Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is one of the smartest and most persuasive people in the sports world. If he wasn't leading the nation's richest athletic conference, Delany, who has a law degree from North Carolina, could be a fearsome figure in the courtroom.
But Delany has a hard sell ahead of him, perhaps the hardest sell of his career. He will spend much of the next three months on the East Coast facilitating and promoting the additions of new Big Ten members Rutgers and Maryland, which officially join the league July 1. The public relations blitz started last month at ESPN headquarters, where Delany appeared alongside athletic directors Kevin Anderson of Maryland and Julie Hermann of Rutgers.
— Big Ten Conference (@bigtenconf) March 11, 2014
Delany must get people excited about two schools that have barely moved the needle and, from my dealings with Big Ten fans, elicit more sighs and groans than the cheers that accompanied Nebraska's move to the league in 2011.
Hermann isn't helping.
The Rutgers' AD, whose hiring brought more controversy to a school reeling from the Mike Rice scandal, and whose role in the Jevon Tyree bullying allegations was questioned, is in the news again for the wrong reasons. Hermann several weeks ago told a Rutgers journalism class that it would be "great" if the Star-Ledger newspaper folded. The Star-Ledger, the largest newspaper in New Jersey, last week laid off 167 employees.
Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi outlines the exchange Hermann had in the class in today's piece:
"If they're not writing headlines that are getting our attention, they're not selling ads -- and they die," Hermann told the Media Ethics and Law class. "And the Ledger almost died in June, right?"
"They might die again next month," a student said.
"That would be great," she replied. "I'm going to do all I can to not give them a headline to keep them alive."
Hermann's comments came before the layoffs, and Rutgers said in a statement that she "had no knowledge of the impending reorganization of the Star-Ledger and drastic changes that the newspaper would announce several weeks later, in April." The statement also reads that Hermann shared her experiences "in an informal way and out of the glare of the media spotlight."
It's a journalism class! In 2014! How Hermann could think no one would record her is absurd.
I've been doing this job long enough to know sympathy for journalists is in short supply. That's fine. The people we cover don't need to feel sorry for us. The folks that read us certainly don't, and that's OK, too.
But to make light of a newspaper's potential demise is not only inappropriate, especially in a journalism class, but mean-spirited. Has Hermann received a lot of scrutiny in her job? No doubt. Has she brought on some of it herself? Absolutely. As people in her position know, it comes with the territory.
Take Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, for example. During the Tat-5/Jim Tressel/Bobby DiGeronimo scandal fallout, I repeatedly criticized Smith for his refusal to acknowledge a systematic failure at Ohio State. Our dealings since then have been cordial and professional. Smith is a veteran AD at a big-time school. He understands the scrutiny. I'd be stunned if he ever made a comment like Hermann's in a public setting.
To be fair, Hermann is a first-time AD working in a major media market. She arrived during an incredibly turbulent time at Rutgers. The pressure on her hasn't eased much during the past 10 months.
But you have to be smarter than this, especially at a time when the Big Ten wants people, including East Coast media, to get excited about Rutgers coming to the league.
Maybe ripping The Star-Ledger is part of a plan to win over the Rutgers community, because a misguided faction of its fan base that blames the media for every problem in Piscataway will no doubt cheer her on.
But I'm betting more will see her comments as what they are: Unbefitting a person in a high-profile position at a major university, at a time when Rutgers needs a leader for its transition into the Big Ten.
She has declared war on the largest news gathering organization that covers her athletic department. What could possibly be gained by that?
Delany is probably asking the same question.