CHICAGO — Jim Delany is the commissioner of the Big Ten, but these days he seems more like a referee. Everybody’s fighting, and there’s not much he can do to break it up.
He came to Big Ten Media Days, and everyone wanted him to talk about all the scraping that’s going on around the league, but he filibustered. He leaned on Big Ten history, something that’s valued in this league more than any other, despite its recent changes in geographical spread, the path to a conference championship and those hipster things called divisions.
So when the question finally came about that split of East vs. West, or more commonly understood as the Big Ten Elite vs. everybody else, the 27-year commissioner went back to the script.
This league has changed enough, he said, and it has no plans to redo the divisions it implemented in 2014. The competitive imbalance that’s bubbling — the kind that has Big Ten East teams 2-0 in championship games, including a 59-0 final when Ohio State thumped Wisconsin, and boasting the top four recruiting classes in 2016 — is only what everyone asked for.
This is what the people wanted when they mocked the previous “Legends” and the “Leaders” model and asked a league to cultivate rivalries based on proximity and backyard recruiting battles.
What you’re seeing unfold is the change we’re going to get. It’s that imbalance overflowing like a volcano, blazing with it a trail that’s getting pretty hot.
You have Jim Harbaugh and Michigan’s no-boundaries Twitter policy, taking shots at Rutgers for playing copy-cat and Ohio State for possibly throwing shade. There’s also his policy of giving apologies when they’re warranted and the arrogant caveat that nobody has earned a public one yet.
“Usually, I subscribe to the ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ philosophy,” Harbaugh said Monday, “but when somebody talks about somebody you love or something you love or makes a personal attack, then you have a right to shoot one back over their bow.”
You have first-year Rutgers coach Chris Ash, a Meyer disciple, poking at Michigan by declining its invitation to join a satellite camp nearby by creating one of his own and inviting Meyer to attend.
“There’s no rivalry with Michigan yet,” Ash said Monday, almost begging you to italicize that last word.
You have first-year Maryland coach DJ Durkin caught in the middle of Harbaugh and Meyer, his fiery former bosses. Durkin only had nice things to say about either on Tuesday, but he’s also been only on the East’s boiling recruiting trail for a few months now.
Then you have the James Franklin interview that ran in the Reading Eagle, where the Penn State coach made a subtle suggestion that his East opponents could be using the Jerry Sandusky scandal to negatively recruiting against the Nittany Lions. Naturally, that spilled over into questions directed at Meyer and Mark Dantonio on Tuesday, both of whom strongly denied the possibility.
“I’ll address that with Coach Franklin, if that is an issue. That’s a pretty strong allegation that I’ve not heard yet,” Meyer said.
Sure, the questions asked to those two coaches on Tuesday misconstrued what Franklin was saying, when he didn’t accuse any specific programs of using those tactics. Sometimes details get lost in the flames.
This kind of rabid culture, on the field and on the recruiting trail, isn’t departing the Big Ten East, at least until self-selection sets in. Even then, as all that history shows us, Ohio State and Michigan aren’t going to stop hating each other. The league likely isn’t going to stop orbiting around those two power rivals at the top.
But what’s different now from the league that Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler ran is that it doesn’t resemble a boxing match so much as a seven-team brawl. It’s taking place in a ring out East, the one people asked for when the league’s attempt to distribute that power was seen as manipulating and weak.
That’s not to say the West division doesn’t have some intrigue in all of this. Out there, recruiting battles can expect to centralize here in Chicagoland, where Northwestern resides, where Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz has long dominated and where Illinois’ Lovie Smith has a run as the Bears coach to advertise.
But the hate that will soon start morphing and defining a conference on the rise will mostly populate itself where the great teams and great coaches are. It’s in their spirit and their blood, and if a ballroom in Chicago didn’t feel large enough for the egos and dreams that have formed in a mere two years, it’s hard to imagine the backyards in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and the various locations for the satellite camps will either.