MORGANTOWN — At 1 a.m. Sunday morning, Bob Bowlsby was doing the work of a major conference commissioner and watching fireworks above the Fort Worth Stockyards.
A while later, the celebration welcoming Texas Christian into Bowlsby’s Big 12 Conference was over and he was off to bed.
A flight a few hours later would take him to a similar event here commemorating West Virginia’s entry into the Big 12.
“It was a little bit of a short night,” he said at Touchdown Terrace above the south end zone at Mountaineer Field.
That brevity served as an appropriate bookend for this strange story that was a long time in the making.
In June 2010, Bowlsby was the athletic director at Stanford, in what was then the Pac-10 Conference, and part of the group that had searched for that league’s new commissioner, Larry Scott, a year earlier.
One of Scott’s first moves was pulling Colorado from the Big 12.
A few days after that was done, it sure looked like some combination of Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — and perhaps all of them — would make the same move and level the Big 12.
Yet two years later, Bowlsby is running the Big 12 as it stands tall and extends its muscled arms to embrace WVU and TCU.
“It’s kind of ironic,” he said. “I don’t know that I care to get into talking too much about the details — I obviously have information on both sides and I don’t think it’s appropriate to share — but I think there were a lot of conferences scratching around to find out what’s the right size and I think the Pac-12 was in that situation, too.
“There seemed to be some opportunities with that list of schools and there were certainly some conversations, but beyond that, I’m glad the Big 12 stayed together and that I’m here to work with them and I’m glad the eight remaining members added two quality schools.”
Conference expansion has produced some unbelievable headlines the past 24 months and left college athletics with a Big Ten that has 12 schools and a Big 12 that has 10.
Syracuse was a founding member of the Big East Conference in 1979 and Pitt had been in the league nearly as long. They announced in September their plans to join the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Western Athletic Conference, once the biggest and one of the most entertaining football leagues, is all but dead. The Mountain West pulled several of the WAC’s members, but then lost Boise State to the Big East. The Big East will soon count teams from Idaho, Texas and California, as well as a Temple team it once evicted, but no teams from New York, Massachusetts, Virginia or Maryland.
What’s happened with the Big 12 is no less startling. Somehow, WVU, which has been overlooked by the ACC in multiple expansions, is the first school from the Eastern Time Zone to be in the Big 12.
And the Big 12, which once seemed on life support because of the damage inflicted by poachers who would later pluck Texas A&M and Missouri and by the infighting that was believed to have went on behind closed doors, is improbably positioned as a power conference.
The league has forged a first-of-its-kind bowl game alliance with the almighty Southeastern Conference to play champion against champion.
“As near as I can tell, we’re over all those old things,” Bowlsby said.
Bowlsby, the seventh commissioner of the Big 12, was curious about the relationships between the schools when he was vying for his latest job.
“I went into the interview and I asked frank questions and some of them had to do with the overall stability of the league, and what I found out was there was a lot more interdependency and there was a lot more mutual commitment than was publicly perceived,” said Bowlsby, who took office June 15. “I think that’s one of my responsibilities, to make sure the public perception is consistent with the private reality, and the private reality is these institutions were very committed to one another and very committed to our new members.”
So Bowlsby has no trouble mingling with steer one night and watching a bearded mascot tote a rifle the next afternoon if it means he can tell others about how good things are in the Big 12, even with a name that doesn’t match the membership. For now, though, Bowlsby says the league will resist the urge to expand and instead remain at 10.
“I don’t know that there’s anything not to like about the current configuration,” he said. “The way we look at it in strategic terms going forward in terms of conference expansion is this ought to be a very hard fraternity to get into. No one should able to come into the league that doesn’t meet the standard that a West Virginia or a TCU has met.”
Surely, though, there are schools that could meet and exceed the standard. If the landscape has changed so dramatically in the past two years, there’s no telling what might happen in the next two.
“I like 10 and I think the majority of our members like 10,” Bowlsby said. “Is that to say what we would foreclose on any consideration of other schools? No, certainly not, and I think conference expansion is going to be on everyone’s list of agenda items at every conference meeting in the Big 12 and also every other league around. I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon.
“But is it important to add schools? No. I’d say we’re very comfortable at 10 and we can stay comfortable for a while.”
How long is entirely unknown, but Bowlsby and the members have made great declarations the number won’t shrink anytime soon. He said the presidents have agreed to extend the recently signed six-year grant of media rights to 13 years. Bowlsby said the deal is “memorialized” and would be signed once the television contract is complete.
That television contract with ESPN and Fox is also for 13 years and would also run through 2026. It’s believed to be worth $2.6 billion and $20 million annually to each of the 10 schools. When a team grants its rights to the conference, it agrees to leave them and the revenue behind if it moves to another league.
“It’s the difference between marriage and living together,” Bowlsby said. “You want to be mutually committed. The presidents have agreed in principle and I have every expectation we’ll sign a formal document. These people are all involved in enormous organizations and they know stability is priority No. 1 for us and they are all mutually committed to moving forward with it.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.
(c) 2012 the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.)
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