AMES — A year ago, the Big 12 Conference appeared to be sitting on a fault line that stretched from here to west Texas.
The ground kept opening, and member schools kept disappearing. Nebraska. Colorado. Texas A&M. Missouri.
Most medical opinions said the league didn’t have much time left. But Chuck Neinas, hired as interim commissioner, roped TCU and West Virginia from the Big East to give the Big 12 a pair of established football powers and an Eastern market. Lucrative media rights deals with Fox and ESPN have been verbally agreed upon.
The league made a big statement it was bouncing back when it joined with the all-powerful SEC to create the Champions Bowl, starting in the 2014 season. That will be a boon to the Big 12 financially and from a visibility standpoint.
Then, the conference sought and secured Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby, the former AD at Northern Iowa and Iowa, as its full-time commissioner. He will oversee and try to build on the advances Neinas helped the league make.
Here we were Tuesday at Iowa State, and Bowlsby was telling us his conference is comfortable with having 10 members, and would expand only if it could add “a very special institution.”
Imagine the Big 12 making such a proclamation in 2010 or 2011 as charter members were scampering off to three other conferences.
“Expansion, or conference alignment overall, will always be on our radar,” Bowlsby conceded. “It will be on every agenda that we have going forward just because you can’t afford to not think about those kinds of things and consider the options.
“But if I had to characterize the position of the presidents right now, I would say the majority are very comfortable with 10. It would take a very special institution proposed for membership to have the interest level change very much.
“When we consider somebody, either by us reaching out or them contacting us, it needs to be a high bar.”
Some have suggested the list of schools the league would consider consists of Notre Dame, and no one else. Bowlsby was asked directly about Notre Dame, replying “And you do you expect me to answer that?”
If you’re leading a 12-school league, you’ll say 12 is a wonderful number. If your league has 10 schools, you’ll say 10 is terrific. But Bowlsby makes a pretty good argument for the merits of 10.
“I think some of the league organizations that are larger than 10 or 12 have now gotten to the point where they’ve encountered some difficulties that you get as a result of it. Sometimes traditional rivalries have gone away as a result of a non-round-robin schedule.
“For the most part, the only reason anybody expanded was to be able to get the pro rata or better television money, and more teams in bowl games. That’s essentially why organizations expanded. I think what some are finding out is there is a downside to that.”
“There is a real strength in playing a round-robin in football and a double round-robin in basketball,” Bowlsby said.
Bowlsby said he didn’t apply for his job. “I was invited into it,” he said.
“I came in skeptical, but I was quickly put at ease that this group of institutions were mutually committed and wanted to move ahead. That made me want to be part of it.
“I think it’s an opportunity to have more to say about what college athletics look like in the years ahead. I think it’s an exciting time in terms of postseason college football. I think a lot of things are right about college athletics, but I also think a lot of things can be improved and changed and massaged in ways that can be better emblematic of the values of higher education. And I look forward to being a participant in that.
“At age 60, I guess it probably got my blood pumping and got my capillaries opened a little bit.
Bowlsby’s new conference is feeling the same things. The Big 12’s vital signs are good.