CHICAGO — When Jim Delany started the national discussion on cost-of-attendance scholarships in May, it was perceived as the Big Ten Conference commissioner trying to divert attention from the NCAA-related mess at his premier football school, Ohio State.

If the proposal was a smokescreen, however, it hasn’t blown away yet. At separate media days events in the last week, Delany’s counterparts in the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences trumped him by calling for far-reaching changes in the way intercollegiate sports are conducted.

In response to ongoing scandals at several high-profile football schools, SEC commissioner Mike Slive said college athletics had “lost the benefit of the doubt” and presented a reform agenda that included getting scholarships to reflect the full cost of attendance, increasing the minimum GPA for incoming freshmen, overhauling the recruiting process and focusing NCAA enforcement on only the most important rules. A few days later, ACC commissioner John Swofford said college athletics were “at a crossroads” and that people needed “to find a way back to the collegiate model.”

That put the ball squarely in Delany’s court, and Thursday was his time to respond. So he did, coming out strongly for reform both before and during his news conference at the 40th annual Big Ten media days, a get-together that set a record for the least amount of actual football discussed.

In the morning, Delany had an unprecedented (for this event) meeting with his 12 football coaches to discuss what he called “embarrassing” rules violations at Ohio State and Michigan. When he met with reporters later, Delany endorsed Slive’s proposals and even took them a step or two further.

Saying the structure of college sports was “established in the ’50s and stuck in the ’70s,” Delany said systems — rules for things such as scholarships and recruiting — need to be improved and people who violate rules need to be held accountable in a more rational, timely way.

“I think there’s going to be a need to really look at it ... and upgrade it for the 21st century so that we’re going to be able to continue to put forward teams sponsored by institutions of higher education without being embarrassed by the actions that occur off the field,” he said. “Because I think the actions on the field are entertaining, exciting and worthwhile.”

Delany said he read Slive’s comments “with interest,” then endorsed them.

“I think he laid out a number of areas that I have no disagreement with at all,” Delany said. “I read John Swofford’s comments. John called it a tipping point. Mike said we’ve lost trust. I agree with that.”

Not to be outdone, Delany threw out more ideas he would like to see discussed when Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s reform-minded president, holds a college athletics summit meeting in August. Delany advocated a return to freshman ineligibility and said team-wide academic excellence should be a condition for being invited to a bowl game or the NCAA basketball tournament. He also said he wouldn’t be opposed to a return to television bans as a form of NCAA punishment.

Delany said 14 schools have come under NCAA scrutiny in the past year, including Ohio State, which fired football coach Jim Tressel after he failed to report extra benefits some of his players were receiving. The Buckeyes will go in front of the NCAA infractions committee on August 12th. Michigan has already been punished for violating rules on practices under deposed coach Rich Rodriguez.

Delany said those violations reflected poorly not only on the schools but on the conference.

“I can’t remember a period of time where we’ve had more questions about various programs, whether it be on the agent side, the recruitment side or the academic side,” he said. “We’ve had two of them in this conference, and that’s two too many, as far as I’m concerned.”

With that in mind, Delany gathered his coaches Thursday and made it clear to them that enough was enough, that it was up to them to run clean programs.

“I talked to our coaches at length and I said, ‘I want to make sure that everybody in this room understands, when you come across certain kinds of information, you have a responsibility to report it up the chain of command. You do not have any discretion about that,’ “ Delany said. “They understand that. I think they have all understood it. I believe they understood it even more going forward.”

Whether they do or not, it’s up to Delany and his fellow commissioners to make sure all this reform talk isn’t just rhetoric. After all, it’s not the coaches’ job to fix college athletics, it’s theirs.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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