• Below: See 5 pressure points in the Big Ten’s battle against the NCAA
* * *
His opposition to a playoff may be the single biggest obstacle toward a college football revolution.
His decision to pursue Big Ten expansion sent administrators at first-class universities into full-fledged panic and nearly flipped major conferences on their heads.
His mere mention of increasing scholarship dollars for student-athletes triggered a hot-button debate nationwide.
No wonder many call Jim Delany the most powerful man in college athletics. He speaks, you listen.
Which makes a recent Monday morning strange. There was the Big Ten commissioner, sweating through a workout in his Chicago home, engaging in a discussion about a sport that barely makes a blip in the national media, lamenting how nobody responds to his bold ideas.
College baseball isn't fair to Big Ten schools, Delany says. And for 10 years, he's fought like hell to level the playing field. He gives himself an “A” for effort.
“But if I were giving myself a grade for getting on base and driving in runs, it would be a very low grade.”
Perception says the Big Ten doesn't care about baseball. But no administrator in America has pressed harder to revamp the system. Delany's biggest ideas:
• Adopt a national start date in March or April and move the season deeper into summer.
• Devalue the RPI, which favors Sun Belt schools.
• Ditch the current method of national seeding and return to regional qualification for the College World Series.
College baseball's answer: No. No. No.
Then, last summer, Delany formally proposed the CWS move from eight teams to 10, with the two new slots reserved for cold-weather schools. Cold shoulder again.
“I've got no more proposals,” Delany told the World-Herald. “I'm out of ideas. What else can we possibly do?”
There is one alternative. Delany expresses interest — though he hasn't officially proposed it — in an even bolder plan: Secede from the South. Form a new college baseball division. Compete for a different national championship.
Skip Bertman, who won five national titles at LSU, questions how many would follow Delany down that path.
“You can grasp at straws like Jim does and play the ‘Oh, poor us' piece because we have bad weather,” Bertman said. “Maybe somebody will go for it, but I don't think so.”
For years, coaches and administrators have traded barbs over competitive equity in college baseball. Why? Weather. While Sun Belt teams are fielding grounders in February and March, northern teams are scooping snow. How would that equation fly in college football or basketball, Delany wonders.
His opponents say there's never been more parity in college baseball. The game is growing, and tweaking it too much may threaten the essence of competition.
There's no such thing as an even playing field in sports or in society, said Tim Weiser, Division I baseball committee chairman and former athletic director at Kansas State. Somebody always has an edge in resources, in facilities, in weather.
“Basketball certainly has advantages in the Big Ten that aren't enjoyed in the Ohio Valley Conference,” Weiser said. “It's not just baseball. I don't know if it's fair for us to try and make everything equal when it certainly doesn't happen in any other sport.”
The top of the pyramid is healthy, Delany says. But what about the foundation? As budgets get tighter, college baseball will — in large regions of the country — go the way of the spitball.
“It's a national pastime sport,” Delany said, “but the college part of it is really not alive and well in the cold-weather parts of the country.”
Delany's opponents say his proposals aren't practical. They suggest, in diplomatic terms, that he is greedy, misguided and — worse — hypocritical.
Why doesn't Delany have a list of ideas for other outdoor sports dominated by southern schools, like golf, tennis and track and field? Because there's money in baseball, opponents say.
Why doesn't he spend more time encouraging Big Ten schools to invest in baseball and more energy reforming a conference rule book that, unlike other prominent leagues, doesn't allow coaches to oversign in recruiting? That's why you can't win, opponents say.
And if Delany feels so strongly about competitive equity, why isn't he advocating for mid-major basketball programs at NCAA tournament time? Why isn't he standing up for TCU and Boise State when he's called to defend the BCS before Congress?
Isn't Delany the one, at the mere notion of increased access for the less fortunate, threatening to take his Rose Bowl and return to the old bowl system?
College baseball is unique, Delany says. No other sport disenfranchises such a large swath of the country, especially regions it once treated equally.
This isn't ice hockey, Delany says, where NCAA participation is limited to 59 predominantly cold-weather schools. Baseball is sponsored by almost 300 Division I schools, most of which are located in northern states.
Delany's numbers breaks down the nation into 15 Sun Belt states and 35 non-Sun Belt states. The Sun Belt has 137 baseball programs, the non-Sun Belt 149.
Since 1987, 91 percent of CWS participants came from 15 states. In the same period, only three national champions were non-Sun Belt teams.
The last Big Ten team to reach the CWS: Michigan in '84.
The College World Series is a fabulous event, Delany says. But barring a miracle run through the NCAA tournament, entire regions of the country don't participate.
Delany recalls a time when it wasn't that way. A time when Big Ten schools like Ohio State and Minnesota competed for and won national championships. The Big Ten won six national titles from 1953 to 1966.
In those days, the NCAA tournament was regionalized. Teams from the same geographic district competed for a CWS spot. That's why a program like Maine made the CWS so often. To advance to Omaha, it needed only to defeat teams from the northeast district.
Starting in the '80s, the college baseball tournament began to model college basketball. The priority shifted away from geographic balance and shifted toward identifying the best eight teams, no matter their location.
The NCAA implemented national seeding to award postseason advantage to the regular season's most impressive teams. Each conference received an automatic bid, but to identify at-large teams, the selection committee used the RPI, a computer index that measures conferences by early season, nonconference play.
This, Delany says, is where it all went wrong for northern programs.
Southern teams fare much better in those nonconference games, because, unlike their northern rivals, they get to practice outside early in the year — and they get to play at home.
In 2010, the average home opener for a Big Ten school was March 25. For an SEC team, it was Feb. 20. It's a lot harder to build a case for an at-large bid when you're traveling the first month of the season.
Delany's point: If the weather were equal across the country, baseball programs would be much more equal. By June, they nearly are equal. The best solution is to move games to summer, the traditional baseball season. But all sides agree it won't happen.
So amendments should be made to minimize the weather advantage, Delany said.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman has seen Delany's data. He agrees that “some adjustment is clearly in order.”
“I wouldn't suggest that the Big Ten champion always gets into the College World Series,” Perlman said, “but it does seem to me forcing schools to play against southern schools as an entry point into the College World Series, well, you just have to look at the numbers.”
Nebraska's geography hasn't changed since it reached the CWS in 2001, '02 and '05. But its conference affiliation soon will. For NU, the competitive equity issue is more intense now, Perlman said.
“Part of college sports is you take the landscape the way you find it,” the chancellor said. “You play by the rules they give you. But that doesn't mean that you can't also try to change the rules to even the field.”
Bertman scoffs at the idea.
The NCAA already passed a national start date — though it's in February, instead of March or April. The bracket expanded in 1999 from 48 to 64, adding a weekend to the NCAA tournament. Over the years, scholarships and roster sizes have been cut, giving rise to parity. Schools like Dallas Baptist have a shot to make a CWS run.
But with programs like Nebraska, Notre Dame and Wichita State slumping, the gap between north and south is as wide as ever. Doesn't matter what rules you change, Bertman said.
“The better athlete in baseball is going to go to Sun Belt schools, because baseball is a Sun Belt sport.”
Said Rice coach Wayne Graham: “If you were a family that had a young man with a great arm, would you want him throwing in 30 degrees in March and April?”
The end of regional qualifying for the CWS did alter the playing field, said Dave Keilitz, director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. But it wasn't the only factor. Southern schools realized they could make money on baseball.
“Thirty years ago,” Keilitz said, “baseball wasn't anything to speak of at LSU, Mississippi State, Alabama and a lot of those schools in the SEC and ACC. When they decided to go after it — with the talent pool of high school players they have down there — that's the greatest reason the gap was created.”
Delany's critics say his league hasn't matched the south's investment in baseball.
The notion that a school like Rice, with 3,000 undergraduate students, has an advantage over Ohio State is “a joke,” Graham says.
“I'm for everybody getting a shot,” Graham says. “But the question becomes, are you really not getting a shot?”
Graham suggests northern programs take a page from Nebraska's book. Find a young, smart coach like Dave Van Horn. Find a recruiting niche and a style conducive to the weather. Travel south two or three weeks in February and March to build strength of schedule.
“(Van Horn) didn't go up there and say, ‘You gotta change this (rule) or that,'” Graham said. “He got busy.”
Delany grew up a Yankees fan in New Jersey. His father was a Hall of Fame baseball player at Seton Hall, and later a minor leaguer and a high school coach. Jim's game was basketball. He played for Dean Smith at North Carolina.
Delany unleashed his influence on this issue a decade ago after Big Ten baseball coaches alerted him to competitive equity concerns. His first presentation to the NCAA happened one day before 9/11.
“He's the first commissioner that stood up, stuck his neck out there and said, ‘We've got to address the issue of NCAA baseball at the national level,'” said Bob Todd, former head coach at Ohio State.
Delany has lobbied just about every legislative branch the NCAA offers. At one time, he focused on moving the season back into more traditional summer months. Sun Belt schools protested. Why should they wait until March or April to compete?
Delany has altered course, seeking greater access to the CWS without undermining southern schools. Thus, the idea for a 10-team College World Series.
Four regionals — and two super regionals — would be set aside for northern teams only. If more than 16 northern schools made the NCAA field, they would spill into other regionals. But the format would guarantee two north teams in Omaha. That would encourage investment and give opportunity to everyone, Delany says.
He traveled to Indianapolis last summer before the annual baseball committee meetings. In person, he pitched the idea to Keilitz and Dennis Poppe, NCAA vice president for football and baseball. They talked for four hours.
What happened at the committee meetings?
“I don't recall there being anybody who believed going to a 10-team College World Series was a very good move,” Weiser said.
Delany received a letter summarizing what happened at the baseball committee meetings. Not a word about his proposal.
Delany envisions a day in which schools like Ohio State and Michigan pack their ballparks and bring their rabid fan bases to Omaha. But he's approaching the point at which, politically, he gives up.
“I don't have another 10 years of time or ideas.”
If the rules don't change to bring more schools inside the tent, Delany said, one of two things will happen. Schools will stop investing in baseball — some will drop the sport entirely. Or northern schools will break off and develop a second championship, either inside or outside the NCAA.
“I'm not saying that will happen this year or next year, but ultimately, one of those two things will happen.”
Not yet. Two weeks ago, he met with Big Ten presidents, including Perlman, and pitched the idea of a 10-team CWS again.
He'll have to settle for eight teams in 2011, all of which traveled north to get to Omaha.
But it's June. The days are long. The weather is warm.
Fans from all over the country will flock this week to a gleaming new stadium. They'll taste the atmosphere. They'll sweat in the sun. On Friday, the crowd will include a first-timer from Chicago. He'll be in town on business.
Twenty-two years as Big Ten commissioner, Jim Delany has never been to the College World Series.
“Why would I go? I don't have a team.”
Contact the writer:
RPI. Those three letters represent Jim Delany’s biggest “bone of contention” with the NCAA.
The RPI is a key tool in measuring NCAA basketball teams. But basketball unnecessarily influenced the baseball selection committee, Delany said. RPI should not be a factor in determining NCAA tournament at-large bids.
Why? Because nonconference performance plays a critical role in determining an RPI (ratings percentage index). And for northern teams, those games are on the road in February and March, when often they don’t even practice outdoors.
So northern teams lose, and southern teams win. By April and May, the weather is less of a factor. But the damage is already done. Look at the RPI this year. The top 20 teams come from the 15 Sun Belt states.
“You’re comparing power ratings from parts of the country where it’s impossible to build a power rating,” Delany said.
What’s the solution?
Delany said the NCAA needs to break from a core principle. Return to regional selection, even if it means excluding a few of the 34 best regular-season teams.
That’s blasphemy in some baseball circles.
“I think that would be a very radical change,” said Tim Weiser, a former Kansas State athletic director who heads the NCAA selection committee for baseball.
“If our charge is no longer to find the best 34 at-large teams, OK, then let’s talk about it not being a national championship, but a regional championship. ... That seems to defeat what we all believe Division I sports is all about, which is ‘Let’s get the best.’ ”
Prior to 1987, geography was a critical factor in selecting and bracketing the NCAA tournament. A team from the northeast, for example, had only to beat teams from the northeast to reach Omaha. Delany says a return to that format — at least in cold-weather states — would broaden interest in college baseball and make it more fair.
Oregon coach George Horton used to coach at Cal State Fullerton. Back then, he thought the reform movement stunted the game’s growth and brought everybody down.
Now he sees his hitters start the year batting .220 because they can’t feel their cold hands. He feels the grind of going on the road for early season games, week after week.
“Now that I’m in a colder state, I’m all for whatever they can come up with that gives everybody a chance,” Horton said.
Horton supports additional NCAA tournament spots for northern schools, even if it means breaking the “Best 34” principle. Perhaps, in the case of a cold-weather team, the selection committee should measure its performance only in April and May, Horton said.
“The Big Ten team you see at the beginning of the year is a lot different than the Big Ten team you see at the end of the year.”
WHEN IS BASEBALL SEASON?
Bob Todd coached 23 years at Ohio State.
He remembers when he and Mike Gillespie, USC’s former coach, discussed a home-and-home series. When would you like to do it, Todd asked. First weekend in March, Gillespie said.
“You come here, I’ll show you how to shovel snow,” Todd replied.
Todd recognizes the political challenge in reforming college baseball. But he stands firm on the idea of moving the entire season back at least one month, if not two. Play it during the summer, he says.
“Face the facts,” Todd says. “Abner Doubleday, who gets credit for inventing baseball, did not intend for the game of baseball to be played in February and March in New York or Michigan or North Dakota.”
Opponents cite their own reasons for keeping the spring season.
The original purpose of college athletics was to create a spirited campus environment for students. In July, most students are gone.
Summer programs, a traditional component in player development, would be shut down, even in hotbeds like Alaska and Cape Cod.
Omaha and ESPN, two of college baseball’s critical partners, want the CWS in June, not July or August.
But the biggest impediment in moving the season back, of course, is financial. If you want to hear administrators threaten to cut baseball, force them to house and feed 30 to 40 players all summer on campus.
“All of a sudden,” Tim Weiser said, “schools are saying, ‘We’re going to keep this team in play a month after the semester ended? Who’s going to pay for that?’ ”
Todd’s response: Have you looked around campus during the summer?
You’ll find football players, basketball players, soccer players, all going to summer school, all living on the dime of the athletic department.
Why can’t baseball players?
Rice coach Wayne Graham sees a problem with Jim Delany’s latest proposal, which reserves two CWS spots for northern schools.
How do you draw the line between north and south, between cold weather and warm weather?
“Is Oregon State a northern school? Is Virginia a northern school? You’d be shocked how far north Virginia is, and they might win the College World Series.
“He really doesn’t mean North. He means Big Ten.”
Delany’s plan splits the north-south line at the Kansas-Oklahoma border. Farther east, Virginia would be a northern school. North Carolina would be southern. On the West Coast, California would be southern, Oregon would be northern.
The proposal would fill four regionals with only northern teams. North would compete against north in the super regionals, guaranteeing two northern participants in Omaha.
If more than 16 northern teams made the NCAA tournament, they would spill into other regionals. According to the Big Ten, the 64-team NCAA tournament averaged about 20 non-Sun Belt teams over the last decade.
Graham isn’t buying the north-south line.
Look at the average March high temperature in Corvallis, Ore., where Oregon State won back-to-back national championships: 56 degrees. And in Charlottesville, Va., where Brian O’Connor has the Cavaliers ranked No. 1 in the country: 57 degrees.
Is that really much different from the 52-degree March average at Ohio State?
The Big Ten can’t control weather in the upper Midwest. It can control its conference rules.
And Jim Delany’s opponents point to one specific issue that hurts Big Ten baseball: restrictions on oversigning recruits.
Oversigning is promising more scholarships than you have to give. Baseball coaches say it’s critical because so many of their recruits and third-year players sign professional contracts in July and August after recruiting season, leaving them with roster holes.
Under Big Ten rules, baseball coaches can oversign up to one scholarship equivalency (divided among no more than two players). Most conferences have no restrictions. As long as they meet the 11.7 limit when classes start, they’re OK.
“The athletic directors can sit there and say they want to be nationally competitive all they want,” said George Horton, Oregon head coach. “But if they’re tying their baseball coaches’ hands and not letting them over-offer scholarships with the draft in the mix, they’ll never be nationally prominent.”
Harvey Perlman, Nebraska chancellor, defends the Big Ten rule. Some principles, he said, are more paramount than winning. One of those is student-athlete welfare.
“Yes, the Big Ten makes it more difficult to compete,” Perlman said. “But it isn’t for random reasons. They believe it puts you in a difficult position when you’re making scholarship offers that you know you’re not going to be able to fulfill.”
WHAT ABOUT THE BCS?
Jim Delany said college baseball needs to help the less fortunate. His critics see irony in that statement.
Delany is one of the most ardent critics of a college football playoff. And a playoff, in theory, would help the little man.
“That’s probably a fair criticism in some respects,” he said. “I haven’t really thought deeply about it.
“I would say that the NCAA baseball tournament has evolved since 1950. ... And teams that used to regularly win national championships in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s are not even registered.
“Therefore, I would tell you the systemic change to the championship disenfranchised 50 percent or more of Division I membership. Whereas the BCS actually expanded access.
“Where was Boise State and TCU before the BCS, all right? Where were they? Not in the Rose Bowl. Not in the Fiesta Bowl.”
Some criticisms of his campaign are fair, Delany said. But remember, the Big Ten and Pac-10 opened up the Rose Bowl to other leagues. Access for non-BCS teams like Boise State and TCU has increased over the years.
“Nobody’s happy about (the BCS),” Delany said, “but it has definitely evolved faster than baseball has in terms of opportunity.”