Meet Bob Bowlsby. He’s the current Stanford athletic director who is about to named the new commissioner of the Big 12. Upon taking that job, he’ll inherit more problems than an MIT math book.
Will he be the next Larry Scott or Mike Slive — a trend-setter among conference leaders? Or will he be the next Dan Beebe — a Jefferson Davis type cursed with trying to hold together a “nation” of schools that would prefer to exist as independent states rather than as an actual, you know, nation?
The problems the 60-year-old Bowlsby inherits are obvious. Texas views itself as the flagship university of the solar system. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State seem bound together, but both have flirted and played footsie with other conferences the past few summers. Schools like Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Texas Tech and now TCU hope only for silence and stability, scared witless that UT and/or OU and OSU might bolt and leave them for dead, like a cattle’s skull in the dusts of the Texas panhandle. And then there’s West Virginia. The Mountaineers bring very few cable households to the league and they’re about 900 miles from their nearest Big 12 “natural” rival, Iowa State.
On the positive side, the league has glued and pasted its media rights together for six years in an attempt to hang on long enough for the ground beneath it to settle. That’s a plus… at least for six years. Television revenue from ESPN and Fox — two networks who don’t want to see the league blown to bits (as the repercussions from such an event would force contracts with other leagues to open up elsewhere all at the same time) — will be good as well. In addition, there’s been some talk of a new Big 12 television network though it seems no two schools have a single shared idea on how to get such a channel off the ground.
Speaking of networks, that just leads back to more problems. The Longhorn Network remains a burr in the saddle for all the Big 12 schools not located in Austin. And now fielding teams in just five states, the league’s appeal to viewers and recruits across America will most surely begin to dwindle. For that matter, the league’s pool of talent to draw from is shrinking as people leave the North and Midwest for the South and West. The Big 12 may sit on vast oil reserves but it no longer sits on a deep well of NFL-caliber prospects.
So what’s a man like Bowlsby to do? First, he needs to get the league’s presidents to sing a verse or two of “Kumbaya.” The remaining Big 12 presidents, ADs and coaches have shared more suspicious looks and stink-eyes over the years than the Cowboys and the Earps in “Tombstone.” A cooling off period is necessary first and foremost.
Once Bowlsby realizes that can’t actually be attained when Texas brass are involved, he’ll need to set out on Mission #2 — growing the league’s footprint.
In typical Big 12 fashion, West Virginia’s entry into the league last fall was almost undone by conference politics. Backroom deals between Oklahoma officials and Kentucky politicians almost pushed Louisville in and West Virginia out of the league. In the end, WVU won out, but Louisville remains a likely dance partner for the league at some point. It opens up another television market, albeit a small one. It opens up the Kentuckiana region for recruiting purposes. Louisville would also give West Virginia a rival just a tad bit closer than Ames, Iowa.
If the Big 12 adds Louisville, the Big East will take a further hit, but we wouldn’t expect any of the other big four conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — to react. The Big 12 and the Big East are beneath the others now on the food chain. Only major moves by those lesser leagues could lead to changes higher up on said chain.
Like, say, adding Notre Dame.
As we noted yesterday, we believe that conference commissioners hoping to avoid future shake-ups and further realignment will eventually yield to Notre Dame, give them some more special treatment, and pray that they stay just as they are — an independent in football. The Big Ten and the Big 12 — two leagues that covet the Irish — might be the only two conferences willing to play rough with Notre Dame in the hopes of forcing them to join one league or the other.
If that happens and Notre Dame enters the Big 12 or the Big Ten, then you might see some more major shifting across the college landscape. If the Irish settle on the Big Ten, that league would surely look elsewhere for a 14th member and that could mean a raid on the ACC (Maryland) or Big East (Rutgers or UConn). If it’s the ACC, bigger changes could result. If it’s the Big East? Meh.
If the Notre Dame and Louisville both join the Big 12 and bring that conference’s tally of schools back up to its actual title we do not believe that would set off mass hysteria, mass expansion and mass realignment. It could, but we don’t think it would.
More likely, here’s guessing the Big 12 will add Louisville and Cincinnati to its mix. That would give the league a bit more stability and it would further destabilize the Big East. Such a move by Bowlsby would make it clear that what was once the “big six” conferences had become the “big five” and his league would be part of the “in” crowd. That would be a solid start for the Big 12′s new commissioner. It would have little impact on the SEC.
Landing Notre Dame, however, would suggest that the Big 12 has picked a go-getter as its new high sheriff. Such a move may or may not impact Mike Slive’s league (again, we think probably not). But the goals for Bolwsby are clear — unify the base and grow his league’s footprint.
How he goes about that will tell us a lot about a man most casual fans had never heard of before yesterday.