CHICAGO -- It's not Jim Delany's style to simply restate the party line. The Big Ten commissioner has always been one to step out on his own.
Wednesday, he took the ongoing discussion about the NCAA one step further.
Delany didn't echo the pointed criticism of the NCAA from his commissioner colleagues, but he agreed that some restructuring needs to be done with college sports' governing body. He devoted much of his media-day address presenting a four-point proposal shaped around academics -- "the substance" to go along with the necessary structural changes, including the possibility of the major football-revenue-generating schools forming a separate division within the NCAA.
"Restructuring, great; high-resource institutions, great," Delany said. "But if we don't reattach and reconnect on these educational-based initiatives I don't care what restructuring comes out of it -- we're not going to be where we want to be."
Here's a look at Delany's reform ideas:
1. Lifetime educational coverage for college players
Under Delany's plan, an educational trust would be set up by institutions, conferences or at a national level that would ensure education coverage for athletes even if they drop out or leave school early to turn pro. "We'll stand behind you, so when you're ready to get serious, or when you have the time, we'll support your college education degree for your lifetime," he said.
2. Limits on time spent on sports
Delany acknowledged the obvious, that major-college athletes spend way more than 20 hours per week (the NCAA limit) on their respective sports. He also admitted that athletes are specializing in one sport at an earlier age, and that training regimens have ramped up more and more. Delany met with the Big Ten football coaches earlier Wednesday and asked how they can help enforce stricter limits. "It's my belief that if you're going to be a full-time student, you have to have time to be a full-time student."
3. At-risk student-athletes
Delany is supportive of providing educational opportunities to athletes from tough backgrounds, but he questions their readiness to handle the academic and athletic workloads at major colleges. He proposes "a year of residence," by which athletes can acclimate to the athletic environment without losing a year of eligibility. "Give them the financial aid they need," Delany said, "but let's make sure that we haven't shortchanged anyone or exploited anyone because we've taken at-risk students and haven't given them the adequate time to prepare to transition educationally."
4. Increasing the value of athletic scholarships
This is hardly a new issue. Delany first brought it up more than two years ago at the Big Ten spring meetings. Despite support from NCAA president Mark Emmert and other major-conference commissioners, there has been no movement nationally on increasing scholarship values with a stipend, possibly all the way to federal cost-of-attendance values. This would apply to all full-scholarship athletes and meet Title IX standards. "It's the right thing to do," Delany said. "Whether that's $2,000, $3,000 or $4,000, I don't know, but we need to address that." He added that some schools in the five major conferences -- Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC -- haven't supported the plan to increase the value of scholarships, but it's time to get on the same page.
Delany's plan will resonate with some and come off as idealistic to others. He prefaced it by talking about his belief in college sports and his experiences as a basketball player at North Carolina.
"I believe in the opportunity for young people to go to college through intercollegiate athletics, who otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity to go there," he said. "I believe in the equal opportunity of players and students to achieve that opportunity. These, in some ways, seem like maybe quaint ideals, but they're more than a quaint ideal to me."
There's no denying that Delany presented his plan with the ongoing Ed O'Bannon-NCAA antitrust lawsuit in mind. He has been steadfast in his belief that college athletes shouldn't be paid and that it could destroy the structure of college sports.
Delany said Wednesday that the O'Bannon lawsuit could end up reaching the U.S. Supreme Court and that Congress could get involved with the Title IX component.
Although Delany's talk centered on the NCAA going forward, he also addressed the organization's embattled leader, Emmert, saying that the NCAA president has done some good things and also made some mistakes along the way while he's "learned on the job."
"We've tried to work with him in every way we can on every major issue that's come up," Delany said. "I wish him the best and have no motive other than to see him and the NCAA succeed, but there's no doubt that we have challenging times and he's the leader of an entity that's our group but also is responsible and accountable for where we are over the last three years.
"But most of the challenges we have at the NCAA predate Mark Emmert."
Delany later told ESPN.com that the NCAA's scrutinized enforcement group has been "a lightning rod within a lightning rod." As a former NCAA investigator, Delany said he plans to study the situation further and provide some suggestions going forward.
"I would like to see the people who make the mistakes pay the price and see the institution pay a lesser price," Delany said. "I would like to see it clearer when an institution is in jeopardy on institutional control that that's reserved for the worst of the worst. And I want to make sure if you make a mistake, there's a process. We should be able to communicate better which are the major [infractions] and which are the not-so-major ones."
Delany doesn't think the major football-revenue schools have to separate themselves from the rest, and the big schools still will likely always compete against those with fewer resources. But "some autonomy" is needed.
Although the NCAA has come under fire in recent months, Delany sees better days ahead with major reforms now on the table at the highest levels.
"Very optimistic we'll get [change]," he said. "And I think we may get it within a year. The conference commissioners I've spoken with throughout the range of Division I are open for that discussion. It's necessary, and it's a traditional organization and it needs to innovate -- as we all do -- and I'm pretty optimistic that we'll do that."