and three daughters to speak their mind — respectfully.

"Dinnertable discussion and argument was fine; it was encouraged. Difference of opinion was tolerated," Jim Delany said. "There was an element of respect that was necessary, but there was a wide range of perspectives that were not only permitted, but encouraged."

Along with being raised in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Newark, N.J., and being around his father when he coached at an inner-city high school nearby, the family's one-year move to London after their father was selected for a Fulbright teaching exchange program had a profound impact on Delany.

"A seminal moment," Delany said. "We were thrown into the mix there."

The four years he spent in Chapel Hill, the last three playing under legendary Tar Heels coach Dean Smith, also shaped Delany's future. Though he eventually wound up as a team captain as a senior, he started just two varsity games for a program that was in the process of becoming a national power.

"I played with eight or 10 pros. Whether I was a role player or not, I thought I could play and I got a chance to play in a lot of big games," Delany said. "It was always frustrating; I wanted to be more, I wanted to play more. But the fact of it is that I wanted to play at the highest level that I was capable of playing."

His older brother, also named Frank, said all those experiences laid the foundation for the person the now 66-year-old Delany eventually became. Frank Delany, who played college basketball at Niagara and also became an attorney, said his younger brother was "well prepared" when he took over the Big Ten after leaving his job as Ohio Valley Conference commissioner in 1989.

"Coming from where he came from, a family that supported a wide view of the world, with the education and the sports, he was probably better prepared than most for the path he took," Frank Delany said Saturday. "Some guys are basketball players from beginning to end. He's had the ability to transition from sports to law to the business of college athletics. That just doesn't happen."

Changing the landscape

At the ongoing trial between the NCAA and former athletes seeking compensation for their likenesses being used in video games, Delany was called as a witness by the governing body of college athletics. But his words seemed to indicate he was speaking for the plaintiffs.

As he had previously, Delany testified last week that he would like to see more of a balance between academics and athletics on the college campus. He went as far as to say in the Oakland, Calif., courtroom that "when the basketball season is over, we probably ought to just put a lock on the gym."

Delany added that if those suing the NCAA ultimately brought about the pay-for-play model that has been discussed in recent years — leading to football players at Big Ten member Northwestern trying to start their own union earlier this year — the Big Ten might ultimately go back to the Division III model of no athletic scholarships.

Statements such as those don't surprise former Indiana English professor Murray Sperber, who has written several books critical of college sports. Sperber believes that Delany, more than most other big-time conference commissioners, is merely staying true to his roots.

"He was a student-athlete and valued the experience and got a lot of it," said Sperber, who now teaches at California-Berkeley.

But Sperber said Delany might not like what he has been forced to become.

"The Jim Delany that took the job as Big Ten commissioner in 1989 never envisioned that he would have to endorse spurious commercial efforts and such," Sperber said. "You can say he's a hypocrite at one level because he doesn't like it but has to go along with it."

Sperber said Delany has fallen victim to what author George Orwell referred to as "doublethink" — having two contradictory ideas simultaneously — in his iconic novel "1984".

"I think there's a fair amount of doublethink with Jim Delany these days where he can believe that this college athlete standing in front of this [advertising] board should be an amateur, should not be paid for his time on the field, should not receive anything more than an athletic scholarship," Sperber said. "But he can also believe that this commercial board as well as the Nike swoosh on his uniform is okay."

Asked whether he is conflicted in his views about the athletics-versus-academics debate, Delany said Friday, "If you look at my record over many decades, you would see me in the front of the reform movements — higher academic standards, time demands, presidential leadership, enforcement, APR.

"I'm not saying I was right. I'm simply saying I have always believed in the integration of the athletics and the academics. When I see us lowering standards or to step up to the plate for the experience to be balanced … I believe the more collegiate we are, the more sustainable we are."

Delany said the ability to raise revenues through the Big Ten Network has led its member universities to better fund their athletic programs and give more athletes an opportunity to get an education and, in some cases, a showcase for a pro career. In his time as commissioner, Delany said, the Big Ten has gone from about 6,000 athletes to 9,000.

"I don't equate having a commercial system that creates resources with professionalism," he said. "I know there are some who do and have articulated that, as they have the right to enforce. What we're trying to do is make the system balance in most cases."

Said Sperber: "He is a very smart guy who also knows the tensions between the commercial side and the academic side. ... He in some ways embodies this tension between the academic and commercial. Most commissioners in BCS conferences pay lip service to the academic side, I think Delany generally buys into it."

Sperber laughs at the memory of a debate he got into with Delany at a conference on college sports.

"We got into a kind of argument, and he wiped the floor with me," Sperber said. "He did a lawyer trick of pulling out one little thing I said about the commercialism of college sports and just going at it over and over and over again. He got me sidetracked from my main argument and he got me flustered."

Sperber thinks Delany's expertise as a negotiator goes beyond his competitive streak as a former Division I athlete.

"There are many feisty ex-athletes who are selling used cars these days," Sperber said.

The presidents' man

Delany has taken heat from the media, as well as Big Ten fans, in recent years for flipflopping on several hot-button topics, among them expansion and college football playoff system. Initially he seemed to be against both, but eventually agreed to add teams and accept a four-team playoff that will go into effect for the 2014 season.

Earlier this year, Delany was criticized by fans when he announced that the Big Ten men's basketball tournament would move out of the Midwest for the first time in 2017, when it will be played at Verizon Center in Washington.

Delany is clear that he is not doing or saying things just to get a splashy headline.

"We're willing to change when it makes sense to change, not just for the sake of change," he said.

If anything, it is simply Delany acting on the demands of the Big Ten presidents. Though he said he could have kept the athletic directors and coaches in the loop more when he added Penn State — something he tried to do a little better two years ago when Maryland and Rutgers were invited to join — Delany is clear that his marching orders come from those paying him his reported $1.8 million salary.

Delany said Friday he still "works for the presidents and with everybody else," but he is quick to add that "I know that you can't execute an idea without everybody having their fingerprint on it." After a bumpy start to his tenure, Delany said the last "15 to 18 years" have been remarkably smooth.

"We've probably had as collaborative a governance operation as anybody in the country," he said.

Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson, who has worked extensively with Delany since the announcement that the Terps would join the Big Ten, called Delany "a forward thinker, a visionary."

Weiberg, who served as associate athletic director at Maryland before going to the Big Ten, said much of Delany's success stems from the fact that, like a good point guard, he can see a play or two ahead.

"While he always paid attention to what was going on at the moment, he was also thinking down the road a ways," Weiberg said.

That might be true in his position with the Big Ten, but it might not hold for Delany in terms of his personal life. At an age when many of his peers have retired, Delany still likes a good challenge.

"As long as I'm energetic, engaged and interested, I'm going to continue to do it," he said. "I climbed [Mount] Kilimanjaro in 2012 and I'm going down the Colorado River next week. I don't feel any different than I did when I was 45. I just have a little more experience."

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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