But that is only because Notre Dame is keeping mum.
Speaking to a roomful of reporters at the Royal Palms resort -- most of whom had been lured here by a report of an "accelerated timetable" that ran in Saturday's Chicago Tribune -- Delany said that "there has been no change in our timetable, no announcements here. We're still waiting 12 to 18 months."
The Big Ten is still waiting 12 to 18 months because the most obvious choice to round the conference out to an even dozen, Notre Dame, has yet to accept the rose (not to mention Rose Bowl) Delany is proffering. And until the Fighting Irish do, or unless they do, Big Ten bigwigs will continue to drone on about "evaluative tools" and "exploratory processes".
The Fighting Irish are the clear-cut choice. Geographically, Notre Dame is located in the epicenter of Big Ten country. In terms of attention, no school mobilizes and polarizes more interest than the last remaining gridiron independent without a direct tie to the Pentagon. And among Big 10 schools academically, only Northwestern (12th) is ranked higher than the Fighting Irish (20th) in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings released just this week (curiously enough, the University of Chicago, a charter Big Ten school that also produced the first Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger, comes in at eighth).
And so, while Delany and the Big Ten presidents practice discretion in discussing how, when, where, why and, most importantly, with whom the conference might forge an alliance, it would all end the moment that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick says -- even so much as whispers, "We're in."
Inside a (never so aptly named) conference room here Wednesday sat Delany, Swarbrick and the commissioners of the other ten FBS conferences. They convened amidst a rectangle of tables as if this were a second coming of the Potsdam Conference. Except that, instead of dividing post-war Europe, at issue here is the inevitable realignment of the Big Ten and the subsequent tectonic shifts to follow as a result of that.
Delany spoke responsibly and circumspectly about conference expansion, noting that the Big Ten has retained consultants who are developing software that will allow them to evaluate each prospective candidate along various metrics. "They provide evaluative tools to help us understand our own values," said Delany, who first announced last December that the Big Ten would begin a 12-18 month exploratory expansion process.
Blah, blah, blog.
Any overture made to an existing conference member, such as Missouri (Big 12) or Connecticut (Big East) comes with baggage. As well as the potential for things getting ugly. Inviting Mizzou to join the Big Ten -- excuse me, inviting Mizzou to apply to be accepted into the Big Ten -- is akin to marrying the divorcee with three kids and an ex- with an "I am the NRA" bumper sticker. Notre Dame, coincidentally enough, represents the fair maiden. No conference ties, no baggage. It's just one more reason that the Fighting Irish are so appealing.
Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson, an amiable sort whose conference will not be directly affected by this upheaval (in our Potsdam scenario, the MWC is Portugal), spoke candidly about conference loyalty. "How do you keep a school?" Thompson said. "You don't. You don't keep an institution if they can find a better situation for themselves with someone else. It's like marriage. You do everything to make your spouse happy, but there are no guarantees."
For better or for worse, apparently, has gone the way of the University of Chicago's Big Ten membership.
Then again Delany, when asked about the glacial pace of expansion, said, "You're not trying to find someone you're going to spend a year with. You're trying to decide who you're going to be for the next twenty-five to fifty years."
Which brings us back to Notre Dame. Swarbrick, the athletic director, possesses a rare perspective that is ideally suited to grappling with the issue that, athletically, could define the next half-century for Notre Dame. And if you know even a little about Notre Dame, then you know that the way the school defines itself athletically plays no small role in how the Fighting Irish define themselves as a whole.
Swarbrick, 56, is a Notre Dame alumnus from the era of the school's last true heyday, the late '70s. He is also a Stanford-educated attorney who was the chairman of the Indiana Sports Corporation, an organization that waged successful bids to persuade the NCAA to relocate to Indianapolis as well as for the Super Bowl to camp there one year. Swarbrick is in tune with Notre Dame, but he also acutely understands the arm-twisting involved in persuading monolithic sports enterprises to change direction -- or address.
On Wednesday Swarbrick uttered the name "Jess Harper," which is Fighting Irish code for "fiercely independent." It was Harper, the gridiron coach of and predecessor to Knute Rockne, who led the Irish into their barnstorming ways when the upper echelon of the Big Ten -- then known as the Western Conference -- refused to schedule them.
In brief, because this is a tale that has been often told but merits reminding, Notre Dame might today be the University of Chicago. athletically, had the Big Ten not black-balled the school's athletic teams. By compelling the Irish (the nickname would not come for another decade or so) to travel far and wide for competition, the Big Ten unwittingly propelled the Irish into becoming the national phenomenon that they would become in the 1920s, the Golden Age of American sports. Certainly, the charisma and success of Rockne had something to do with it as well.
And so, from a Notre Dame perspective, it is richly ironic that the Big Ten, for the second time in a dozen or so years, is courting the Irish. While Delany has not courted the Irish by name -- as the conference did in 1999 -- it is hard to imagine what Big Ten president, athletic director or humanities professor would not place Notre Dame atop its prospective members list.
Then again, the Fighting Irish also find themselves at a precipice. While independence served them well in the 20th century, is it the best way for the Catholic school located in South Bend, Ind., to proceed in the 21st? There are, after all, only a handful of players on the Irish football roster who were even born the last time Notre Dame won a national championship. The conundrum for Notre Dame is how much longer the brand can remain competitive (more than a few critics would say that day has already passed) if the Irish fail to embrace conference affiliations. Do you realize, after all, that it has been nearly 20 years since A) anyone besides NBC televised a Notre Dame home football game and B) (and perhaps this is only coincidental) the Irish last defeated a No. 1-ranked team (1993)?
Still, just by invoking the name of Harper, Swarbrick has signaled to the school's legion of followers, the majority of whom probably would vote for Notre Dame to remain independent, that no paradigm shift is in the offing. And so the Big Ten and Delany will continue to proceed with the expansion process with the lightning speed that once attached itself to health-care reform.
As Delany was winding down his 15 minutes or so with the media on Wednesday, he was asked how many schools the Big Ten could have and still call itself by that name.
"Eleven?" he replied.
And if it should add a certain 12 member? How about the Big TeND?