Jim Delany spent last week visiting six Big Ten campuses, a mini tour that simply reinforced what the commissioner already assumed about the league.
He saw large, iconic stadiums built in the 20th century modernized for the 21st-century fan. He saw top-of-the-line practice facilities, training tables, academic support programs and local branding efforts, including the can't-miss markings of social media. He saw the upshot of a league delivering its schools record revenue shares, thanks in large part to the success of the Big Ten Network.
"Our reach is national," Delany said Sunday during a phone interview with ESPN.com. "There's national awareness, and the schools are of national quality. We have resources and commitment. These are phenomenal places with rich traditions, and they've all been captured exceedingly well. We want to recruit nationally, we want to play nationally, we want to telecast nationally.
"We want to do everything we can to be nationally impactful."
But the most nationally impactful thing the Big Ten can do to boost its perception has become its greatest challenge -- win a national championship in football. More than a decade has passed since Big Ten hands hoisted the coveted crystal football. The Big Ten has been a no-show in the title game in the past five seasons. The league is 3-9 in the Rose Bowl during the BCS era. It has sub-.500 bowl records in 10 of the past 13 years.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten's top rival, the SEC, has captured the past seven national titles, ascending to the pinnacle of college football, and letting everyone know about it.
Tradition is at the core of the Big Ten's fabric. Although Legends and Leaders are (thankfully) going away, no league celebrates its past as publicly as the Big Ten does. But the Big Ten's recent tradition hasn't provided much to celebrate.
"The SEC has so dominated the national championships in football, the rest of us are just wanting to break through," Delany said. "That's the reality."
Big Ten coaches are tired of the SEC love, but as Michigan head coach Brady Hoke acknowledges, "they've earned it." He notes that Michigan has performed well against current SEC opponents (24-11-1) and was "11 seconds away" from another win before blowing a lead against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
But the SEC is winning the games that matter most and continuing to set the agenda in the sport.
"It's like anything else, you get tired of hearing your wife tell you, 'Take out the garbage,'" Hoke said. "What are you going to do? You're going to go take out the garbage so you don't hear it anymore."
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who helped start the SEC's run of championships by guiding Florida past Ohio State in the title game following the 2006 season, said there's a gap between the Big Ten and the SEC that can be gauged by recent bowl performances and NFL drafts (the Big Ten had only 22 players drafted in April's draft, its lowest total since 1994; the SEC produced a record 63 picks). But Meyer has faith the Big Ten can rise up, and not just Ohio State and Michigan, which many assume will recreate the Big 2/Little 8 dynamic prevalent throughout the league's history, because of their recent success on the recruiting trail.
"I've been around the Big Ten my entire life," said Meyer, who grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio. "There was a time where Iowa was No. 1 in America. There's Penn State, there's Wisconsin, there was a time when Illinois played in the Rose Bowl, Northwestern right now is playing at a very high level and recruiting well, Michigan State is always right there. I do believe it is happening.
"I just hear what I hear and see what I see, and everybody is working really hard because the Big Ten has got to go [forward]. The bottom line now is go win some big-time bowl games. That's the best branding you can do."
Click here for the rest of Adam Rittenberg's story.