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Volume 20 No. 45

In Depth

The Big Ten Network, which turns 10 this year, set the standard for other college conference channels that followed.
It was the longest year of his life.

Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, had just launched a TV channel with Fox in August 2007, and it looked like a spectacular failure — at least initially.

The country’s two biggest cable operators, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, went to the mat on this carriage battle and refused to do a deal with the conference channel. Controlling two-thirds of the TV homes in the Big Ten footprint, the two cable operators publicly belittled the Big Ten Network, calling it a niche channel with second- and third-tier sporting events.

Headquarters: Chicago Launched: August 2007 Households: 60 million
Fox 51 percent; Big Ten Conference 49 percent
Ancillary products: BTN2Go (livestreaming, on-demand programming); BTN Plus (over-the-top subscription for content that doesn’t appear on BTN).
Key executives: Mark Silverman, president; Mark Hulsey, executive producer; Michael Calderon, senior vice president, programming, digital media.
Live games: BTN televises 40 football, 105 men’s basketball, 55 women’s basketball and close to 1,000 Olympic sports events.

Related stories:
Upset at Michigan delivers BTN ‘instant credibility
Big Ten Network timeline
Storylines and issues to watch in college football this season
John Carroll University builds pipeline to NFL
“Indiana basketball fans don’t want to watch Iowa volleyball, but the Big Ten wants everyone to pay for their new network,” a top Comcast executive famously told The New York Times in June 2007.

Delany, who was new to the ways of the cable business, responded by doing what he does best. He fought back with the bulldog tenacity he displayed as the basketball team’s captain at the University of North Carolina.

Delany decided that the best way to promote Big Ten Network was to tell its story completely. That led Delany to embark on a tour of Big Ten campuses and state capitals throughout the Midwest, zig-zagging across America’s heartland to visit with legislators, newspaper editorial boards and school presidents.

Mark Silverman, BTN’s president, often rode in the same car with Delany. They used the time to do radio interviews — their dueling conversations overlapping in the background.

During those long drives, Silverman updated Delany on how BTN’s distribution negotiations were progressing, delivering the news in the form of a football score.

“I know we’re losing right now, but how bad is it?” Delany would ask Silverman, who left Disney to start the new conference-branded channel.

“It’s about 31-3,” Silverman said.

“Yeah, but it’s only the second quarter,” Delany responded.

Delany laughs now as he reminisces about keeping score.

“We kept chipping away until we got in the game,” Delany says. “But it was hard. We were hoping we could get through it without any street fights, but the reality was that the network wouldn’t be born without some street fighting.”

The network turns 10 years old this month and those distribution “street fights” seem like ages ago. BTN is now a success story with 60 million households. Financially, it’s been an unquestioned cash cow for the conference, pumping $12 million to $15 million annually into each school’s coffers.

Getting to this point as the first conference channel to survive and ultimately thrive took all of Delany’s grit, and it tested the Big Ten’s cohesion.

“We all got scarred up a bit,” Delany said. “But we take a lot of pride in the way it’s turned out.”

■ ■ ■ ■

Back in the mid-2000s, business was booming for cable channels and cable operators. Cable was in a big growth mode, and talk of cord cutters and digital video competitors still was many years away.

“Ten years ago, everyone wanted the status quo,” said Steve Greenberg, Allen & Co.’s managing director who became one of Delany’s confidants through BTN’s launch. “Cable companies had a great business model. ESPN had the best business model known to man. Nobody wanted change.”

Some leagues and conferences, though, wanted a bigger piece of that pie.

Delany’s work on BTN began in 2005, with all 11 schools turning over TV rights to the conference.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
When the Big Ten’s TV rights deal with ESPN was about to reach its end in 2005, the two engaged in renewal talks. The Big Ten looked stuck because ESPN was the only game in town. Conferences could not even use sports channels from Fox or NBC as leverage because they hadn’t launched yet.

It was supposed to go like this: ESPN would give the Big Ten a comfortable increase, the conference would tout to its schools how much more money they were getting and everyone would be happy.

Only this time, the two sides couldn’t come to terms.

“We weren’t in a good place,” Delany said.

ESPN, working from a position of leverage, wasn’t offering the kind of raise Delany, the most powerful figure in college sports even then, thought the Big Ten should get.

“You have to remember that Jim had somewhat of a cynical view of television, and an antithetical relationship with ESPN. There’s no question about that,” said Kevin O’Malley, a former CBS and Turner executive who consulted with the Big Ten at the time. “He felt that ESPN was dominating college sports to an unhealthy degree and that they were financially taking advantage of the conferences.”

Delany began thinking about other options.

He chafed at the way ESPN wrote a check for all of the games, but a relatively small number of them actually made it on air. The rest of the games back then sat in a virtual warehouse, largely unseen.

That provided ESPN with the ultimate flexibility. If a team got unexpectedly hot late in the season, ESPN could alter its schedule to get the best game on because it had all the rights.

“Jim isn’t the type to just roll over and just accept things,” said Bray Cary, a veteran sports TV consultant and one of Delany’s good friends. “He was upset with the way conversations went.”

The Big Ten needed an alternative and Delany, going back to his days as commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference in the 1980s, was considered an innovator. When ESPN told Delany that it didn’t have a window for any of the conference’s basketball games, Delany wound up creating a Friday night package of games that tipped at midnight, but at least they were on TV.

In 2005, Delany began thinking more seriously about starting a conference-branded channel, akin to the type of channel launched by the NFL and NBA. The Mountain West Conference, likewise, launched a channel — The Mtn. — in 2006, but it didn’t survive the lack of distribution and shut down after six years.

At the time, many considered Delany’s plan little more than negotiating bluster — something solely to get ESPN to pay more.

But Delany said he was deadly serious, and he began researching what it would take to start a channel. He started by convincing all 11 schools to contribute their TV rights to the conference, a shrewd move that flew under the radar at the time.

“You can’t bluff ESPN; they’re too good,” Delany said. “It was possible that we might fail or we might not be strong enough, but it was never a bluff.”

As Delany considered a Big Ten-branded channel, he studied how similar channels launched. He was particularly interested in YES Network, which was kept off some of New York’s biggest cable systems for two years, even though it carried a popular team in the Yankees.

Delany also looked outside of sports. He loved, for example, how Fox successfully launched National Geographic Channel in 2001.

The commissioner solicited feedback from Leo Hindery, the former chairman and CEO of YES Network, and John Fahey, now chairman emeritus of the National Geographic Society, on his idea of a Big Ten Network.

There wasn’t one “light-bulb moment,” Delany said, but a series of conversations that guided him toward launching a network. Most compelling was the idea of creating a channel that would be a long-term asset for the conference, not just a one-off rights deal.

Delany knew he needed consensus among the 11 schools at the time.

“If it’s just one man’s idea, it fails because there’s no foundation,” Delany said, citing the importance of having unanimous support from the conference’s presidents. “But if it’s everyone’s idea, it could succeed.”

What they needed next was a partner.

■ ■ ■ ■

Once Delany won approval from the schools in 2005, he began building a network of advisers.

Allen & Co.’s Greenberg was one of his first calls. Known as a skilled dealmaker in the media world, Greenberg had experience with several pro leagues and sports teams like the Chicago Bulls and New York Mets. He later advised MLB on the formation of its network, which launched in 2009.

Greenberg immediately bought into the idea. He worked with Brian Bedol years before to launch CSTV, a network dedicated to college sports, and understood the huge bulk of programming a conference like the Big Ten owns.

“The idea of continuing to license the big games to ESPN, but getting a cable outlet managed by the conference to showcase all of those other games, seemed to make a huge amount of sense,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg and Delany became fast friends. They were the same age, they’re both from the Northeast and they both played college sports — Delany was a basketball player at North Carolina; Greenberg played soccer and baseball at Yale.

On early spring baseball trips south, Yale would visit North Carolina for a series of games, which enabled Greenberg to get to know a number of the UNC players, many of whom also were friends with Delany. Later, Delany’s son interned at Allen & Co.

Greenberg and O’Malley, the savvy network veteran, joined Delany and Jon Barrett, the Big Ten’s outside counsel, to form a four-pronged team that attacked the business from all sides.

They wanted to set up a joint venture with Comcast because of the cable company’s strength in the Midwest. After six months of visits to Comcast’s Philadelphia headquarters, though, the cable giant wouldn’t commit.

“Comcast blew it,” O’Malley said. “They were sitting on all of this cash. They were fat and happy, but they just didn’t treat Jim like he had something of importance.

Dave Revsine with Nebraska’s Heisman winners: Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Eric Crouch
Photo by: BTN
“Jim would walk out of those meetings with steam coming out of his ears.”

By the time the calendar flipped to 2006, Fox had become the next target. The conference did not have much of a relationship with Fox to that point, but the Big Ten’s ADs especially were impressed with National Geographic Channel, a well-distributed channel with a global brand.

Most ADs didn’t realize that NatGeo was a majority Fox-owned channel. They liked the way Fox kept the National Geographic brand out front, which is what the Big Ten wanted. It was not going to launch a BTN Fox or a BTN ESPN channel.

Delany struck up a friendship with Fox Sports COO Larry Jones. The timing couldn’t have been better. Fox had an on-again, off-again love affair with college sports. Fresh off its win against ESPN for rights to the BCS championship, Fox was back in love with the college space.

At a spring 2006 meeting with Delany and Big Ten ADs in Chicago, Fox impressed by bringing most of its decision-makers to the meeting: News Corp. President and COO Peter Chernin; Fox Networks Group President and CEO Tony Vinciquerra; Fox Sports Networks President Bob Thompson, COO Randy Freer, Executive Vice President David Rone, and Senior Vice President Mitchell Chun; and Jones. To the Big Ten, it was an impressive show of force.

One of the key selling points was Fox’s ownership of DirecTV, which brought with it 15.4 million households. As it turned out, DirecTV was the first distributor to sign a deal for the Big Ten Network well before the channel launched.

After the meeting, a large group dined at an Italian restaurant called Carlucci and the framework for a partnership was under construction.

■ ■ ■ ■

Silverman, who went to Michigan for graduate school, was general manager of Disney’s Cable Networks group in 2006 when he first heard of a potential Big Ten channel.

By the time Fox and the conference announced their joint venture in June 2006, Silverman was curious. Five months later, Fox hired him to run BTN.

“The combination of Fox being the major network behind this, with this kind of content, I felt like this was going to work,” Silverman said. “It may take some time, but I was very confident.”

Knowing he had just nine months until the network’s August 2007 launch, Silverman had distribution battles to wage, more than 100 people to hire, a headquarters that had to be constructed out of an empty warehouse and, oh yeah, what’s going to be on the network.

“It was a massive amount of work,” Silverman said. “It was great, though. Things were moving well for several months. I felt like we were moving at a good pace.


A sampling of comments about
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany,
the visionary behind the Big Ten Network:

“Jim was a team captain at Carolina [in basketball] and it was like he was the captain or coach all over again. He was very clear with what he expects of each team member. He did the same within the conference. He told them that outsiders would try to divide them and say that this isn’t going to work and create doubt. But Jim had already pulled the conference together.”
TV consultant

“When I think of Jim, I think of toughness, perseverance and that sports training that helps you hang in there when things get tough.”
Allen & Co.

“What Jim does better than most is the internal communication. There’s unbelievable complexity in working with so many presidents, ADs and coaches. That’s a lot of moving parts. But he was in constant communication with everyone to keep them up to speed.”
Big Ten Network deputy commissioner

“Jim had to suffer the ups and downs, being the first conference channel out there. He took the risk. I’ve heard it said that pioneer is just another name for a guy with an arrow in his back.”
TV consultant

Silverman became BTN president 9 months before launch.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
“By doing this big, bold network — it was his vision. Sometimes it was portrayed as being greedy or stepping out of his lane into an area people thought he shouldn’t be traveling to. He became a lightning rod for attention.”
Big Ten Network president

“Jim has built tremendous relationships in the media industry. Through all of this, he was like a student, absorbing everything, and he’d send out these articles to educate us. He kept telling us that we’re going to make this work. He had a contagious confidence.”
Ohio State AD

“He’s a remarkable commissioner. He led the effort, he had the idea, and the presidents voted unanimously for it. The Big Ten’s very fortunate to have a commissioner so knowledgeable. It was revolutionary.”

Former Purdue president

— Compiled by Michael Smith

“Once we started having a couple of affiliate meetings, I got the sense that this wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to be more difficult to gain distribution than I thought.”

The early distribution meetings produced a cordial “No thanks” from Comcast and Time Warner, as expected. Mediacom was particularly unhappy, so much so that Rocco Commisso abruptly walked out of the meeting, Silverman said. His main complaint was that some of the games that used to appear on ESPN were shifting to BTN. In Mediacom’s view, that meant it was paying twice for the same games.

Cable company executives also worried that BTN would be the start of a trend. If they gave in to BTN, other conference channels could form and cable companies would have to pay for them too. Sure enough, the SEC and Pac-12 created channels following BTN’s launch. The ACC is expected to launch its own channel in 2019.

During one of his many campus visits in 2007, Silverman was sitting in a hotel room when he received a call from a reporter. The heads of distribution for Comcast, Time Warner and Cox all were on the record as saying that they would not carry the network.

“That floored me,” Silverman said. “I had those meetings. I knew they weren’t happy, but the Time Warner one showed promise. I was not ready for that kind of comment because it was so out of left field.

“After that, things went to 100 degrees right away. The articles started popping up. The PR machines went in motion. And not ours. I was really caught flat-footed by the intensity of the PR coming out against BTN in a very public way. We really felt behind the eight ball.”

Meanwhile, Fox’s Thompson was hammering Silverman to produce the best content once the channel was on the air. It helped that BTN’s first football game on Sept. 1, 2007, Appalachian State’s 34-32 stunner over No. 5-ranked Michigan, became known as the greatest upset in college football history and helped legitimize BTN. Thompson called it “a game sent from the heavens.”

“The one thing I continuously preached to everybody — Silverman took the brunt of this once he came on board — was that we can’t give distributors an excuse that the network looks like crap on the air,” said Thompson, retired now. “When you go through an affiliate fight, you don’t want to have poor products and a poor look to give them something to rail about in the press.”

The temperature wasn’t just heating up in BTN’s Chicago office. It was white hot on the 11 campuses as well.

When BTN launched in August 2007 without deals from Comcast and Time Warner, fans were irate. Athletic directors were forced to come up with PR plans and messaging to help their fans understand why they couldn’t get the channel and what they could do about it.

“We’d be walking into a stadium during that first season and fans would boo us because they couldn’t see the network,” BTN and Fox analyst Charles Davis said.

“We got a lot of criticism,” Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez said. “It created some doubt. We had a professor on campus who supposedly was a media expert and he was very vocal about how foolish we were.”

Delany’s job as the distribution talks became more heated and more public was to keep the conference together. The Big Ten’s presidents voted unanimously in favor of starting the network and now they had to hang on through the ups and downs of getting it distributed.

Some, like Gordon Gee, the Ohio State president at the time, were adamant that they didn’t want to go through a second season with no carriage in Ohio, Michigan and other core Big Ten states.

“Those were some contentious meetings,” Thompson said.

At the time Fox’s affiliate group included Mike Hopkins, who is the current CEO of Hulu, and Mike Biard, who is now running Fox’s distribution group. They negotiated the deals behind the scenes, while Delany was the public face of the network and much of the pressure from the schools fell on his shoulders.

“At one point,” Thompson recalled, “Jim called me up and said, ‘I think I might have just gone over the edge.’ That’s when he had made a statement to some paper that really stirred the pot. He realized that he made a mistake and promised from then on that he would go radio silent. And he did.”

Martin Jischke, the former Purdue president, chaired the Big Ten board at the time.

“We knew there was risk if we couldn’t get these deals done,” Jischke said. “But Jim was so steadfast. I remember thinking that we were very lucky to have Jim because of his knowledge of the media industry. He kept us informed and that kept a lot of people calm through the tough times.”

■ ■ ■ ■

Through 2008, the distribution deals finally began falling into place. Cable companies didn’t want to go through a second football season with unhappy customers.

Comcast signed BTN in June 2008, and Time Warner took the fledgling network in August 2008, literally on the eve of the college football season. That gave BTN full distribution in its footprint.

“It was a relief, a welcome relief,” Delany said. “It was gratification that the network was no longer on its way. It was a distributed, successful network.”

There was never any guarantee that BTN would be a success. Current examples like the Pac-12 Networks and Spectrum SportsNet LA, the home of the Dodgers’ broadcasts, continue to struggle with distribution.

What BTN had working in its favor was that it had a fan base willing to loudly complain, and that the conference stayed committed and didn’t fracture.

“The Big Ten was a natural to be first,” O’Malley said of conference channels at the power five level. “They had populous states in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois — something like 25 percent of the country in its footprint.”

But being first also “was much tougher,” Greenberg said. “What Jim did, though, was to get all of his schools to contribute their rights to the conference. The hardest job in any league is getting the teams with the most value to share equally with teams of less prominence. Jim cut through that early on.”

Delany also had the foresight to keep BTN separate from other TV rights deals. While the SEC negotiated its primary TV rights and the SEC Network into one 20-year agreement with ESPN, the Big Ten has always kept those deals in silos.

That’s what enabled the Big Ten recently to do a six-year rights deal with Fox, ESPN and CBS for a combined $2.64 billion, making it the richest annual college rights fee. The short-term nature of the deal means the conference will be back at the negotiating table again in 2022-23, before any of the other power five leagues, presumably for another raise.

“By going first, certainly it was tough, certainly we learned some lessons, but if you go the easier route, you pay for it in other ways,” Delany said. “The SEC did a deal with ESPN for 20 years; that’s how they got a network. The ACC, if they get a network, it’ll be owned by ESPN. I like the model we have. We were able to marry our tradition with innovation and create something that hadn’t been done before.”

Highlights of App State’s upset of No. 5 Michigan, BTN’s first football game, were in great demand by other networks.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
In the closing minutes of college football’s greatest upset, about 30 executives gathered in a Big Ten Network production studio to watch Michigan attempt a game-winning field goal on the new channel’s first football broadcast.

By now you know what happened. Corey Lynch blocked the field goal as time expired and Appalachian State shocked the fifth-ranked Wolverines, and the world, 34-32, on Sept. 1, 2007.

This was exactly the kind of game that cable operators cited when they said they wouldn’t pay for Big Ten Network. BTN’s programming — lower-rung, low-interest football and Olympic sports — was one of the reasons cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner vigorously fought against the new network in its first year.

And then Appalachian State happened.

As the Wolverines lined up for the potential game-winner, BTN President Mark Silverman looked to Leon Schweir, the network’s executive producer.

“This is great,” Silverman said to Schweir. “Michigan can kick a game-winning field goal and we can get a Michigan win on BTN.”

Schweir, a Purdue graduate, then flipped the script by responding: “Wouldn’t it be better if he misses? Think about it. Isn’t it a much bigger story if he misses it?”

“That’s your Purdue speaking,” Silverman said with a laugh.

After Appalachian State blocked the kick and won the game, BTN interviewed winning coach Jerry Moore. But first, Bob Lanning, BTN’s coordinating producer for the game, called Silverman to make sure it was OK to talk to the opposing coach on the Big Ten’s new channel.

“We were kind of in a weird place where no one had ever done this,” Silverman said. “No one had ever had a network like this before. How do you handle something like this?”

BTN was the only network with the game, so when Appalachian State pulled the upset, every other channel in the country, including ESPN, needed highlights. At the time, BTN had very limited distribution on a few cable systems in Iowa and DirecTV.

The only place to get video was from BTN, which provided the new network with instant credibility.

“All of a sudden, the phones started ringing in our office,” Silverman said. “TV stations from all over the country are calling us, saying, ‘We don’t have any video of the game. We need some video for our nightly news tonight. How do you get clips?’ Their cable company didn’t carry the game. The game was only on cable companies in Iowa and DirecTV. If you didn’t have that, you didn’t have any video of the game. We put somebody on this — just taking a list of TV stations that we needed to get video clips to for their nightly news.

“ESPN is running on ‘SportsCenter’ over and over and over clips from the Michigan-App State game with a Big Ten Net logo. ESPN calls us and says, ‘We’ve exceeded the amount of time that we’re allowed to show your highlights. Do you mind if we go over?’ We’re not distributed. Our logo is on the largest network there is. I said, ‘No problem! Air it as much as you want. As long as you keep our logo up, you can keep doing it as much as you want.’”

In the booth at Michigan Stadium, Thom Brennaman and Charles Davis called the game. Nine months earlier, they worked the Fiesta Bowl in which Boise State beat Oklahoma, so they knew what an upset looked like. But even they didn’t anticipate mighty Michigan might go down to an Appalachian State team that played in a lower division with 22 fewer scholarships.

“To be talking about this 10 years later, that proves that it was probably the best thing that could have happened to the network,” Brennaman said. “Of all the games I’ve announced, no one has asked me more about a game than that game.”


News Corp. announces a 20-year contract with the Big Ten, with an option for five more years, to launch and operate the Big Ten Network. The conference will own 51 percent and Fox will control 49 percent of the RSN. News Corp. later projects in documents filed with the SEC that the partnership could pay $2.8 billion to the conference over the 25-year life of its deal, through fiscal 2032.

BTN’s studios will be in what was formerly the Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalog House, a 44,000-square-foot national historic landmark in Chicago.

Former ABC Cable Networks Group general manager and senior vice president Mark Silverman is introduced as the organization’s first president.


Big 12 Conference Commissioner Kevin Weiberg is named BTN vice president of university planning and development.

BTN officially launches at 8 p.m. ET Aug. 30. BTN officials say that it is the first network to surpass 30 million subscribers within 30 days of launch, with about half of those coming from DirecTV. The RSN is available in about 45 percent of the homes in the conference’s eight-state footprint.

September 1
At noon ET, the network carries four football games, with most audiences seeing Michigan versus Appalachian State.

Carriage deal is signed with EchoStar’s Dish Network. The network was temporarily blacked out for eight days beginning Sept. 14.

No deal with Time Warner Cable in Columbus means the Wisconsin-Ohio State football game airs in fewer than 60 percent of the market’s households.

RCN Corp. announces that it will offer BTN to its expanded basic TV customers in metropolitan Chicago and in its Pennsylvania markets.


DirecTV offers BTN only as an “a la carte” option on the satellite company’s business lineup, meaning bar and restaurant owners must pay an extra $40 a month to receive the channel.

Inside the Big Ten Network production truck during a Penn State game in 2008. Photo by: AP IMAGES
In a major breakthrough, BTN signs carriage deals with Comcast and Verizon FiOS TV, leaving Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications as the main lone holdouts.

Financial documents filed by the Big Ten Conference show Commissioner Jim Delany was awarded a $1.5 million bonus by the presidents of the member institutions for his role in creating BTN. Financial documents filed by News Corp. reveal that the launches of BTN and Fox Business Network resulted in approximately $160 million in operating losses for the company during its most recent fiscal year.

Just days before the start of the season, a Time Warner Cable deal gets done. Mediacom, Midcontinent Communications and Charter Communications also sign agreements. Second season begins with about 240 distribution deals in place, as BTN is available in 90 percent, or 58 million households, of the conference’s eight-state footprint.


SEC filings indicate that BTN posts its first annual profit, although specific figures are not provided. Fox now owns 51 percent of the network and the conference 49 percent.


Schools begin receiving profit shares from BTN. Details about which schools receive them and how much is distributed is not revealed, although the league’s newest members will have to wait until 2017-18 (Nebraska), and 2020-21 (Maryland and Rutgers) to receive their shares.


Celebrating its 10th year, the Big Ten Network subscriber base sits at 60 million homes.

—Compiled by SportsBusiness Journal research

A new video board and premium areas are among the renovations at Notre Dame Stadium.
A new Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s football renovation — we’re talking the stadium, not the team — will debut Sept. 2 when the Fighting Irish take on Temple. The $400 million Campus Crossroads project, which includes stadium improvements for athletics, academics and student life, will introduce premium areas, a new video board and all-new seating that replaces the old wooden bleachers inside iconic Notre Dame Stadium. The project is the largest in the school’s history and will transform the game-day experience without sacrificing the school’s rich tradition.


Atlanta, home to college football

The city considered by many to be the capital of college football is staking its claim again by bookending the upcoming season with the best opener — Alabama versus Florida State in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium — followed by the College Football Playoff championship game in January. How’s this for an opening weekend: Georgia State opens its retrofitted Turner Field on Thursday, Aug. 31; the Crimson Tide and Seminoles tangle two nights later and then Tennessee and Georgia Tech go back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Labor Day evening. Hello, college football.

Oklahoma State will aim to deliver on lofty preseason expectations in the Big 12 Conference.
Photo by: AP IMAGES

Big 12 still big?

The Big 12 is often described as the most vulnerable conference among the power five and it’s easy to understand why. Just once in the three seasons of the College Football Playoff has a Big 12 team been selected — Oklahoma, after the 2015 season. The two cash cows of the league, Oklahoma and Texas, both have first-year coaches. And the school predicted by many to win the conference is Oklahoma State, if the Cowboys can hold off their in-state rival. This season clearly represents a crossroads for the Big 12. If the new coaches can lead a revival at Texas and maintain Oklahoma, the conference could flourish. If not, the Big 12 might again find itself on the outside looking in when the CFP selection committee makes its picks.

Ohio State lawsuit

Chris Spielman, one of the most beloved Ohio State football players, shocked Buckeye Nation last month when he filed a lawsuit against the school and IMG College. The complaint says that Ohio State and sponsor Honda hung banners inside Ohio Stadium featuring several former Buckeye greats without their permission or any compensation. Like the O’Bannon case before it, Spielman’s lawsuit goes to the heart of the name, likeness and image issue in college sports, even for former players. While this issue will play out in a courtroom rather than a football field, the ramifications could be long-lasting and every school will be watching.

Don Shula, perhaps John Carroll University’s most famous alum, poses with the school’s football team at the 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan Fest in Cleveland.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
When Baltimore Ravens senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach Greg Roman was in high school, he knew exactly where he would attend college after visiting the University of Dayton.

But while the South New Jersey native was in the Buckeye state, his uncle suggested they make a pit stop at John Carroll University.

“I said, ‘Who’s that?’” Roman joked.

Situated on Cleveland’s east side, the Jesuit, liberal arts college of 3,700 students is an unlikely source for an NFL pipeline. But over the years, John Carroll has earned a reputation as a breeding ground for future NFL employees.

Some NFL fans may have heard of John Carroll due to London Fletcher (Class of 1998), who spent 16 seasons as an NFL linebacker. But the school’s reach goes much further than that. Currently, there are at least 14 John Carroll alumni and two former coaches working in the league — an inordinately high percentage for such a small institution.

“We’re this little hidden gem in Cleveland, Ohio, with a unique story to tell,” said Dave Vitatoe, executive director of alumni relations.

Most notably, the New England Patriots have seven alumni on their payroll, including offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and director of player personnel Nick Caserio. While the Patriots’ connection to John Carroll is well-documented, there are alumni scattered throughout the league who have charted unique courses.

“It’d be easy to dismiss it if there were [just] one or two people,” sports information director Chris Wenzler said. “Because there’s a good deal of them out there, I think there must be something.”

Career beginnings

Tom Telesco (Class of 1995), general manager of the Los Angeles Chargers, was set on being a business major when he arrived on JCU’s campus in 1991. But an important connection to his future came while he was a student at St. Francis High School just outside Buffalo. That’s when he met the Polian family.

Telesco became friends and teammates with Bill Polian’s sons, Brian and Chris. All three eventually attended John Carroll together and played football.

While Bill Polian was general manager of the Buffalo Bills, Telesco had multiple internships with his hometown team while in college. After graduating, Telesco’s business degree and connection to the older Polian got him a scouting opportunity with the expansion Carolina Panthers, where Polian had become GM. After his stint in Carolina, Telesco followed Polian to Indianapolis, where he spent the next 15 seasons before the Chargers hired him in 2013. Now, Telesco is quick to credit both the Polians and his college for his success.

Tom Telesco (above) and Greg Roman, now with the Ravens, both credit the work ethic they developed at John Carroll for their success in the NFL.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
“I owe, really, everything that I have in this league to Bill and to Chris Polian,” Telesco said, before noting how much of his success is rooted from his college education. “You learn the accountability and the work ethic [at John Carroll], and it was always about the team.”

Telesco also points to his relationship with John Carroll teammates and current Jacksonville Jaguars general manager David Caldwell (Class of 1996) and Roman (Class of 1994) as keys to his success.

Not all JCU grads drew on their class connection. For some, including Roman and Ben Milsom (Class of 2001), it was just the right time and place.

While Roman knew the Polians at JCU, he won his first job in football because of a connection he had from a strength training gym where he worked in Long Island. While still living in an attic near John Carroll’s campus, Roman got a call about an opportunity with the strength coach of the Panthers.

“It was definitely a huge factor in my favor that Bill [Polian] was the general manager of the Carolina Panthers when I started,” Roman said, but he cited some form of “divine providence” because “I wasn’t tied into him like Telesco was, or Caldwell.”

Roman agreed to take the job if he could pursue other opportunities within the organization that would prepare him to be a football coach.

“I was able to make myself valuable in a lot of different areas, to where they kept piling responsibilities on me,” he said.

Four years later, Roman moved to the football side of the business full time, and he’s now on his second stint with Baltimore.

Milsom, chief ticketing officer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, didn’t draw on JCU’s alumni to get into sports, instead landing his own gigs in sales for the NHL and NBA before getting a call from a recruiter to start a sales staff in Tampa.

So how does this small college, whose football team plays in the Division III Ohio Athletic Conference, continuously pump out employees to the NFL? To begin to answer that question, you have to go back to the school’s most famous alumnus.

Football and education

While on campus, it’s hard to miss the fact that Don Shula (Class of 1951) graduated from John Carroll. The Hall of Fame coach’s legacy is everywhere, most notably in Shula Stadium, which has about 1,700 more seats than John Carroll has students.

While Telesco had his sights on John Carroll for its business school and football program, the Shula connection made it stand out.

Jacksonville general manager David Caldwell is a 1996 alumni from John Carroll.
“When I was in high school and I received a letter from Don Shula on Miami Dolphins letterhead, kind of like a recruiting letter about the school, I mean, that really resonated with me,” Telesco said.

Roman eventually got on board with his detour trip to campus after his uncle told him it was the alma mater to Shula, the coach with the most wins in NFL history.

“If that doesn’t say something, what does?” he said.

Alumni also point to the focus and discipline of the school’s football program as a key factor that prepares John Carroll graduates for careers in the NFL. Both Telesco and Roman said film study, learning basic fundamentals and accountability, and being a part of a program that was competitive on a national level made John Carroll’s program different.

“I always felt like it was Division III football with a Division I feel,” Telesco said. “When I left John Carroll, I feel like I had a base of football knowledge that I’d put up against any other 22-year-old.”

“It’s not a factory. You’re not cattle being herded through a program,” Roman said. “[Former head coach] Tony DeCarlo, when I was there, just ran the program in such a classy manner.”

The football program is so influential that both former players and coaches are getting NFL opportunities. Chris Shula, assistant linebackers coach for the Los Angeles Rams and Don Shula’s grandson, spent one year as John Carroll’s defensive coordinator during the 2014 football season, where he learned about accountability and how to be a “great leader.”

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is one of seven John Carroll alumni with the team.
“It actually prepared me for the NFL more than you would think,” Shula said.

Following his lone season at John Carroll with a nationally ranked defense, Shula was hired by Telesco to help with defensive quality control for the Chargers.

Outside of athletics, John Carroll’s NFL alumni cite their Jesuit education, which they believe put an emphasis on academics while broadening horizons and emphasizing teamwork.

“It’s a healthy, competitive, improvement kind of environment where success is shared communally rather than individually,” said Andy Welki, John Carroll’s faculty athletic representative.

“I was very, very happy with how I was challenged as a student academically. I felt like I had a pretty diverse curriculum,” Roman said.

Milsom cites the serious and focused style of his professors who prepared him for life after graduation.

“You had to be on time, you had to work hard, you had to get good grades, because if you didn’t, you’d get passed up pretty fast,” Milsom said.

John Carroll recognizes its connection to professional sports and established the Mike Cleary Program in Sports Studies in 2014, which focuses on preparing students to be professionals in athletics. Cleary (Class of 1956), former executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, always wanted to give back to the school, but a driving force was undoubtedly the school’s numerous connections to the NFL as a draw to help connect students to sports careers.


Atlanta Falcons
 Jesse Ackerman (2002), head strength and conditioning coach

Baltimore Ravens
Pat Moriarty (MBA, 1993), senior vice president of football administration
Greg Roman (1994), senior offensive assistant and TE coach 

Chicago Bears
Brandon Staley, outside LB coach*

Jacksonville Jaguars
Dave Caldwell (1996), GM
Chris Polian (1993), director of player personnel

Los Angeles Chargers
Tom Telesco (1995), GM

Los Angeles Rams
Chris Shula, assistant LB coach*

New England Patriots
Josh McDaniels (1999), offensive coordinator
Nick Caserio (1998), director of player personnel
Jerry Schuplinski (1999), assistant QB coach
Dave Ziegler (2000), director of pro personnel
Nick Caley (2006), TE coach
Frank Ross (2010), pro scout
D.J. Debick (2013), scouting assistant

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ben Milsom (2001), chief ticketing officer

* John Carroll University coaching alums, not former students
Source: SportsBusiness Journal research

‘Not a good ol’ boys network’

Even John Carroll’s NFL alumni struggle to explain the school’s widespread connection to the league and how it happened.

“Different teams, different connections — it’s certainly not a good ol’ boys network,” Telesco said. But he points to a common thread among many of the success stories: work ethic.

“You get your foot in the door and then after that you’ve got to work hard,” he said. “You’ve got to show them that you can handle the job and that you can contribute.”

Each of them remember and recognize the early, gritty years of their careers, and used their time at JCU to get them ahead.

“We all started out on the bottom of the totem pole, and you can say that maybe we were a little bit more prepared to pay those kinds of dues,” Roman said.

There may not be one pathway that JCU alums have taken to get into the NFL, but they all managed to prove themselves and stay in the league. While their college connection may not keep them in the NFL, it’s ultimately a bond they feel now.

“We’re all pulling for one another,” Roman said. “We obviously are very busy taking care of our own agendas and jobs, but I definitely root for all of them. It’s really a testament to the university.”

Ashley Bastock is a writer in Cleveland.

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