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Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby got played by Greg Sankey and the SEC

Despite working with Sankey on the College Football Playoff Board, Bowlsby never saw SEC expansion coming.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Days Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If the Big 12 ends up dissolving after the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners officially receive invitations to join the SEC, a move likely to win approval as soon as next week, commissioner Bob Bowlsby deserves some of the blame.

Hired from Stanford in 2012 to help lead the new version of the conference following the departures of four original members and the additions of TCU and West Virginia, Bowlsby faced the challenge of finalizing negotiations for Big 12 media rights and pulling together a conference split by the failures of his predecessor Dan Beebe.

But if Bowlsby’s legacy leading the Big 12 depends on the vision he’s displayed over the last year — or the lack thereof — it won’t be a positive one. In particular, he failed to recognize the extent to which Texas and Oklahoma wanted to get out of the conference, moves precipitated by leadership recently put in place. That failure of vision left Bowlsby and the conference unequipped to deal with the news when it finally, belatedly broke.

The signs were on the horizon, starting earlier this year.

With the SEC finalizing its new contract with Disney last December, the Big 12 hired a media consulting group that informed member institutions that the television partners were unwilling to engage in preemptive negotiations with the league, a strong sign that the Big 12 had fallen behind other Power Five conferences in valuation.

Meanwhile, Bowlsby was working with other commissioners like the SEC’s Greg Sankey on the College Football Playoff Board of Managers to initiate a feasibility study to expand the College Football Playoff to 12 teams, a move that stood to benefit the nation’s most powerful football conference much more than the Big 12.

During the process, Bowlsby publicly praised Sankey for his work on the board of managers.

But Sankey wasn’t focused on what was best for college football — he was doing his job focusing on the best interests of the SEC.

When Big 12 Media Days arrived, Bowlsby was not only unaware of any potential threats to his conference, he believed that concerns about realignment were a thing of the past. For the final question of his press conference, Bowlsby indicated that he’d invested more thought in whether he might receive another question about Big 12 expansion, joking that he’d won a five-dollar bet when it never came.

“It’s really moot on that question. Conference alignment is always at the discretion of the conferences. But you have to remember, the last time around, the last round of conference realignments was all driven by cable households, and we find ourselves now in a rapidly shrinking cable environment. It is much less driven by capturing a particular cable market because if it’s an in-market fee, you get a lot more money for it than if it’s an out-of-market fee. So the more you can include those things, the more revenue you’re going to derive from it,” Bowlsby said.

“That motivation is essentially gone. The cable universe has shrunk 20 million households already. It’s going to continue to shrink as we migrate to digital consumption and streaming. And so a lot of the motivation for realignment is no longer there.”

Bowlsby acknowledge that some of the motivation could still be there, but noted that “it’s not one of the things that keeps me up at night.”

Perhaps it should have, because for at least the last year, Texas and Oklahoma were planning the move to the SEC while engaging in back-channel communications with other leagues like the ACC, according to Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports.

Even if Bowlsby didn’t have expansion on his radar, the pending end of the Big 12’s grant of rights and the dissatisfaction of Texas and Oklahoma made those two schools some of the only expansion candidates that television partners would actually pay to add.

Bowlsby seemed oblivious to that reality as the two schools and Sankey did such a good job of keeping those discussions quiet that the news didn’t emerge until this week at SEC Media Days, presumably when Texas A&M finally found out about the plans and leaked the news in an attempt to sabotage the addition of Texas that it opposed.

The Big 12 was left in a completely reactionary position, holding an emergency conference call with leadership on Thursday evening. By that time, Texas and Oklahoma weren’t even interested in joining in those discussions, having moved past the point of anything convincing them to stay.

In the most critical moment of his nearly 10 years leading the Big 12, Bowlsby was left without the option of even making a last-second pitch to his two most important member institutions.

It’s a ruthless business and while Bowlsby was sleeping soundly at night, exhausted from the demands imposed by the pandemic, Sankey was busy scheming to form the nation’s first super conference by adding two of the biggest programs in college sports.

And that’s exactly the type of bold, effective leadership that further puts into perspective why Texas and Oklahoma were so intent on leaving the Big 12 and focused on joining the SEC in the first place.