Even a visionary can have blurry vision.
Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference and as brilliant with a crystal ball as any sports administrator in this country, is now saying one of his master plans has master malfunctioned.
He was talking about this season’s condensed Big Ten basketball schedule, which has been brutal on teams, players and most of all fans. He was talking about it because the compaction of the schedule was necessary in order to realize Delany’s dream of taking the Big Ten Tournament to Broadway.
Once he invited Maryland and Rutgers to join the conference in 2014, he also promised that the schools were not merely going to be distant neighbors living on the fringe of a Midwest footprint. He assured them the league was truly expanded East and would, on occasion, be bringing its tournaments and media events there as well.
The league opened satellite offices in Washington, D.C. and New York City. Last season the Big Ten men’s basketball media day event was in Washington, D.C., and for the first time the conference basketball tournament was in D.C., too. This season the media day event was in New York City.
But in order to bring the conference tournament to Madison Square Garden, Delany had to settle for holding it a week earlier than usual. Thus the entire schedule had to be jammed into a calendar that honestly couldn’t handle it.
The Illini's 75-62 win at Rutgers Sunday was the school's fourth game in eight days. And the home, road, home, road rotation of those final four games has been a logistical killer.
The real victim, though, has been the fans.
The fact Illinois has not played a single Saturday home game during Big Ten play is a crime. I’ve had fans tell me they want to take their children to a game and Saturday is the one day that makes the most sense. But there are no Saturday games.
And midweek games that begin at 8 p.m. are a poor substitute, especially for any family driving from Decatur, Bloomington, Springfield or Peoria. Heaven forbid if those fans are coming from the Chicago area or St. Louis.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Delany agreed the plan has been a bust.
“I appreciate the sacrifices the teams made, the impact it had on our students,” Delany said. “Wasn’t good. Wasn’t healthy. I thought starting the (conference schedule) early was OK, but if you look at our schedules (through the years), we’ve been able to give everybody two-day preps (before games) in 99 percent of the cases.”
Because of the compacted schedule, Illini coach Brad Underwood said Illinois had only a single day of preparation eight or nine times.
“We won’t do it this way again and I take responsibility for asking the coaches,” Delany said.
Delany isn’t saying the Big Ten is done bringing the tournament to an Eastern site. He’s just saying it hasn’t been worth forcing the schedule to end one full week before Selection Sunday.
“If we can make it back to the Garden on a regular week, that’s great,” Delany said. “I know we’ll be back out East. Where we will be, I don’t know. It won’t be on a regular basis.
"I expect that 80 percent (of the conference tournaments) will be in legacy territory (Chicago and Indianapolis) and probably 20 percent out East, whether it’s in D.C. or Philadelphia or New York.”
Many fans will blame Delany beyond the decision to shorten the season by a week. They’ll say the decision to accept Maryland and Rutgers to get to 14 teams was a mistake and has created awkward matchups with no regional interest.
Rutgers, in particular, seems to be the conference brother no one really wants to invite to Christmas dinner.
That may be true now. But Delany’s track record for being right in the long run demands patience. He’s not wrong to push for more interest in the most heavily populated region of the country, one with so many TVs that Delany’s Big Ten Network simply had to pursue opportunities there.
Underwood, a first-year coach in the league, has been careful not to rock the boat with comments about the schedule.
“Jim is way smarter than I am,” Underwood said Saturday when asked about Delany’s admission that the schedule backfired. “He understands and I think (going back to the original schedule) is what’s in the best interest of the student-athletes. We’ll get back to having our conference tournament in the last weekend.
“But you know what? The schedule is what it is and we’ll show up and play. I was glad to hear he said that, though.”
It will never get back to where it once was, however.
Fans want Saturday games. They’d like them to start at 1 p.m. For midweek games, start earlier than 8. And forget Fridays.
Trouble is, the Big Ten’s TV partners (ESPN, Fox and CBS) have inventory to fill and they just signed a $2.64 billion deal to fill it.
That said, it’s important to note that the league and its TV partners — not the University of Illinois — is pulling the strings and filling those time slots. They create the schedule.
Illini AD Josh Whitman didn’t like the absence of Saturday games one bit. He didn’t like playing at Wisconsin on a Friday night. He answers to fans unhappy with the status quo.
But he likes the $50 million check the league will hand him when it comes time to divvy up the money.
Delany’s vision has helped write that check. In this case, though, he missed the mark.