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

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.

Comments

Nice article

Coverage of this issue has been great

What's the best comparison for Bowlsby?

Piano or mushroom?

Was Bob played like a piano (by Sankey), or left in the dark like a mushroom (by OU and UT higher-ups)?

Definitely mushroom.

CDC deserves a lot of credit also

Best AD of all time for UT??

My understanding is that Kevin Eltiffe was the lead on this.

Regardless, the alignment between Etliff, Jay Harzell, and Chris Del Conte has been impressive and something that hasn’t existed at Texas probably for longer than I could accuracy assess.

Sorry, *Eltiffe.

Was trying to edit and got interrupted by a radio hit.

Sitting here trying to figure out whether "hit" refers to

an impact, a popular song, or a toke, and how a radio might factor in to all this.

A radio appearance.

I got the call to go on the radio and couldn’t finish editing my comment.

Ah, media lingo.

Explains completely why I didn’t know!

Good for you! Let us know when.

I retweeted it into my timeline.

Frank Erwin days. Of course Texas was totally the Joneses and the Ewings back then.

Bowlsby should be ticketed for driving ...

… while asleep at the wheel. If only he had initiated getting USC, Stanford and the AZ schools into the B12 s couple of years ago, Texas and OU would have stayed. But no, he waited and let the PAC12 replace Larry, who was the biggest Fuck Up as a NCAA commissioner until this week. Welcome to your hell, Bob.

There was virtually no chance that those schools were joining the Big12

no matter how hard Bowlsby worked. The "downfall" of the PAC12 was not at all obvious at that point while the difficult straits of the Big12 were obvious to all. USC and Stanford were not going to willingly associate themselves with Kansas State et all unless it was patently obvious that the PAC12 was on the verge of implosion (and it wasn’t).

PAC 12

Literally opened up the PAC-12 network for investors. You could of bought a piece of it. At that point the Big 12 could have attempted to grab Zona schools or talked about a merger. Lot of "ifs" and "buts", but I think a lot of comes down to does anyone trust the BIg 12 management to get it right in the next cycle of realignment?

I should look it up, but I don't quite understand your point.

You’re suggesting that the Big XII could have done a "hostile takeover" of the Pac 12 buy buying/investing in their tv network? I don’t think that makes a ton of sense. Best case scenario might have been some sort of conference alignment with OOC games, but I don’t think that the Big XII was in the business of spending money on equity stakes in other networks.

Point being

The PAC 12 was having financial issues to the point they were looking for investors. Big 12 could have taken a shot at the PAC in that state and had the upper hand. No idea if anything could have been agreed to, but it shows a lack of forward thinking from the Big12. Anyone on this site can tell you many people saw the Big 12s problems, but they did nothing to try and fix them

I believe this can be great for UT

However,I wonder about job loss and economic impact on the other Texas B12 schools. Job losses etc.

It will hurt.

Television distributions will decline, precipitously if the Big 12 has to take a bunch of AAC teams, but none of those schools are in the UT system — it’s not the responsibility of the University of Texas at Austin to hold their hands any more at their own expense.

its a prisoners dilemma for the rest of the Big 12

All of them are scrambling to find a spot as I type this.

Understand Wes and totally agree from my business side.

From an economic side I see a hit to my state,and as UT is progressive and pushes social responsibility for corporations ,it could be a bad look putting folks out of work.

It is an almost free market move in line with most entertainment ,and may bring more sustainable $$$ to Texas in the long run. I am sure someone somewhere is working on any possible bad optics. Plus we will give get out of jail conference money to supplement our leaving.

I'm not really sure what you want Texas to do.

Take a big financial hit in television revenue and continue relying on a marquee non-conference game every year to drive season ticket sales? These programs have already been using the Texas name to keep them afloat and at whatever level of relevancy they currently maintain. I think they’ve made enough from Texas.

I don't think he/she is referring to the schools.

But there’s going to be an economic hit for the local economies of Waco, Lubbock, and Ft. Worth when TX & OU fans don’t show up for away games. Obviously same goes for the other member school locales.

Again, what is Texas supposed to do about that?

nothing

but this is where the politicos will politico

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