Jim Delany answers a question the way he ran Dean Smith's four-corner offense at North Carolina 45 years ago. The ball moves from the top of the key to the corner to the elbow to the opposite corner, then back to the key. In those days before the shot clock, the four-corners may not have been the shortest path to the hoop, but Delany got where he wanted to go.
The four-corners comes to mind when Delany describes his 25 years as commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. He has played the long game, meandering even when he wanted to slash to the basket. He championed expansion, yet the Big Ten moved deliberately, waiting more than two decades to grow from 11 members (Penn State, 1990) to 12 (Nebraska, 2011) and, beginning this summer, to 14 (Maryland, Rutgers).
Delany worked for nearly a decade to convince his members to stage a conference basketball tournament. The 17th edition just finished selling out Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, a year after the conference filled the United Center in Chicago.
And he even eventually came around to support the College Football Playoff.
And now, with college athletics on the verge of historic changes, Delany is playing the long game again.
A former quarterback at Northwestern, one of the Big Ten's members, is leading the charge to unionize the locker room. But Delany is continuing to push the concept of college athletics. He is adamant that colleges should not and need not take on the look, feel and W-2s of professional teams.
"What I'm confident about is that the more collegiate we are, the more sustainable we are," Delany said. "The less collegiate we are, the more I think the environment we are in is going to be challenged."
That doesn't mean that Delany is resistant to change. He wants to funnel more benefits to student-athletes. He recalls receiving $15 in "laundry money" at North Carolina. He is in favor of providing the full cost of attendance to scholarship recipients, which would put money in many pockets that have none.
"We shouldn't forget that a lot of schools don't have the resources to do that," Delany said. "So it should be OK to give partial scholarships, too, in any sport. ... You have to be fair with what you have."
The Big Ten is awash in money, thanks to the seven-year-old Big Ten Network, which makes the league's programs, athletes and competitions available to 73 million home across the country. But he believes there are steps available to all schools, even the ones whose annual media revenue doesn't stretch to eight figures.
He remembers the security and trust of a four-year scholarship, and wants all Division I sports to ditch the one-year scholarship now used. He recalls being able to get a summer job and having the opportunity to study abroad, privileges rarely granted to today's Division I student-athletes. He knows the NCAA 20-hour-a-week limit for student-athletes is as effective as the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit on the freeway near his suburban Chicago office.
"We should prioritize the welfare of the athlete over the welfare of anything else," Delany said. "So that requires maybe re-looking at time demands. It's not just Division I. It's Division II and Division III. The studies show me [student-athletes are] spending somewhere between 35 and 43 hours [per week]. We may have to close the facility."
Lock kids out of the weight room? The gym? Force a vacation? Make them hang out in the dorm and order pizza and hang out in the hallway? Once upon a time, that's what student-athletes did.
"I know kids want to play, and coaches want to improve their [players'] skills, and I know that people specialize earlier and want to have dreams," Delany said. "I just don't want those dreams to turn into nightmares. I want them to get a reasonable kind of education. ... We ought to make the time balance between academic, personal and athletic a little bit more balanced."
He believes there's no reason that the FBS shouldn't adopt an early signing period. If it works in basketball, it will work in football. That may not go over well with his coaches.
"They have their mission in life, which is to recruit and to win and there's pressure on them to win, and I get that," Delany said. "But I have a mission in life, too, which is to make it as collegiate as possible and as good for as many people as I can. They understand that. I understand theirs, and there's some healthy tension there."
An early-signing period, to Delany's mind, is a benefit to the kid. It's another avenue, another choice. He paints the future of intercollegiate athletes as a freedom of choice. He believes the Big Ten can be the Big Ten without its members paying salaries to student-athletes. He believes Division I can thrive regardless of whether the NFL and the NBA need a farm system.
Every professional sport has its own rules for eligibility, anyway. The colleges don't control them. So Delany focuses on what colleges can do.
"I think we can provide for affordability," Delany said. "I think we can provide for access and opportunity."
Delany believes in the collegiate model. He believes it will continue to evolve. He loves being the Big Ten point guard and says, at age 66, he has no plans to retire. Delany works well without a shot clock.