The Rose Bowl, the Playoffs, and Jim Delany's Long Game

If you've been living under a rock for the last week, you might have missed that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany waived the white flag on his push for on-campus playoff games. Gone are the thoughts of tanned-ass Southerners playing football in the Rust Belt in December. Gone is the most significant imaginable competitive advantage for Big Ten teams in the new playoff system. If Delany is to be believed, they've been thrown over the side to protect the sanctity of the Rose Bowl:

"While we understand that the games on campus could benefit us competitively - it's not like I don't like the competitive advantage (aided) by home field - but in a larger sense, we think the slope is far less slippery within the bowl system than it is outside the bowl system," Delany said Tuesday.


"We think that the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Fiesta and other bowls are aided and helped by a process where 1-4 is inside the bowl system rather than outside."

This has been met with widespread derision from Big Ten proponents and ridicule from everyone else, and with good reason: Jim Delany, perpetual protector of the Sacred Shrine of the Rose, had again let his -- and his conference's -- propensity for hyperconservatism and reverence to history get in the way of true progress that would immediately benefit his teams. It was, on its face, a horrendous decision.

In the most-cited piece criticizing the decision, Yahoo's Dan Wetzel -- who hates the Big Ten, Delany, and everything else related to the BCS -- called Delany a lunatic:

Other than loving the Rose Bowl there isn't a single reason for the Big Ten to support this plan. Of course, what they love is what the Rose Bowl was (Big Ten champ vs. Pac-10 champ), which is not what it is or certainly will be. This is a playoff blueprint in sepia tones.

It's lunacy.

AnnArbor.com's Kyle Meinke asked if Delany is crazy:

When it comes to intercollegiate athletics, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is smarter than the rest of us. That's an assumption he's afforded after two decades of keeping the league at the fore, through seismic shifts such as conference expansion and TV deals.

But with all due respect, sir: Have you lost your mind?

Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated asked the same questions:

Over the past two decades, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has established himself as the shrewdest executive in college sports. From spearheading the addition of Penn State as the conference's 11th member to brokering the Rose Bowl's integration into the BCS to continually landing the nation's most lucrative television and bowl lineups, Delany has made sure his 111-year-old conference is consistently at the front of the pack when it comes to changes in the collegiate landscape.

However, some bizarre, recent comments by the 58-year-old commissioner have brought up an obvious question: Has Delany lost his marbles?

The talking heads have spoken, and it's clear that...

Wait, I'm just receiving word that the Mandel quote was truncated:

However, as the launch date draws near for Delany's latest and boldest venture to date -- a national cable network devoted exclusively to Big Ten sports -- some bizarre, recent comments by the 58-year-old commissioner have brought up an obvious question: Has Delany lost his marbles?

No, this is not the first time that the college football intelligencia has questioned Delany's public statements regarding a new venture were completely batshit insane. Such complaints have gone back to at least summer 2007, when the national media piled on Delany for another of his horrible ideas, the bungled disaster that was to be the Big Ten Network. Delany outsmarted all of us then, and he did it again a couple of summers ago as Expansionpalooza was in full swing. And, given events late last week, Delany might well be on the verge of doing it one more time with the college football playoff.

Everything Jim Delany has done as commissioner of the Big Ten -- especially since the summer of 2007 -- has been in pursuit of long-term advantage to the conference as a whole, and its individual teams only by way of that. The Big Ten Network was supposed to be a money-losing catastrophe that nobody would watch and even fewer would pay to see. After a year and a half of publicly negotiating/ridiculing/screaming at Comcast and Mediacom, Delany had transformed it into a massive cash cow, making the Big Ten schools richer than those in the SEC, the Big 12, the Pac-10, and every other conference. When the SEC responded by signing a big new TV deal with ESPN, it still didn't make the Southern schools as much money as their Northern rivals.

Delany used his newfound financial leverage, and a not-so-subtle call for expanding the conference, to bring the biggest collegiate sports programs in the country to his door. He damn near disemboweled the Big 12 in the process, causing an insurrection that fired Dan Beebe and landed Nebraska within his conference's ranks, all while we were all losing our minds over Rutgers and Pitt. When the Nebraska regents voted unanimously to cut ties with 100 years of tradition because the financial pull of Big Ten membership was too great to deny, Delany was there, emerging from behind the curtain and shaking hands with Osborne and Perlman like Hollywood Hogan joining the Outsiders. A year later, Delany's SEC rival was picking up Big Ten reject Missouri to fill out his own expansion process, an expansion that made his conference exactly zero more dollars and done solely because the Big Ten had done it first.

And so we come to present day, and Delany has again done something that, on its face, looks completely insane. He's given away the Big Ten fan's pipe dream, the mere idea of LSU or Florida or Alabama having to win in December, in the north, in weather that would make them run home before the ball was even kicked. Never again would we have to hear how the SEC dominates the sport by playing four games against the Big Ten in its backyard, how LSU or Alabama should be national champion because they won a virtual home game in a dome in Louisiana, as if the conditions in Louisiana were horrible enough to make the dome necessary. Gone are all those dreams, gone for the Rose Bowl, just as Penn State's 1995 championship was sacrificed to the conference's Pasadena altar.

Delany doesn't deal in dreams, though. He deals in facts, and he's effectively locked the Big Ten into the national semifinal, played in a property that makes the conference a ton of money, in exchange for a couple of home games a decade. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the BCS standings since 1998 are an accurate representation of the standings under the new playoff system, here are your playoff matchups (Big Ten teams in bold):

1998: #1 Tennessee vs. #4 Ohio State; #2 Florida State vs. #3 Kansas State
1999: #1 Florida State vs. #4 Alabama; #2 Virginia Tech vs. #3 Nebraska
2000: #1 Oklahoma vs. #4 Washington; #2 Florida State vs. #3 Miami
2001: #1 Miami vs. #4 Oregon; #2 Nebraska vs. #3 Colorado
2002: #1 Miami vs. #4 USC; #2 Ohio State vs. #3 Georgia
2003: #1 Oklahoma vs. #4 Michigan; #2 LSU vs. #3 USC
2004: #1 USC vs. #4 Texas; #2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Auburn
2005: #1 USC vs. #4 Ohio State; #2 Texas vs. #3 Penn State
2006: #1 Ohio State vs. #4 LSU; #2 Florida vs. #3 Michigan
2007: #1 Ohio State vs. #4 Oklahoma; #2 LSU vs. #3 Virginia Tech
2008: #1 Oklahoma vs. #4 Alabama; #2 Florida vs. #3 Texas
2009: #1 Alabama vs. #4 TCU; #2 Texas vs. #3 Cincinnati
2010: #1 Auburn vs. #4 Stanford; #2 Oregon vs. #3 TCU
2011: #1 LSU vs. #4 Stanford; #2 Alabama vs. #3 Oklahoma State

In fourteen seasons, the Big Ten has placed ten teams in the BCS top four (if you include Nebraska's Big 12 years). Of those ten teams, four would have had the home game in the playoff system originally proposed by Delany. Four games, exactly two of which would be against SEC teams. It's nothing. It's a net statistical disadvantage, especially given the pollsters' current discounting of the Big Ten and love of the SEC and mid-majors like TCU and Boise; there's no coincidence that there wouldn't have been a Big Ten representative since 2007.

Delany gave up on four home games in fourteen years, but what he got was hard to understand -- we already had the Rose Bowl, after all -- until the SEC and Big 12 announced their own end-of-season bowl game Friday. With that, Delany's plan became evident. With the conferences poised to create a four-team tournament (as Delany and his athletic directors repeatedly stated this week, the four-team maximum is a deal-breaker) within the confines of the bowl system, Delany, Slive, Larry Scott, and whoever's running the Big 12 now, as heads of the four premiere football conferences, had just effectively locked themselves into the final four. More importantly, Delany had locked out the ACC and Big East (and Notre Dame, for that matter), the other two BCS bowl games, and the distinct possibility of two teams from the same conference making the tournament. There will be four champions in the playoffs, and with the two semifinal bowls effectively set as the Rose and (presumably) SEC-Big 12 Sugar, Delany has ensured that a Big Ten champ will be one of them. That's fourteen spots in fourteen years, with none of them in an opponent's stadium (unless UCLA makes it to the Rose Bowl) (LOL).

More important than the short-term consequences to the national championship tournament, though, is the long-term condition of the conference, and here, Delany has matched his Big Ten Network gambit. The Big Ten's financial position is already secure and about to be made better with a guaranteed cut of the playoff lucre. Its position in the pyramid of college football -- the supreme money-maker -- is likewise secured by his most recent move. His potential targets -- the northern and mid-Atlantic ACC/Big East schools and, yes, Notre Dame -- are on the outside looking in. His primary competition for those schools, the SEC, just added two schools that hold no interest for Delany, and were forced to do so when its expansion was not necessary and had no financial benefit to the conference. If the plan works, expansion round two will begin, and South Bend might not longer have a choice.

It's certainly not guaranteed. The ACC and Big East could agree to go to the Orange Bowl and press their luck that they are on equal footing with the other conferences. The mid-majors and their benefactors in the press can kick and scream about their exclusion until TCU again ends up in a Rose Bowl game. There are still months and months of negotiations left. But Delany's sitting on a big hand, and has shown his ability to play it right. This week, he gave up a position that looked pro-B1G but had no real chance of success and little actual benefit to the conference. In return, he received a massive benefit for the conference, both now and in the future.

Expect nothing less from the crazy man.

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