Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz remembered being surprised when his athletic director, Bob Bowlsby, left for Stanford.
“It caught us a little off guard because he had been here for a while and was an Iowa native,” Ferentz said. “But a new challenge was intriguing to him. And I imagine that was the case here.”
Precisely the case as Bowlsby was introduced as the new Big 12 commissioner Friday at the league headquarters in Irving, Texas. Bowlsby, who spent 15 years at Iowa and the past six at Stanford and is one of college sports’ most respected leaders on a campus level, desired to have a bigger voice in college athletics.
“I’ve kind of traveled the path that in the old days might have led to becoming the NCAA president,” Bowlsby said. “The leadership positions I’ve held put you in shape to have a crack at that. But that train had left the station. That job goes to university presidents, and that’s how it should be. This gives me the best opportunity to have a say in what college football looks like, what college athletics looks like.”
Not to mention shaping he image of the ever-shifting Big 12.
Bowlsby took more than an hour’s worth of questions Friday and many focused on the stability of the conference, which has lost four members and gained two over the past two years.
He wouldn’t have listened to the search firm that approached him or accepted the job unless Bowlsby believed the Big 12 was good for the long haul.
“I came into the discussion with apprehension, I had a vision of this conference as being unstable,” Bowlsby said. “What I found was a group of CEOs committed to one another, and it very quickly put my mind at ease.”
Bowlsby had a predator’s perspective of the Big 12. Twice in the last two years, it appeared the league could crumble because its members would join the Pac-12. One, Colorado, did.
“Obviously, I had some inside information about what was going on,” Bowlsby said. “It was hard during the middle of that process to not think, at least in the back of my mind, that it was like rats leaving a sinking ship. But cooler heads prevailed. I know the league has learned a lot from those processes.”
But have the other members of the conference learned to trust Texas?
The Longhorns wield much power in the Big 12, strong enough to drive Texas A&M away and to keep the conference alive and valuable to cash-cow television suitors by staying put. Oklahoma also flexed its influence last fall, causing uncertainty by expressing doubts about the Big 12’s future and flirting with the Pac-12.
It’s a situation unlike any other in major college sports, and Bowlsby was asked specifically about being a puppet for the league’s power brokers.
“I would suggest you do your homework, I haven’t been good at being a puppet over the years,” Bowlsby said.
Still, Bowlsby acknowledged Texas’ uniqueness and said during the interview process he asked “probing questions” about the Longhorns’ relationship with the remainder of the conference.
“Texas is always going to be an 800-pound gorilla in college athletics,” Bowlsby said. “I’m very impressed with the way Texas is committed to the conference and to the best outcomes for them and the nine other members.”
Oklahoma State president Burns Hargis, chairman of the Big 12 board of directors, said the league likely will extend the conference’s six-year grant of rights that serves as a binding agreement tied to revenue from the media rights contracts. The Big 12 has an agreement with Fox for about $1.2 billion through 2012 and is working on a similar arrangement with ESPN.
Bowlsby signed a five-year deal for an undisclosed salary. His predecessor, Dan Beebe, was making around $1 million annually when he was fired last September.
There will be plenty on Bowlsby’s plate as the Waterloo, Iowa, native who as a Moorhead State (Minn.) wrestler competed at Oklahoma State and Iowa State, officially takes over on June 15. College football is in the process of changing its postseason structure and Bowlsby will have a voice in that.
Expansion has to make sense. With 10 members, the Big 12 is the smallest of the major conferences and the most powerful without a football championship game. Rumors continue to fly about Louisville, Notre Dame (with or without football) and others. Hargis said the Big 12 was satisfied with its first year at 10.
“I don’t think there’s a consensus on it,” Hargis said. “I do think there is a strong feeling in the conference for the round-robin nature of scheduling. Athletic directors, fans like that. There would have to be a good reason to abandon that.”
But as a first task, Bowlsby wants the rest of college sports to know what he learned over the past few weeks.
“I’m concerned about making sure we do things in branding and messaging that demonstrates the solidarity I have found,” Bowlsby said. “The public perception is significantly less positive than the private reality. We need to go about the process of shouting from the rooftop, that these are 10 schools that are going to do great things.”