In Good Hands
I flipped through my phone like I always do. It's just habit I guess. There was a pause between speakers at Brad Underwood's Coaches vs. Cancer event and what do you do during a pause? You flip through Twitter. What, am I supposed to talk to people?
The first tweet I see is a "SOURCE:" tweet noting that Tony Petitti will be named the new Big Ten Commissioner. I do some quick googling and found this paragraph from his bio:
Prior to MLB, Petitti served in senior executive roles at ABC, NBC and CBS, overseeing the rights acquisition deals for a variety of sports and leagues, including the NFL, NCAA Basketball Tournament, PGA Tour and SEC Football. A 14-time Emmy Award winner, he was executive vice president and executive producer at CBS Sports, where he was responsible for the network's sports programming and production.
I mean, that makes total sense, right? The guy overseeing rights acquisition deals at CBS (for SEC Football) and the NCAA Tournament will now sit on the other side of the table and negotiate those deals. If you're an in-person sports person like me, it might make you a little uncomfortable that the next Big Ten commissioner comes from the television side, but let's be honest: 70% of what makes the Big Ten go are the college football games on TV so it's probably best that the next commissioner comes from that world. Add in that he was at CBS negotiating the NCAA Tournament packages and he pretty much has everything covered.
The event started up again and the five Big Ten coaches took the stage - Brad Underwood, Matt Painter, Tom Izzo, Fran McCaffery, & Fred Hoiberg - and my focus went away from my phone and back to the fundraiser in front of me. A fundraiser, I should note, that Underwood announced had raised $433,000 by evening's end, and they still had more silent auction bids to count. There were way more people than last year, moving the event from the east side of Gordyland in Gifford to the south end of the building. We were table #144, and we were a long way from the stage, and there were still three rows of tables behind us. When they have to add additional projections screens halfway back...
...your fundraiser is thriving. They announced during the evening that this was now the single largest indoor Coaches vs. Cancer event in the country (I'm assuming the yearly golf tournament in Vegas is the largest outdoor fundraiser), and all of that is because of Brad Underwood. He received the Coaches vs. Cancer Champion Award this year, and just looking around the room, you can see why. Whenever a live auction item wasn't getting the bids it deserved (like, say, four tickets to a Nebraska basketball game, donated by Fred Hoiberg), Underwood would grab the mic and whip the votes. Sure enough, the bids soared north of $4,000.
I know I'm on a tangent here but one more paragraph. This wasn't "oh that's nice, Illinois does a CvC fundraiser just like the other schools." This is "Brad Underwood has turned this thing into a monster with 1,500 people in attendance this year and 5/14ths of the Big Ten coaches in the building." Last year he got Bill Self to appear at the event eight days after he won a national title. This year he had Hoiberg and McCaffery, then added Izzo, THEN added Painter. If he has Dick Vitale, Jim Nantz, Lewis Hamilton, and J. Cole at this event next year and raises $900,000 I won't be the least bit surprised. Gordyville might need to expand.
Back to my stream of consciousness. The coaches were all on stage together and they were fielding (written) questions from the crowd. Obviously, the fans wanted to ask about the transfer portal, NIL, and the officials. I hate how funny Tom Izzo was when goading Fran McCaffery about the officials.
As I was pondering their answers to the current state of college basketball (and thinking about the Big Ten hiring a former television executive as commissioner), I found my cynicism towards the current state of college athletics... going away? I don't really know how to describe it. On the surface, here's what we're dealing with:
- The transfer portal has significantly changed college athletics, and, as Matt Painter very eloquently noted, it takes away from fans getting to watch the players learn and grow.
- The Big Ten has a big basketball problem. Just looking at that stage, Hoiberg hasn't made the tournament yet (at Nebraska), Painter just lost to a 16-seed, Underwood and McCaffery can't find their way to the Sweet 16, and Izzo just went through the worst four-year stretch of his career (although he did make the Sweet 16 this year).
- NIL has changed the perception of college athletics and the "innocence" of amateurism seems to be gone.
- Conferences keep changing, and now the coaches have to go to fundraisers and answer questions about mid-week travel to USC and UCLA.
All of that is happening right now, but I was still left with the feeling that we're all in good hands. The foundation is there for a bright future, both in Champaign and across the Big Ten. This is my attempt to take what I'm thinking in my brain and make it come out through my fingers, so I hope it works.
Let's start with the big picture. I have no idea if Tony Petitti will be a great Big Ten Commissioner. But as a fan of a Big Ten program, I'm very pleased with the direction of the conference. I believe the most recent TV contract was a home run, and I believe that hiring a commissioner who understands that this particular home run made it to the second deck is very important.
The new deal, if you haven't been following, recreates Sundays on Saturday. I should probably go through that. We'll view it through the eyes of your uncle Gary.
Gary goes to church with the whole family on Sundays (and then out to brunch if they made the early service) but he needs to be in his recliner by noon for the first NFL game. He puts six (OK, nine) Natural Lights in the cooler next to him and only gets up to go to the bathroom. He watches the Fox game of the week at noon, the CBS game of the week at 3:30, and then Football Night in America on NBC at night. Pizza is ordered somewhere in there, and uncle Gary loves it when the pizza guy will respond to his "come in!" and walk the pizza to the recliner.
Well, for uncle Gary, the Big Ten has now recreated that experience on Saturdays. He can rake the leaves and run to Menard's in the morning, but he needs to be home by noon for the Big Ten game on Fox. Then, immediately after, he flips over to CBS for their Big Ten game of the week. Then, after some pizza, a game on NBC at night. Gary now has nine hours on Saturday as well, all built into the same fall football rhythm he's accustomed to. Fox game, then CBS game, then NBC game. Natural Light sales are gonna skyrocket.
Fox, CBS, and NBC paid a lot of money to the Big Ten to set that up. Which means that every Big Ten school more or less has a trust fund. Big 12, Pac 12, and even ACC fans are a bit nervous right now as they wonder whether they're about to become Tier II behind the Big Ten and SEC. Players receiving a significant financial stipend is the next step in all of this, and when that drops, you have to wonder if it only happens in the Big Ten and SEC and everyone else is simply left behind.
I was thinking about that as I sat there listening to the five Big Ten coaches, and all I could think was that they're all in a really good spot. There are two cash cows in college athletics (the NCAA Tournament and fall football Saturdays), with the ratings for the women's Final Four proving that there might soon be a third, and because of the new Big Ten TV contract, all five coaches are assured that their league, despite its current tournament struggles, will remain a top league. If players are soon to be paid and only the Big Ten and SEC can afford it, the Big Ten will be one of only two important leagues. The transfer portal will just be "players from Tier II schools all try to transfer somewhere where they'll be paid."
And then I thought about Illinois. Brad Underwood is 55-25 in the Big Ten the last four years. Bret Bielema is 9-9 in the Big Ten his first two years (which, if you ask me, at Illinois, is way more impressive than 55-25). Shauna Green went 11-7 in the Big Ten her first season after the program had 12 Big Ten wins the previous seven seasons (which, if you ask me, at Illinois, is way more impressive then 55-25 or 9-9). It's been a long time since these three programs had this much promise at the same time.
So just picture me sitting there. I'm surrounded by 1,500 of my closest friends wearing orange and blue. The Big Ten is healthy, the revenue sports at Illinois are healthy, and our so-good-at-events-like-this basketball coach has the entire room (including the other coaches) wrapped around his finger in a way that John Groce and Tim Beckman could only dream about. The vibes... they were immaculate.
And it made me completely forget about all the stuff I wish I could forget about. Infighting among our fans about players leaving via the portal. Seemingly AI-generated Illini articles telling us every recruit is incredible. Zoom in on everything and following these teams becomes so burdensome.
Zoom out? Zoom out and I can't help but think that we're in really good hands. The conference is strong, the revenue programs are strong, and I can't help but think there are great days ahead. I think the leadership is in place for a decade-plus of immaculate vibes in Champaign.
Uncle Gary is gonna love it.
Now … Just Win Baby.
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