Every time Jim Delany contemplated stepping away from his job as Big Ten commissioner, there was always another challenge on the horizon. The next media contract, the next expansion of the conference, the next piece of NCAA legislation like cost-of-attendance, the next method for deciding college football’s champion — there was always something that demanded the attention of college sports’ most influential leader.
Hometown: South Orange, N.J.
Alma mater: North Carolina, B.S., political science, 1970; UNC School of Law, J.D., 1973
Counsel, N.C. Senate Judiciary, 1973-74
Attorney, N.C. Justice Department, 1974-75
Enforcement rep, NCAA, 1975-79
Commissioner, Ohio Valley Conference, 1979-89
Commissioner, Big Ten, 1989-present
So why announce his retirement now, in his 30th year on the job? The Big Ten’s next media negotiation is a few years off. The most pressing legal cases that threaten the NCAA’s amateur model are likely several years from being decided. And at age 71, Delany simply has other items on his to-do list while he still feels spry. In the next year or two, he wants to climb to Everest Base Camp.
“I just felt like it’s a good time to break,” Delany told Sports Business Journal last week when he announced that he would not continue past his current contract, which expires June 2020. “We’ve got a lot of resources. We’ve got great structure, we’ve got great media partners and we’ve got a great staff. … I turned 71 [March 3]. I feel the same as I did 10, 15 years ago. I’ve got good energy and I thought it was a good time to pass the baton.”
What they’re saying about Jim Delany
“To see where the conference is today, and how it got there, the growth of its footprint, its new institutions, its financial success, it is well-grounded to meet whatever comes in the foreseeable future. I think that’s quite extraordinary. Some people fuss about Rutgers, but I think that’s very shortsighted. I think moving east to embrace the corridor from New York to Washington is going to be impactful over the long term and will mean a lot to the conference.”
Big Ten outside counsel and longtime Delany friend
“For the world of intercollegiate athletics, this is significant. We are losing somebody from the day-to-day who has always been absolutely committed to it. This [hire] is an important next step for the Big Ten. Division I has changes coming and Jim’s departure will have impact on all levels.”
Commissioner, Patriot League; former Big Ten executive
“He is one of the most consequential figures in the history of intercollegiate sports. Rarely, in modern times, has there been a figure with more sway and swagger than Delany. There was hardly a room he didn’t dominate, if not own outright, but he used his influence judiciously, always looking to coalesce his support in an effort to unite as opposed to divide. It’s prosaic to say he will be missed, but in this case, Delany’s departure leaves a hole in college sports as deep as the bottom of Lake Michigan and as wide as the Grand Canyon.”
ESPN, SEC Network
“He came along at a time of great change, whether it was Title IX, new academic standards with Prop 48, major changes in media, conference realignment. He saw it all and he had the courage and vision to guide the conference through it.”
Deputy AD, South Carolina; former Big Ten executive
Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro will chair the Big Ten’s search committee and Korn Ferry will assist in finding the conference’s next commissioner. The following are viewed as compelling contenders.
Deputy Commissioner, Big Ten
The former All-America basketball player at Michigan, who earned her juris doctorate from Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., has been at the league office since 2010, rising from chief communications officer to deputy commissioner.
Freer was a top executive at Fox Sports when the network developed the idea to launch the Big Ten Network. He’s been Hulu’s CEO since October 2017. But Hulu’s expected ownership change combined with Freer’s love of sports could make the longtime media executive think about relocating to Chicago.
Commissioner, Patriot League
In her fifth year, Heppel has established herself as a strong voice for the Patriot League’s high-achieving academic institutions. She also spent 12 years at the Big Ten across two different stints and has worked closely with Big Ten presidents on governance issues.
Athletic Director, Northwestern University
SBJ’s 2018 AD of the Year is commonly considered the favorite. Widely respected, Phillips has established himself both on campus and across the country. The dynamics with Schapiro, who is not only his boss but also a close friend, are worth watching.
President of National Networks, Fox Sports
From his role in launching and running BTN for 11 years, Silverman has deep relationships and a lot of support throughout the conference. While running BTN, Silverman was a close confidant of Delany’s, and he still acts as a sounding board for Delany while with Fox.
Commissioner, Mid-American Conference
Steinbrecher is an interesting name and most likely to emerge from a Group of Five conference. He’s overseen the MAC since 2009 and has 25 years under his belt as a commissioner at various levels. He crafted the MACtion campaign for midweek football to maximize exposure.
Deputy Commissioner and COO, Big Ten
A veteran of 22 years working with Delany, 15 of which he carried titles of COO and CFO. Instrumental figure in media, expansion and most other major initiatives. Former Northwestern wrestler and Big Ten champion.
COO, College Football Playoff
A compelling candidate who spent 16 years at the Big Ten over two stints in the league office. She has experience as a commissioner at the Big Sky and joined the CFP last year as COO, running the day-to-day.
— Michael Smith and John Ourand