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What The Big Ten Conference Teaches Us About Making Critical Decisions

7 min read

Over the past decade, perhaps no single organization has had a greater impact on its respective industry than the Big Ten Conference has on college sports. For the first hundred years of the conference’s existence, both the Big Ten and the college sports landscape as a whole had a largely uneventful history. While new schools entered the highest levels of collegiate athletics, for the most part competition remained regional and leaders of academia scoffed at the idea of breaking tradition to pursue a national spotlight and new streams of revenue. It was not until the Big Ten hired James E. Delany as their commissioner in 1989, that the college athletics paradigm started to shift from a university afterthought to the multi-billion dollar industry it has become today.


As with many new leaders, in becoming commissioner of the Big Ten, Delany immediately went to work overhauling an organization with tremendous potential but one that was ill positioned to take advantage of an operating environment that was ripe with opportunity. While Delany was unsure what lay ahead for college athletics in the coming years, he did know that his time as commissioner was not guaranteed for very long, and if he was to make a potentially controversial move, he should do it fairly early on in his tenure when his superiors would be more forgiving of a mistake. That is why just a year into his tenure, the Big Ten expanded for the first time in over 40 years by adding the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State).


“There wasn’t a lot of strategic thought involved [in our decision to expand],” reflects Delany.  “We were approached by Penn State, and most of our presidents were receptive to adding a likeminded institution. I was pretty certain change was necessary, but admittedly it was a gut decision.  A lot of our constituents and conference alumni disparaged us for breaking from tradition with such a sudden move. In retrospect, although we got the right results, we did it with terrible execution.”


While in the long run, the addition of Penn State would turn out to be the correct move, Delany and his staff realized that by rushing into a decision without having any sort of process to insure they were making the right choice was the business equivalent of playing Russian roulette. Fortunately, because other conferences remained largely unreactive to the Big Ten’s acquisition, Delany and his staff were able to sit back and carefully plan their next move, all the while building relationships with key stakeholders – their own institutional presidents.


“I knew that when college athletics began to change again, we’d need to not only make rapid decisions, but sell them to our [conference] presidents,” explains Delany. We’d have to leverage the past to build for the future, and that would require leading from the bottom as much as from the top. The only way you can sustain the discomfort that comes with change is by being trusted by the very people the change will affect the most. A good plan executed decisively is much better than a perfect plan executed hesitantly, and to be decisive you need buy-in from those around you.”


Delany and his staff spent the next decade building a foundation of trust and cooperation amongst their member institutions through a series of progressively more important decisions, culminating in the creation of the Big Ten Network, the first television network dedicated solely to broadcasting content related to a single intercollegiate athletics conference. While launching the network was a risky move because it required a considerable investment of manpower and financial resources, Delany also knew that it would act as a case study for the conference’s ability to make far more difficult decisions when the time came.


“What can you do to mitigate failure and increase success? Big risk requires you to make a compelling case to the rest of your organization, but there better be a big reward at the end to warrant it. As a leader, you have to be prepared for failure, because if it’s a big letdown, it will be the last decision you ever make. This is why it’s critical to make small but important decisions first before you ask your organization to deal with something far more complicated,” explains Delany.


During this relatively quiet time, the Big Ten began to analyze the college sports landscape and attempted to determine what was ahead of the curve that their rival conferences weren’t seeing. They played game theory and asked themselves what would be both the obvious and unintended consequences if they expanded again. They eventually came to the realization that there was far more risk in defending the status quo than being proactive and making a new acquisition. What might not have made a lot of sense fifteen years ago made imminent sense now. For the Big Ten, it became clear that it wasn’t a question of whether the conference should expand anymore, but rather what school they should add.


“When you’re making any decision, you have to not only be aware of your own inadequacies, but also be in touch with your organizational DNA. You have to know where you came from and how you got here in the first place before you can figure out where you’re going,” opines Delany. “When we choose to expand again, we looked at the integration of academics and athletics for candidate institutions as our primary criteria, then geography, because those two factors were at the core of the Big Ten”.


As the Big Ten readied for expansion, Delany became cognizant that the conferences past success with Penn State would also be their biggest obstacle in replicating such results in the future. This is because many organizations are particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias when making decisions if they have had success in the past. In many cases, they find themselves armed with a solution in search of a problem. They hunt for patterns that draw parallels to their past victories, over valuing similarities and ignoring distinctions that create a fit where none really exists.


According to Delany, “a critical component of successful decision making is disciplining yourself to lay out both the positives and negatives of acting and not acting in any given situation, while simultaneously distancing yourself from your past success. You have to be cognizant that every action or inaction is a decision, and you have to be able to make a compelling case for both. These exercises cannot occur on short notice either; you have to start building the analytical tools necessary to make such an analysis well in advance of the decision.”


The Big Ten’s eventual decision to invite the University of Nebraska, a then member of the Big XII Conference, would send shockwaves throughout the sporting world. While many pundits argued that tradition was being sacrificed at the expense of a bigger paycheck for the conference, others saw it as a coup for the Big Ten. Whatever the opinion was, Nebraska’s move sparked nothing short of a tidal wave of realignment that eventually would lead to almost a hundred different institutions changing their conference affiliation. While the Big Ten knew their expansion could cause other conferences to go on the offensive and attempt similar acquisitions, they could never have predicted the degree and speed to which such a change would happen.


Delany knew that the sudden tumult created by the Big Ten’s first move could force the conference into a defensive posture that would be counterproductive to the very purpose of their decision to expand in the first place. As other conferences like the  Atlantic Coast (ACC) and Southeastern (SEC)  began to gobble up teams from the Big East and Big XII, there was a distinct possibility that future targets for Big Ten expansion might choose to pursue other opportunities if someone came calling. For all their decisional forethought, the Big Ten was now forced into playing a high-stakes game of poker with rival conferences. Delany had to find a way to convince his institutional leaders and senior management to step back and rationally reassess the situation before it spiraled out of control. They had to put an end to the current round of mass alignment, while also securing the conference’s long term future.


Esteemed author Robert Greene argues that great strategic leaders know that the best way to counter-act a perception of vulnerability is by forcing one’s competitors off balance by taking bold action. In a time where decisiveness is critical, timidity can be fatal. By acting with confidence and having the audacity to undergo a seemingly risky action, Delany and the Big Ten could push other conferences back into a defensive position. This allows us to begin to rationalize  how the decision to add Rutgers University and the University of Maryland came about. By recruiting these two institutions, which many could never have imagined as members of the Big Ten, the conference could force their rivals to consolidate their losses and protect what remaining interests they had left.


“When we expanded with Nebraska, we did the right thing about being transparent but still ended up upsetting a lot of people and made other conferences react by using expansion to protect their own interests. When we made the decision to bring in Rutgers and Maryland, we were far more strategic and avoided transparency so as to prevent a similar reaction. By the time the news broke, there was little other conferences could do other than increase their exit fees in an effort to prevent anyone else from leaving,” explains Delany.


Indeed, this bold and unexpected move helped position the Big Ten Conference as arguably the most financially secure and stable conference in all of college sports. With the additions of Rutgers and Maryland, the footprint of the Big Ten will stretch halfway across the country and be composed of 14 tradition rich flagship universities whose academic, athletic and cultural fits are perfectly aligned. Of course, Delany admits that because so many hard decisions have been made in such a short period, the conference must once again strengthen itself for the challenges it will face in the future.


“In our world, you don’t have an unlimited amount of time, political capital and resources. You need to understand that when you’re taxing the institutions and their leadership, you can’t overdue it either,” says Delany. “We need to make sure that what we’ve done is working, and make sure everything we do is with the goal of assimilating our new members. While we may miss out on some opportunities in the meantime, you have to remember that by chasing everything, you’ll usually end up with nothing.”


In the end, great tacticians and decision makers like Jim Delany stand out not because they are more intelligent than others, but rather because they have a unique ability to drop preconceived notions of their past success and focus intensely on seizing the opportunity in front of them. You can have all the intellect and wisdom in the world, but nothing can prepare you for the chaos that can occur in the heat of making a critical decision. More importantly, they understand that their job as leaders is not to make decisions for their organizations, but to help facilitate the process for those they serve.


“Each iteration of change an organization goes through has its own intellectual and emotional challenges, but what doesn’t change is that you are not the decision maker, but rather the guide. The board makes the decision. The Big Ten was here 90 years before I came along, and will be here 90 years from now when I’m long gone. I just hope I’ve helped leave the conference better off than when I arrived.”