A teary-eyed Bob Bowlsby walked out of a Stanford auditorium to a roaring ovation from coaches and staff members Thursday, leaving behind one of the nation’s top athletics program for a conference in desperate need of a strong leader..
Bowlsby informed his staff and a room jam-packed with Cardinal coaches that he will become the Big 12 Conference commissioner, according to at least three with knowledge of the 10-minute meeting. Bowlsby said he will remain with the Cardinal until June.
The people spoke on condition of anonymity because neither Stanford nor the Big 12 has discussed the hire, which could be announced later Thursday. Bowlsby, who is expected to be formally introduced by the Big 12 on Friday, declined comment when he walked out of the meeting.
After more than six years at Stanford, Bowlsby will take over a BCS conference that seems to have found some stability after losing four schools over the past two years. The league will head into this fall with 10 members, including new additions TCU and West Virginia.
The 60-year-old Bowlsby, who had passed up several chances to leave Stanford over the years, replaces the ousted Dan Beebe, who was replaced on an interim basis by Chuck Neinas, a former Big Eight commissioner.
Bowlsby is a nationally respected college administrator who was hired away from Iowa in 2006 after 15 years spent running the Hawkeyes’ athletic department..
Of all the decisions he made at Stanford, fans will forever remember his hiring of Jim Harbaugh in 2006. Harbaugh built the football program into a national power, winning the Orange Bowl over Virginia Tech in 2011 and finishing fourth in the final AP poll.
It was the program’s best ranking since the unbeaten 1940 team finished No. 2.
Bowlsby also hired offensive coordinator David Shaw last year to replace Harbaugh, who departed to the San Francisco 49ers. Shaw kept the Cardinal on track, going 11-2, including an overtime loss in the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma State. Andrew Luck also finished Heisman Trophy runner-up both seasons.
Stanford’s rigorous academic standards present unique circumstances, yet the school has won the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup 17 straight years. The award is given annually by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics to the program with the most success in all sports.
Stanford is also one of the country’s largest programs with 35 sports, including 19 for women. Stanford sent more athletes to the 2008 Beijing Olympics than any other college in the U.S, winning 25 Olympic medals. If Stanford were a country, it would have ranked 11th – tying with Japan – in total medals.
Bigger challenges lie ahead for Bowlsby in the Midwest.
The Big 12 was hit hard two years ago and wound up losing Nebraska to the Big Ten, Colorado to the Pac-12 and, as of July 1, Texas A&M and Missouri to the Southeastern Conference. Beebe was fired in September as Oklahoma, Texas and others were flirting with the Pac-12 and the Big 12 seemed on the brink of falling apart.
The conference is reportedly working toward a new television deal with ESPN, and Neinas was pushing members to agree to a long-term grant of media rights to the league that would make it all but impossible for schools to bolt. No deal has been struck yet, but that will likely be among the first items on the agenda for the next commissioner.
After reaching a 12-year contract worth about $3 billion last year with Fox and ESPN, the Pac-12 announced plans to launch a new conference-owned network to supplement coverage and create more exposure for Pac-12 athletes. Bowlsby had a role in the venture, which will launch this fall with the national cable network, six regional networks and a digital network.