Jim Delany: Proud of UNC roots, Big Ten accomplishments

The Triangle intersection of ACC and Big Ten a weekend ago involved more than competition on the football field. Just south of Chapel Hill, on a ridge above the Haw River, a fellow recently voted the “Most Influential Person in College Sports” also stopped by, settling in for the games and a relaxed stay in quiet woods where he plans to retire.

Jim Delany was on hand for the first half of the Tar Heels beating Illinois at Kenan Stadium. Then he personally witnessed Northwestern’s second-half rally over Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium, the Blue Devils’ first nonconference home defeat since losing to Stanford four years earlier. The ACC Network, such as it is, didn’t make it easy to attend both games, scheduling the kickoffs 28 minutes apart.

Preceding the football competition the 26-year Big Ten commissioner decompressed for a few days, visiting with friends and tending to affairs on a rural property rich in historical and topographical interest.

“I saw it, fell in love with it,” Delany says, surveying his land from an unprepossessing modern wood and stone cabin notable for its big porches, understated touches of elegance, large and numerous windows, and a striking sylvan vista overlooking a flow of boulder-strewn water. “It was a very big, long-term project. I like projects and this is one with no end. So we built a little house and we all get down here in the spring and the fall and in the winter a little bit.”

Delany attended the nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after growing up in South Orange, N.J. He graduated in 1970 with a degree in political science after enjoying a three-year varsity basketball career as a guard under Dean Smith that included Final Four visits in 1968 and 1969. His senior year, Delany was co-captain with Charles Scott and Eddie Fogler. “I owe a lot to the place,” he says, referring to his alma mater. “It’s where I grew up and received a great education, a great athletic experience.”

Preparing for argumentation to come, Delany graduated UNC law school in 1973. He went to work for North Carolina government, experiencing first-hand the roiled passions of coastal-area residents confronted by pioneering land-use regulation meant to protect that sensitive region. By 1975 he moved to another controversy-laced realm, joining the NCAA’s enforcement staff.

Delany has been involved in the inner workings of college athletics ever since.

By mutual consent, he and a visitor agree to explore his Chatham County land before veering onto the more familiar terrain of ambiguous amateurism, power politics, conference restructuring, revenue streams, and pending court challenges.

Delany wore jeans and a dress shirt that had seen better days. Signs of autumn subtly intruded, with dogwood leaves tinting red and goldenrod blooming in yellow clumps along road verges. Afternoon temperatures were in the low 80s, matching the weather an hour and 40 minutes’ travel time away in Chicago, where Delany and wife Kitty make their primary residence. The humidity was mercifully low, the breeze a whisper, making strolls up and down the hillsides a gentle exercise for a 67-year-old who trained here a few years ago for a mountain climbing trek in Africa.

On the sharp slope below the Delanys’ cabin the undergrowth had been removed, the trees thinned and limbed to create a park-like landscape. Cleared sightlines revealed a spill of rock where an old mill race was a center of commerce starting in the mid-1700s, before Chatham was carved from Orange County on what was then considered the state’s western frontier.

The grist mill and dam, the latter 8 feet high and 100 feet wide, are long gone. Today’s moderate drought conditions have reduced the perennially flowing water to a thinly transparent ribbon in which a wading heron apparently still finds fish to support its stealthy hunting.

Beside the river’s main channel Delany has incorporated several millstones into a frame defining a perfectly groomed bocce court. Nearby, atop a thick, brick pillar that was a bridge support, he’s added a railed sitting area. The steel bridge reportedly was erased by a tornado, one of a spate of 28 that ripped through the South over two days in 1924, killing 114 people, four at this spot.

Eventually, no matter how relaxed and untrammeled the surroundings, the conversation veers to Delany’s area of expertise. After all, as voted by a dozen leaders in athletics surveyed by Jon Solomon of CBSSports -- among them N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow – Delany’s influence in contemporary college sports is unmatched.

The ACC boasts just three of the top 25 movers and shakers, according to the panel of experts: Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski ties Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer for 11th most influential; league commissioner John Swofford ranks 13th, behind the heads of every other power conference and the retired head of the SEC; and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick stands 20th.

“Being influential by definition means you work and collaborate with others,” Delany, No. 1 on the hit parade, explains with becoming modesty. “You try to influence events.”

There’s good reason to respect Delany’s influence. Shortly after he became Big Ten commissioner, and before league expansion became a craze, the conference set a tone by adding Penn State, then a national football power. A quarter-century later the league picked off Maryland, a founding member of the ACC.

Delany started a Big Ten cable TV network in partnership with Fox before anyone else dared, and watched it turn into a moneymaking machine. His league pioneered instant replay in football. Last year he sent up a trial balloon touting a “year of readiness,” better known as freshmen ineligibility. He’s been a forceful advocate for giving power conferences the enhanced flexibility “that we needed to address student-athlete concerns” such as 4-year scholarships and cost of attendance stipends, but within the structure of the NCAA.

“I believe in the big tent,” Delany says, revisiting a favorite personal talking point. “I believe we needed autonomy, but I think we needed it in association with a larger national organization.”

These days the buzz phrase that crops up in Delany interviews is “sweet spot” -- the juncture at which the interests of education, entertainment, competition and opportunity best coincide. A new topic is more realistically matching athletes’ desires to hone their skills with NCAA limits on practice time.

“I think we’ve got to find more balance,” he says. “What we’ve tried to do, what I’ve tried to do, is keep the education central to be involved in the standard-setting, but not to snuff out opportunities.”

That commitment, burnished by his experience playing for the venerated Smith, traces to Delany’s father, the first person from his family to attend college. Frank Delany went to Seton Hill on a partial athletic scholarship, playing baseball and basketball. “He always said, ‘Use athletics, don’t let athletics use you,’” his son says.

That’s just what Delany did in gaining his Piedmont foothold, a source of satisfaction and solace amid a demanding professional life. “It’s on my mind every day,” Jim Delany says of his home-away-from-home as a hawk screams somewhere overhead. “I still have energy for what I do, and have great projects that are going, good people to work with and work for. So it’s actually sufficient for me to know that it exists. I can enjoy it without being here.”