Bob Bowlsby faces a new challenge
Bob Bowlsby read the same news that everyone else read. He heard the same gossip in collegiate athletic circles that everyone else heard. The Big 12 is a dysfunctional family. The rest of the league serves at the pleasure of Texas and Oklahoma. Bowlsby knew that Texas A&M and Missouri fled to the Southeastern Conference for -- what was the word? -- security.
"I, like many people, had a vision of this conference as unstable," Bowlsby said Friday in Irving, Texas, where the Big 12 introduced the Stanford athletic director as its new commissioner. "... I was very quickly put at ease relative to the stability of the group and the ongoing commitment to one another."
The presidents of the Big 12 schools made a believer out of Bowlsby. So now we see if he can make a league out of the Big 12.
Bowlsby becomes the fourth commissioner in the league's 16-year existence. That's not a lot of changeover if you're the president of the United States. But as commissioners go, comparatively speaking, the Big 12 has been the George Steinbrenner of employers. Since the league started up in 1996, the ACC, Big East, Pacific-12 and SEC have made one change at the top, and the Big Ten none at all.
At the news conference Friday, Burns Hargis, the president of Oklahoma State University, quoted someone who referred to Bowlsby as the "gold standard." The record supports the hyperbole. Bowlsby has chaired the NCAA men's basketball committee. He ran the search committee that found Larry Scott to run the Pac-12. He's a board member of the United States Olympic Committee. As athletic director at Iowa (1991-2006), he made his home state university into a bastion of stability in the Big Ten. Then he took a well-run Stanford program and made it better.
"He was forward-thinking -- always trying to position Stanford for future success," Stanford senior associate athletic director Earl Koberlein said of Bowlsby. "Personable with all constituents from student-athletes, coaches, staff, faculty and donors; fair, consistent, a strong leader, a man of integrity and he trusted his staff to do their jobs."
No wonder the Big 12 thought Bowlsby to be the ideal candidate. Trust and communication have been in short supply over the last two waves of expansion. In the most recent wave, Texas and Oklahoma both flirted with the Pac-12 before deciding to stay put.
Among his top priorities, Bowlsby said, will be to broadcast the hearth-and-home happiness that he has found among his new employers.
"I'm concerned that we do the things in branding and messaging with our conference that demonstrates and proliferates the solidarity I have found in talking and interviewing with the people here," he said. "I think the public perception is significantly less positive than the private reality. I think we need to go about the process of making sure we shout it from the rooftops that this is a group of 10 schools that are going to do big things, support one another and move forward together."
Bowlsby, while at Iowa, had a hand in the formation of the Big Ten Network. He also played an integral role in the start of the Pac-12 Networks, which will go on the air later this year. That process, said Chris Bevilacqua, the media executive who helped structure the networks, included bringing together a league whose members had very different agendas.
"Probably the most important thing," said Bevilacqua, a New York-based consultant, in determining the value of the TV deal, "was what really preceded the transaction and negotiations: how the conference set themselves up as a membership and structured the way they were going to be repositioning their property. Bob was critical in the consolidation of all the media rights. He was one of Larry's key confidantes and advocates in pulling the conference together. He's just a highly respected guy, a leader among his peers. The Big 12 made a terrific choice."
OK, we get it. Bowlsby has been an effective athletic director. But that doesn't necessarily coincide with what it takes to be an effective commissioner. Among the five other AQ conferences, only one commissioner has been the athletic director of an FBS member. ACC boss John Swofford left North Carolina for his current job in 1997, which may as well have been the Pleistocene Age in college athletics.
Bowlsby noted that he must learn how to work for 10 university presidents instead of one. And he acknowledged that he has a lot to learn. For instance, Bowlsby confessed that he has never had a corny dog, the staple of the Texas State Fair, where Texas and Oklahoma will play in October.
"But I'm sure looking forward to it," Bowlsby said.
On this, as with the entire conference, Bowlsby will need an iron stomach.