After he was hired as Big Ten Conference commissioner in 1989, Jim Delany took a preseason tour of all the schools in the league.
He came upon a University of Wisconsin football program deep in the doldrums, at its lowest point since the miserable stretch in the late 1960s.
It was impossible for Delany to visualize then what he saw on Thursday, when he returned to UW in the midst of another conference tour in recognition of his 25th year in the job.
“My vision wasn’t clear,” Delany said during a media interview session. “Their facilities were in bad shape. The fan support wasn’t here. It was more about the party than it was about the game. Everyone loves a good party, but it’s better to party after you have a win.”
Delany was greeted this time by the nearly completed facilities updates, including a new weight room, locker room and training room; the new Student-Athlete Performance Center on the north end of Camp Randall Stadium; and the giant new replay board in the stadium.
“They’re fabulous,” Delany said of the facilities. “As I travel around, a lot of facilities were built in the early part of the 20th century. You’ve got three choices: You can let it fall down, you can renovate them on the cheap or build them to endure and pay for themselves. I think most people have chosen the third option.
“I got here the year before Barry (Alvarez). Anybody that has been around realizes the kind of program that’s been built here, but also the ripple effect it’s had on all of the other (conference) programs and facilities.”
Delany wanted to avoid the hot-button topics he spoke at length about at other stops, from paying athletes a stipend, to the O’Bannon case, which is the lawsuit brought by former and current college athletes, seeking a share of NCAA revenues.
But he did speak to a number of other issues, including a recent ESPN poll of players, who were allowed to remain anonymous, who were asked to come up with words associated with different conferences. Some of the answers for the Big Ten: cold weather, power conference, running game and slow.
Delany, who has been standing up for years in the face of sometimes withering criticism of the Big Ten, naturally has a different perspective.
“I think we’ve got great weather here,” he said. “Football is played in cold weather, by the NFL, Big Ten, by high schools. It’s colder here than it is in Alabama or Florida, but I would take our Septembers and Octobers over theirs, because it’s brutally hot down there.
“I would say they play in the summer, we play in the fall.”
While the Big Ten struggles to remain competitive on the field, with the best conferences — notably the Southeastern — Delany can point to the tremendous reach and scope of his conference.
“I see fabulous facilities, great coaches, to me it’s the gold standard of academic and athletic, (a) mixture, balance,” he said. “… I see a conference with national impact, both in recruitment and its bowl games and its television networks. I think we’re probably as close to a national conference as any other conference.
“I think we’re very big, we have the largest alumni bases, the largest student bodies, the largest stadiums. I’d say size, scope and quality are the things I think of when I think about the Big Ten.”
This is the last season for the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series, but Delany looks back on the turmoil of that period with some fondness.
“Really, they did a much better job of matching one and two than the NCAA basketball tournament did,” he said. “What do you want, to reward people for what happened in the 12 games (regular season), or do you want to create a tournament environment where you may get upsets, but you’re not getting one and two?
“I think they did a great job of getting one and two, nationalizing the game and creating a lot of interest. Controversy, interest and success. I hope the College Football Playoff contributes as much to college football as the BCS did.”
Delany also lauded UW for recently scheduling non-conference games against Alabama and LSU (twice), joking that Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo — known for his imposing schedules — must be advising Alvarez.
“Kids love that, I think it really raises the profile,” he said. “You can even win when you lose because you create an atmosphere of challenge. My hope is the (selection) committee will not discredit people for losing those games.
“If you play against a top-five team, you can lose and be a top-five team.”