CHAMPAIGN — With the former Illinois athletic director by his side, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany entered the player’s lounge at Memorial Stadium attempting to piece together all the stops in Ron Guenther’s career prior to his 19-year stint at Illinois.
“I know he was at North Central and I know he was at Boston College and I know he served in the military,” Delany said.
Guenther filled him in.
“I was at Evanston and Glenbard West,” Guenther said just before the commissioner ribbed him for not being able to land former Pitt All-American running back Tony Dorsett at Boston College.
“Our scholarship wasn’t as good as their scholarship,” Guenther joked.
Delany hasn’t had as many stops in his own career, having served as an enforcement officer at the NCAA and commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference before landing his current gig 25 years ago. In that time, the league has grown from 10 schools to 14 — Rutgers and Maryland join next year — and the BTN was launched.
To celebrate the silver anniversary, Delany is touring the league’s football camps this month. The Illinois visit on Saturday was his sixth.
The 65-year-old former North Carolina basketball player addressed Tim Beckman’s squad and received a personalized No. 25 Illinois jersey before taking in Saturday morning’s practice.
Afterward, he spent time answering questions from The News-Gazette’s Marcus Jackson and the Decatur Herald & Review’s Mark Tupper about the state of the league, Illinois’ football woes and stopping the SEC’s college football dominance.
Q: Where were you yesterday?
A: Yesterday we had two-a-days. (Big Ten communication chief Diane Dietz) and I flew in Thursday from Penn State into Detroit. We went over to Michigan State in the morning and then Ann Arbor yesterday afternoon. We drove down (Friday) night and got in about midnight. We had three stops in 24 hours. Before that we were at Indiana and Ohio State and Penn State. We’ve hit six schools in five days.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’m going home this afternoon and Monday I’m going to California for the Rose Bowl meetings and I’ll come back at the end of the week and pick up a couple and pick up the other four over the following week.
Q: Have you ever done this before?
A: I did it 25 years ago in my first year. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Rose Bowl, which I think is an important moment for us. We’ve been in that relationship on a continuous basis from ‘47 to ‘98 and then we folded it into the BCS and now into the College Football Playoff, so it’s the 100th game. This year will be the 100th game in Pasadena and five days later, it’ll be the BCS national championship game. I just wanted to do it, 25 years since I had done it. I wanted to get out and see the coaches and players. Everybody is sort of pushing for the same thing, which is to have a great football season but also to celebrate the academic and athletic mix; I think we do it as well as anybody in the country. Everybody’s hopeful, everybody’s energetic, everybody’s in the third to the sixth day of practice and most people either have or are about to put on their first pads. It’s fun to see the organization and the energy and optimism at the camps. The first three days we went with the BTN bus and we drove the bus from Chicago to Bloomington and from Bloomington to Ohio State and from Ohio State to Penn State and the bus was slowing down for us and we flew into Detroit, went back and forth between those two and drove in last night.
Q: Here’s something you probably haven’t been asked. When the Big Ten Network was a thing in your head and in the incubation stage, I assume there was probably a time when you said “This is maybe the next big thing, it could be a game changer.” As we sit here today, is there something out there right now?
A: We’re preparing for our next set of major television agreements. We’re scheduled to begin negotiations in the fall of 2015. As we look at that environment, we look at BTN, we’ll look at the games that we’ll have available. We’ll talk to ESPN because they’ve been a long-term partner. It’s a very good market for sports and college sports and in particular college football. College football had a growth trajectory over the last 15 years that’s really separated college football — the NFL’s at the top — from Major League Baseball, college basketball, NBA. We have more conference games, we have the BTN and I think what we try to do is assess the options from the traditional options to BTN2Go. You read all the time about the Apples and Googles and Netflix, so I don’t think there’s any doubt that looking back 20 years we could ever have envisioned a series of involvements by NBC cable, CBS cable, Fox cable, ESPN, the Yankee Network. There’s no doubt as you look forward 20 years that there will be other opportunities. Part of taking advantage of the opportunities is timing and I think our timing is good because we’re on another kind of cusp of technological change. We’re not sure where it’s all going to go, but we’re assessing it, studying it for a couple years. I don’t have an objective other than to explore all the opportunities to try to position us. The athletic directors have been great, we’ve got more conference games, we’ve added Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers in the last three years. I think we’re going to keep traditional model of no games on Thursday or Friday or Wednesday. Saturday, we’re trying to get more games into prime. We’ve got a championship game and we’re trying to upgrade our September schedules a little bit, dropping the teams that don’t have as many scholarships that are actually from another division, increasing the quality of the opponent because we’re going to be competing for one of those four slots in the College Football Playoff. There’s a lot of competition for the discretionary dollar; people can stay home and watch it on TV so if you want people to come to your game, you need to put good, competitive games on. I don’t think there’s any doubt that when we went to a 12th game, the overall quality of our games went down, but the number of home games went up and the number of wins went up. I’d rather have seven or eight teams compete on a national basis rather than 10 that are bowl eligible. It seems to me after a decade of that experience, that’s not necessarily a drive. We’ve seen people go to bowl games and not be there the next year and that certainly doesn’t have the same meaning it did 15 years ago. I don’t know what the next integration is beyond Big Ten Network, except the Big Ten Network is available to go now on a digital basis globally now, anywhere where high-speed internet exists. It’s available in 25 countries in 53 million homes and available in 90 million homes. It is more widely distributed than ESPN was 25 years ago. I think it has more growth. We’re going to get out East, I don’t expect that to be easy, but it we can gauge constructively with distributors, I think there’s a valued proposition there. We’ve got a million people in that corridor between Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan state, Michigan plus Rutgers and Maryland. I think major college sports will come around, largely as a result of the size and scope of these programs coming in there. It’s not going to be immediate, we won’t dominate, but I think we’ll be impactful and relevant in time and I think everybody’s real excited about that. A number of coaches mentioned it’s a great opportunity to recruit out there. We’ve added 3 percent to our geographic footprint and 30 percent to our demographic footprint. Between Penn State, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland, I think it gives us a footprint that allows us to compete. We picked up two institutions that are flagship, public AAU members in contiguous states, Penn State’s the bridge. I’m not sure this would be as easy or as smooth as it is, but we’ve bene with Penn State for 20 years now and they face east into New York and D.C. and I think the Penn State-Maryland, Penn State-Rutgers, Penn State-Ohio State and those rivalries speak for themselves. I think it’s areal opportunity there to get a seamless growth. Everyone’s in two regions now. The ACC is in the Massachusetts and New York and Indiana and Pennsylvania. We’re in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York/New Jersey, D.C., so we’ve got that corridor positioned in a unique way. The SEC is in Texas and Missouri and the Pac-12 is in Colorado and Utah, not exactly Pacific Coast states. The paradigm has shifted, we’ve adjusted and I think we’re positioned to continue to be successful. We’ve got to win more, there’s no doubt about it, the SEC has dominated the football landscape. We’re not going to change who we play and where we play and when we play. Whether it’s a ACC basketball challenge, or a Rose Bowl challenge, or an SEC challenge, I do believe that we’ve got the resources and the coaches and tradition, we’re going to break through. Whether it happens this year or next year, I don’t know, but we’re committed to winning and competing for championships.
Q: With relation to the SEC dominating football, do you feel like the gap is closing and the Big Ten schools are taking the necessary steps?
A: The reality is you tip your hat to them. Their coaches and their recruitment and the teams they’ve put together, you don’t do that by accident, so the first thing is you recognize excellence and they’ve certainly put it together. I would also say we have been there. We’ve beaten SEC teams that have won championships the year before or the year after. We’ve been on the field with them in the Capital One Bowl and in Tampa (Outback Bowl) over the last 15 years; we’ve won a lot of games. I believe that the fact they’ve won seven deserves credit. I also believe when I look at games, Michigan State beat Georgia, Michigan and South Carolina have gone toe-to-toe with similar kinds of teams. I don’t think we’re as far off, nor do I think the country is as far off as that 7-0 run because that would indicate they’re here and everyone else is (lower). I think Oklahoma or Texas or Southern Cal or any of our schools could rise up, run the table and play, but there’s no disguising the fact they’ve had a terrific run, an unprecedented run and one that would be hard to predict. They’ve set a good benchmark and I congratulate them for that.
Q: Can you talk about enhancing the live in-game experience, such as showing replays of controversial plays on the video boards?
A: I think that our athletic directors have been studying this and they put a special subcommittee together, that subcommittee just reported to the full group and we’re working closely with them not only in the area of video and putting plays on the scoreboard that can be seen at home and we think it’s time to do that. There’s no disagreement on that. We want to make the in-stadium experience from the teams on the field to the televising of games and the fan experience to video availability to be as good as it can be. I don’t know that we’ve announced that. I guess it’s being announced now. I can’t tell you all the details, but we’re liberalizing that rule to make more video available to fans in real time. There will be some structure around it, but there’s no doubt about it, there’s a strong interest in making not just this year, but over time enhancements. We’ve got 5 1/2, 6 million people coming to our games, we average 70,000, we want to keep that and grow that. We want more stadiums to be full to capacity and part of that is making that game day experience as good as it can be. We want to do as much as we can to make it as good as possible.
Q: The Illinois football program has had some pockets of success and other programs in the league are consistently down, is it concerning to see that?
A: There’s not much the commissioner can do. I don’t spend much time in the film room, I don’t spend much time on the recruitment trails. I follow what other people say about it. I think sustainability of success is kind of with us as you cut those scholarships from unlimited to 105, to 95 to 85 and people’s expectation. I was listening to Bill Parcells and his acceptance speech, he was a game or two away from getting fired and he’s in the Hall of Fame today. He was thanking the players and thanking ownership to hang with him. I think staff continuity, staff leadership is huge in these areas. I think Illinois has been to a couple BCS bowls — Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl — won two bowls recently, they have the capability and have had good years. It’s the sustainability. I think Michigan dropped down a few years ago, but they went 20 years with eight or more wins. That was unprecedented in the country. Notre Dame, Alabama, Texas, Southern Cal, UCLA had not had that kind of run. Michigan or Ohio State or Penn State, they’ve had ups and downs. Illinois has had ups and downs, but sustainability is very difficult. I remember Northwestern going from 3-7-1 to the Rose Bowl and back-to-back championships. The difference between winning and losing is sometimes a fine line. I saw coach (Barry) Alvarez go from 1-10 and a championship and a Rose Bowl game three or four years later. It’s about building, it’s about continuity, it’s about getting difference makers on the field, keeping continuity with your staff as well as your players. They’ve got to make progress academically, have to retain, develop and get some difference makers. I think it’s harder for coaches today than it ever has been. You’ve got fewer players, more competition, more scrutiny. I think we’re in a good place with out coaches and a good place with our resources and I think opening up to the East will help us. I think the national slate of games we’ve put together in the postseason is better than anyone else’s to be honest with you. The fact that we can play in the Rose Bowl, the fact that we can play in San Diego, in Tampa, in Orlando, in San Francisco, in New York, in Nashville, in Miami and we’ve doubled the opportunity to play for the national championship, those are all good for us. It’s where a lot of the recruits are, it’s where our alumni are, it’s where our fan base wants to go and that plus the BTN, plus the new television situation that we’re going to have an opportunity with... I go around the schools and it’s remarkable the nutrition, the academic support, the training facilities. There’s an expectation that the kids go to school, compete and I think our schools in many ways are the gold standard in making sure that opportunity (exists) and I’ve talked to the kids that it’s an opportunity and a privilege but it’s also a responsibility on our part. We’ve talked a lot about what the next model looks like and you can talk all you want about restructuring, but the next model has got to be a 21st century model that passes the test. No. 1, I’d love for us to explore as a conference and as institutions a lifetime educational trust so that anybody can go back to school at any time to get their undergraduate degree. Some people might go pro, some people might not be serious enough, but when they become serious about it, I hope we can be there for them. It’s a vision and not a proposal. I do think we’ve got to make that reconnection long term between the institution and the young person’s educational objectives. No. 2, we’ve got a gap in many cases between the cost of the scholarship and the cost of attendance and we need to fill that gap. We need to do that in a sensible way, taking into consideration federal law and Title IX, but we’ve got to address that. I think as important as facilities are and retaining coaches, that should be very high on our priority list in terms of available resources. The other thing we need to focus on, to be honest with you, is the time commitment. If you’re going to be taking a full-time load and you’re going to be working to improve your strength and your skill, we’ve got to make sure that the at-risk student has time to do both. We have the academic support, my question is whether the student has the time. Some how, some way, I’d love to sit down with the coaches and say ‘Hey, listen, when a person finishes, graduates — most of them aren’t going to the NFL — I’d love to sit down for some three-week period during the course of their enrollment where maybe they’re in town, maybe they’re working out, maybe they’re not in school but they are in a three-week internship program. Maybe there’s a study abroad opportunity. I want us to restructure that experience so that we can make sure as they go through it they can have some touch points for internships and study abroad, so we’ve got to make sure that works. If we can put that together, miscellaneous expenses with a lifetime trust and a commitment to examine the time demands, I think we’ve got something that is sustainable because we’re getting quite a bit of challenge ‘Should we professionalize the athletes? Should we pay the athlete? What about the likeness issue?’ I do appreciate you giving me the relief because I’ve answered all those questions, but it is our responsibility to re-establish the deal and make it sustainable and durable and to me that’s reconnecting the triangle between the athletic, the academic and the student and make sure it’s balanced and real.
Q: You talked about these things at the media day and the one part that wasn’t clear was bridging the cost of attendance and being loyal to Title IX, how did that balance in Title IX?
A: It’s an interesting question and it’s one of the reasons we haven’t gotten to the answer because I’m not sure there are different points of view on it. If you look at the male-female population, we’re near 50-50, I think it’s 51-49. There are actually, I believe, more men’s sports that allow for partial scholarships than there are on the women’s side. I think women’s basketball is a head count, I think women’s volleyball is a head count, maybe even softball, I’m not sure. On the men’s side, you have football and basketball where you have to receive a full grant and you can’t break it up. If you started off with the idea that you’re in compliance now both in terms of the population of the male and female and then the allocation of scholarship. If you think the 14 schools and approximately 9,500 athletes, we’re at about $150 million in financial aid. If you think about the average cost of the grant-in-aid, let’s say $30,000, and if you believe that the gap on average between the cost of the scholarship and the full cost of attendance is $3,000, just as a round number. So that would be $3,000 over $30,000, or 10 percent. That would mean if you’ve got $150 million in financial aid, 10 percent more would be $15 million. That $15 million has got to be apportioned between male and female, full scholarship and maybe some of it even goes to partial. For example, if a full scholarship is $30,000 and a partial scholarship is $10,000, the person at $30,000 would get $3,000 and the person and $10,000 would get $1,000. There would be an allocation between full and partial. The total dollars in the pool would be 10 percent if that’s the average additional funds you would need. Some people would argue that it should be based on need only and if someone was on full scholarship, plus a Pell, plus special assistance, they shouldn’t get it. I don’t think it should be need-triggered because the kids aren’t working in the summer time, they barely have the time to do the academics and the athletics, so the working is not there. A lot of them come from places where there’s not money coming from home. I didn’t have money coming from home. My father had five kids and was a school teacher, so there wasn’t cash rolling in. We had the $15 a month, maybe we worked in the summer time, which kids don’t do now. So I think we’ve got to deal with that somehow. We don’t have a waiver for Title IX, we’ve got to prioritize it, we’ve got to put it up high and we’ve got to do what we can to do the right thing. The vision is to look at the weaknesses in the system and address them. We’ve got the resources to do that, we’ve just got to have the will to do that and prioritize because there’s always money there if you make it a high enough priority.
Q: When you started this 25 years ago, there was no social media and that opens athletes, coaches and institutions up to criticism and negativity. Is that concerning?
A: I address it by not participating in it, but there’s still 200 million people do. My personal commitment not to participate is not necessarily meaningful. I come at it from the standpoint that technology continues to evolve, there’s more global platforms. Thomas Friedman wrote the book “The World is Flat” and platforms and distribution are inexpensive. It’s affected the Arab Spring, it’s affected the Obama campaign, it’s affected the coverage of college sports and the longevity of college coaches. It’s also put in an instantaneous communication among young people. It skews very, very young. I’ve got young kids and I know they’re learning and their judgement is not what it will be 10 years from now. I think the answer is a little bit of education and a little bit of not overreacting because a lot of what’s on there is not accurate. It may be accurate enough to repeat, but it’s certainly not accurate enough to rely on in making a serious decision about somebody’s reputation of the discipline of somebody. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. These communication systems, whether they’re cable, or satellite, or Internet, or Instagram, or Facebook, or Twitter we use to promote ourselves so you can’t expect that there’s not a down side to it. Young people and old people, we’re going to make mistakes, we’ve got to conform conduct to a higher level of care than we did before. It’s sort of like having a photographer at a stop sign. When I get that message from Chicago Police that I didn’t come to a full stop at that stop sign and they ask me to pay $100, I just send it in. I’ve got to stop at that stop sign and I’ve got to learn to stop at that stop sign. I think Mothers Against Drunk Driving have had a profound affect on conduct and behavior of young people. When I was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, young people experimented with drugs and they realized the kind of harm they could do, you had a large group of people move away from that. I think the experience with social media will have some of the same kinds of movement and adaptations. I know lots of young people who are moving away from Facebook and Instagram because they realize it can have a long-term affect on them. I think we’ll sort through it, but there’s no doubt it’s a different environment. Human nature isn’t changing, hopefully human nature will adjust to this and hopefully as we promote and market our programs, our young people will learn rather quickly just because you have access to global communication that it’s always in your best interest to use it. I expect we’ll have more of it and not less of it and hopefully we’ll become smarter with it.
Q: Are you finding anything for Ron Guenther to do?
A: Yeah, we’ve got to use him pretty regularly in a lot of different ways. He’s made an unbelievable contribution here over the last two decades, I don’t think there’s anyone I’ve enjoyed working with more. I’ve got him up in Chicago on Saturdays and he’s helped with bowl arrangements and I’ve sent him out to troubleshoot a variety of things and he’s been a real asset as a friend, as athletic director here and as a consultant to me.