Bob Bowlsby was unafraid to tackle multiple challenges during his 15-year run as Iowa’s athletics director. Now, the 60-year-old Waterloo native will face the ultimate challenge of working with the University of Texas and building consensus within the unstable Big 12 Conference.
Bowlsby was announced Thursday as the next the Big 12 Commissioner. A new conference is planned for this morning. He replaces interim commissioner Chuck Neinas, who took over for Dan Beebe last fall. Bowlsby, who became Stanford’s athletics director in 2006, will start his new job June 15.
“The institutions of the Big 12 wanted a Commissioner that could take us to the next era as a conference with the addition of TCU and WVU, and we unanimously agreed Bob is that leader,” said Burns Hargis, chairman of the Big 12’s board of directors and president of Oklahoma State University. “The search committee looked for a candidate that has a vision for the next generation of college athletics, and his credentials and ideas exceeded this. He understands enhancing athletic competition among conference schools, the challenge of balancing academics and athletics for our student-athletes, and working with our broadcast and bowl partners.”
“I am proud to have been selected to lead the Big 12 Conference as its Commissioner,” Bowlsby said in a statement. “The member institutions represent the best in competitive intercollegiate athletics and they occupy a prominent place in the history of sports in America. I am excited to work with a very talented and committed group of Presidents and Chancellors to advance the Conference on the national sports landscape. Additionally, the directors of athletics, senior woman’s administrators, faculty athletics representatives, coaches and conference office staff are among the very best in the country. The future is exceedingly bright and I look forward to engaging with my colleagues to achieve great things in the years ahead.”
It’s a new and monumental challenge for Bowlsby, but that’s nothing new. His longtime friend and former colleague Mark Jennings, Iowa’s associate athletics director for patron services, said Bowlsby will succeed in his new role.
“He loves a challenge,” Jennings said. “He really does his homework before he makes his decisions. A lot of times he’ll have the skids greased before any announcement is made or before he’ll make any changes. He’ll have it pretty well taken care of behind the scenes.
“He’s going to enjoy going into kind of a messy situation and having the challenge of straightening it out. And he will. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll do a great job as the commissioner down there.”
Bowlsby faces a job worth its weight in turmoil. He’s the league’s fourth commissioner overall and third since 2007, not counting Neinas. Twice the Big 12 survived near extinction in the last two years. Four different schools have bolted the Big 12 since June 2010, and the league has added two schools that begin play next fall.
The Big 12 was founded in 1996 as a combination of the Big Eight Conference and four members of the Southwest Conference. After years of infighting over revenue and television rights among other issues, the league nearly imploded in 2010. Missouri openly courted the Big Ten Conference, which instead invited Nebraska. The Pac-10 Conference then invited six Big 12 members. Texas A&M flirted with the Southeastern Conference and others talked with the Big East as a fallback option. Ultimately, 10 schools stayed put — Colorado joined the Pac-10 — in part because the league granted third-tier television rights to each institution.
Third-tier rights became an issue in 2011 when Texas officials agreed to a 30-year, $295 million contract with ESPN to start the Longhorn Network. Additionally, Texas officials sought to air multiple football games on the network and televise live high school football games. Texas A&M officials reacted negatively, citing a competitive disadvantage. Texas A&M announced plans to leave for another conference in August, which started a wave of schools considering other leagues or threatening to sue one other.
After three weeks of chaos, the Pac-12 declined to invite any current Big 12 members. Eight schools then recommitted to the league, and Commissioner Dan Beebe resigned. Texas A&M immediately announced plans to leave for the SEC. Missouri, after two months of evaluations, also bolted for the SEC.
The league since has added two new schools — West Virginia and TCU. There are burgeoning issues at stake such as television rights and potential expansion. But most important is long-term stability. That might mean staredowns with Texas officials.
“He’s not afraid to do what he thinks is right if he thinks it’s right for the good of everybody,” Jennings said. “I’m sure if whoever did the hiring for the Big 12 commissioner looked at that as a real strong trait. There are a couple of universities down there that kind of have had a big say in what happens. So that will be a challenge for him. It’ll be fun to watch from afar.”
At Iowa, Bowlsby’s accomplishments include consolidating the men’s and women’s athletics departments, hiring successful coaches like Kirk Ferentz, Lisa Bluder and Tom Brands and pushing the department to become financially self-sustaining. Bowlsby also pushed through the $89 million Kinnick Stadium renovation, which was completed just months after he left for Stanford.
“It was Bob’s first season as director of athletics at the University of Iowa, and we were at Purdue University and handful of us were having dinner and Bob laid out the plan for the renovation of Kinnick Stadium,” said Rick Klatt, Iowa’s associate athletics director for external affairs. “Why it was important, when it needed to be done …
“Bob is no different from any of his peers. You don’t elevate to the responsibility … without having the ability to make a tough decision and be smart enough to make that decision. That’s why he was such a good leader. He was willing to make a tough decision.”
Former Iowa interim President Gary Fethke describe Bowlsby as “smart,” “very strategic” and “articulate.”
“(Big Ten Commissioner Jim) Delaney has done an incredible job with the Big Ten,” Fethke said. “They’re very different personalities. Delany is also very smart, but he’s more out there. Bowlsby holds things back a little bit. But I think he’ll do a good job. He’s a classy guy, extremely good speaker. It’s probably a good pick for them. I think that’s probably a wise selection for the Big 12.”
(Gazette reporter Diane Heldt contributed to this report)