(Yahoo!) Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was going to be expansive in his praise, generous in his optimism, trying to promote all 14 of his league teams (and their coaches) equally. That’s understandable.
Still, he understood.
He was standing on the field of the Superdome, savoring every moment, every blade of scarlet and gray confetti that came courtesy of Ohio State’s 42-35 victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff national semifinal. It capped a 3-1 day for his long-criticized league. As he should be, he was excited the Buckeyes will play Oregon on Jan. 12 for the national title.
And while he wasn’t crowing, he was aware maybe this was a day, at the end of this week, when the league’s perception (nationally and even among its own fans) might swing back.
Here was Year Three of Urban Meyer in Columbus, one of football’s finest coaches speeding past the mighty, mighty Crimson Tide. And it came days after another of Delany’s signature schools, the University of Michigan, lured Jim Harbaugh, another of football’s finest coaches, out of the NFL with the promise of one day doing the same.
Meanwhile, Mark Dantonio was showing Michigan State was still climbing, and James Franklin was beginning to dig Penn State out of its post-Sandusky disaster zone, and this no longer looked like a league that clung too heavily to its past … but one with an actual positive future that extended past just rising cable fees.
Meyer now, Harbaugh coming, glory days here again.
“It’s all about Jim,” Delany said. “I’ve never heard so much about a hire than Jim Harbaugh … Jim, Jim, Jim. … At the same time, Mike Riley [Nebraska] is a great hire, [Paul] Chryst [Wisconsin] is a great hire, and Harbaugh is a great hire. I’m pleased we’ve got three of them.”
Fair enough, the league has a bunch of good coaches. It also still has plenty of middling programs, the result of expansion and recruiting and population trends.
Still, it was a banner day for a league sick and tired of being told it was sick and tired.
“At some point it gets exhausting,” Meyer said. “When you keep hearing and hearing and then you start believing [it yourself].”
Delany has led the Big Ten since 1989 and brought in piles of cash (and new expansion teams). He’s also overseen some dark days for its football fortunes, especially on New Year's. There was a 13-year run with just one Rose Bowl victory. There were annihilations in BCS title games. There was Jan. 1, 2011, when Big Ten teams went 0-4 and lost by an average of 23.7 points.
There were all those “SEC! SEC!” chants echoing around stadiums like this.
“We haven’t had our way,” he noted.
Thursday? There was a dramatic 42-41 Michigan State comeback victory over Baylor. There was a 34-31 Wisconsin overtime triumph over Auburn. It was enough to forget Minnesota losing by 16 to Missouri.
And there was this, proof the league could field a team that could be competitive at the highest level … like being the last one standing in a slugfest with Nick Saban, the one-time Michigan State coach who like too many other Midwesterners (coaches and recruits, too) found greener pastures down South.
Other bowl games matter for pride, but winning the big ones is what matters most. This is what counts. The SEC built its brand with seven consecutive BCS title game victories. The Big Ten plays for one later this month.
“There shouldn’t be a narrative,” Delany said. “Every year is its own year. This year we won some games … Big Ten has had their day [in the past]. SEC has had their day. Maybe it's a new day. Who knows?"
It felt like something. Meyer has Ohio State firing on all cylinders and, if anything, is here a year early. His team is loaded with young, returning talent as he builds depth at all positions.
Meanwhile, the arrival of Harbaugh, a master coach, recruiter and motivator, should change everything in Ann Arbor. Suddenly it isn’t far-fetched for the league to have two elite national contenders each year out of its two most storied franchises. And that doesn’t include Michigan State and the others, who sure aren’t going to just concede ground.
As the sport moves into the playoff era, where because of the expanded field, perception isn’t as important, the opportunity is there. Under the old BCS, which Delany, of course, fought desperately for years to maintain, Ohio State wouldn’t even have gotten this chance, sunk by an early season loss to Virginia Tech and the belief the league wasn’t any good to begin with, robbing the Bucks of quality victories.
The playoff is here now though, so Delany is embracing it. Turns out it’s a boon for the Big Ten after all. It just shut out the SEC from the national title game for the first time in nine seasons.
“I think the Big Ten, the conference we’re a part of, certainly showed it's getting better,” Meyer said. “That’s not saying that the last couple of years maybe we weren’t … there’s one way to silence people and that’s to go out and play.”
The Big Ten is playing again. It was never as bad as people believed. And one day doesn’t mean it’s as good as it ever was.
The trend line is there, though. Big time coaches coming into the conference, marquee programs attaining their considerable potential, Meyer in Ohio, Harbaugh in Michigan, everyone buzzing about positive things and not about lopsided losses.
“It’s a good day,” Jim Delany said.
And it isn’t likely to be the last.