Big Ten athletic directors: Next commissioner must understand conference's 'culture'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
The Big Ten will be seeking a new commissioner once Jim Delany steps down in June 2020.

Rosemont, Ill. — All Barry Alvarez could do was laugh.

Well, that and quickly let folks know he had no interest in becoming the next commissioner of the Big Ten.

The Wisconsin athletic director and former football coach was at conference headquarters this week along with the rest of the Big Ten’s AD’s for their annual spring meetings, and the topic of who might replace outgoing commissioner Jim Delany was discussed.

As Ohio State’s Gene Smith pondered the question of what the Big Ten should be looking for, Alvarez walked by and Smith joked that Alvarez was the perfect fit. Alvarez responded with a playful tap to Smith’s neck and then made it clear when asked minutes later.

“No. No,” Alvarez said while laughing. “I’m moving toward Jim’s route.”

Delany's route, of course, is retirement. The Big Ten announced in March that Delany would step down on June 30, 2020, ending more than 30 years leading the conference. In that time, Delany has been the architect of significant changes, including the expansion to 14 teams and the creation of the Big Ten Network. He’s also negotiated significant television deals that have been critical for the health of the conference.

All of these issues make it critical the conference picks the right person to take over, and that person needs to understand the history of the Big Ten.

 “I’ll be looking for a person who understands who we are,” Smith said. “We’re a value-based league. Someone that understands first and foremost who we are, our value and our culture. And then somebody who has the ability to connect. Relationships are so important. Someone that can help guide us through what’s coming at us. There’s a lot of things coming at us, from this transfer issue to names, visual likeness. What’s coming at us.”

Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman echoed Smith’s sentiments.

“From my personal perspective, probably the most important criteria is somebody that sort of gets the Big Ten,” Beekman said. “I think the conference has sustained itself for many decades and has grown carefully and thoughtfully and has a unique culture that has allowed us to do great things. The Big Ten always has been very stable and solid, and lot of that has do with culture that has developed between the member institution.”

That would seem to make someone from within the conference the right fit.

One of the names that comes up often as a possible replacement is Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips.

“Jim’s a strong leader,” Alvarez said. “As an athletic director he’s been involved in a lot of committee work, understands the league, he’s well-respected. I don’t see why not.”

That doesn’t guarantee someone with Big Ten ties will get the job.

The conference has brought in a search firm to help in the process, and Northwestern president Morton Schapiro is chairing the committee charged with making the final decision.

But there seems little doubt someone from within the conference will get serious consideration.

“I think the right person from inside the league would be appropriate,” Smith said. “I think if it’s something they want to do. Their advantage of understanding us, I think you can’t say that too lightly. I mean, we’re different. We’re different than a lot of leagues. We’re collaborative. We’re collegial. We work together. We make sacrifices for one another. Look at the Friday night deal in football. At the end of the day, we do what’s best for the league and that takes sacrifice. Somebody to help continue that is very important.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau