Bowlsby's strong strategy helps Big 12 navigate latest expansion saga
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has faced recent criticism for being a commissioner that changes with the wind and not putting forth a strong enough presence to lead the conference through what only can be described as a crucial stretch.
While it’s true that Bowlsby has not presided over the Big 12 expansion talks like Castro running Cuba, the mere fact that the conference is in the position to get serious about expanding at all is a testament to Bowlsby’s leadership qualities.
We need look no farther than the recent past for proof of that, as previous men in the same post allowed the power brokers in the conference — most notably Texas — to steer the ship, creating an unbalanced power system that left some members seeking the exits and others holding on for dear life.
Allow that same scenario to emerge again and your expansion questions will be answered because no one will want to join that kind of conference.
As you probably have heard dozens of times already, Bowlsby and the Big 12 are finally to the point where they are seriously exploring the idea of adding schools to the Big 12. Whether that’s two, four or even zero newcomers remains to be seen and varies depending upon who you talk to, what you read and, really, what you want to hear. A source familiar with the conference’s stance on expansion told me Friday that two, four and zero are all still in play and that the number and plan often fluctuates. It's kind of hard to not change with the wind — in this case, the appetite of your current members — when it's blowing wildly and from many different directions.
Since Bowlsby and the Big 12 announced in mid-July that the conference would start kicking the tires on parties interested in joining the conference, it’s been a little like the Wild Wild West out there. University athletic directors and presidents are throwing themselves at the feet of the Big 12 brass, begging to be heard, and schools within the conference are flexing their muscles by endorsing the candidates that best fit their agendas.
As has been common in these sorts of situations, Kansas has remained publicly quiet, but both AD Sheahon Zenger and chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little continue to be involved with the talks behind closed doors.
If this expansion thing is going to work, it’s going to take a true consensus of the Big 12 schools to make it happen. And it’s worth pointing out that an argument could be made that television partners ESPN and FOX also could be added into that consensus, though I recently was told a little too much was made of their frustration with the pool of candidates from which the Big 12 may be choosing.
It’s hard to envision a school getting in simply because Texas or Oklahoma wants it added. We’ve been down that road before and it does not lead anywhere good. If things are going to go that way, the Big 12 would be better off (a) not expanding at all or (b) turning out the lights and closing the doors. None of the parties involved are interested in option B, however — at least not as a first and actively sought choice — so it makes sense to conclude that if the conference can’t reach a unanimous decision about which programs to add, it likely will not add any at all.
That’s not to say that people aren’t out there trying. The campaigning has been rich with this one and longtime administrators around the conference have told me that the whole thing is unlike anything they’ve ever seen in college athletics.
ESPN’s Brett McMurphy on Friday reported that 17 different schools — SEVENTEEN!!! — would get video conference interviews with Bowlsby in the near future, therein giving each one a golden opportunity to make its strongest case for inclusion.
Among the 17 schools scheduled for the pseudo-face-to-face meetings with Bowlsby are Cincinnati, Houston, BYU, South Florida, Central Florida, UConn, Memphis, Colorado State, Boise State, Tulane, Temple, East Carolina, SMU, New Mexico, Northern Illinois and San Diego State, according to McMurphy’s report.
If you’ve been paying attention at all, you already know that more than half of the schools on that list do not have any real shot of getting in. And their desire to make their pitch speaks at least as much to the desperation of the schools on the outside of the Power 5 looking in as it does the strength and attractiveness of the Big 12.
It’s hard, at this point, to even hazard a guess as to what is going to happen. But let’s not forget that none of this would be happening at all if Bowlsby had not forced the conference to focus and get serious about moving forward one way or another. Left to its own devices or guided by a weaker leader, the Big 12 likely would have dilly-dallied around for months, maybe even years, before reaching the point where it got serious about expansion.
That might not make Bowlsby look like the best leader in the world in the eyes of many. But in the context of what the Big 12 needs during this tumultuous time, laying down and sticking to any kind of plan or agenda is evidence of leadership at the highest level.
Now, if only we knew where it was taking us...