Big 12 vs. The World: Conference eyes expansion as commissioner stands by collusion accusations

Bob Bowlsby’s flight touched down the afternoon of July 21. The Big 12 commissioner was on a routine campus visit to Kansas.

“My phone went off,” Bowlsby recalled. “It was about 3 o’clock.”

It truly was one of those where-were-you-when moments. Major news broke that day: Texas and Oklahoma are in talks to join the SEC.

It was true, and it was awful for the Power Five’s most experienced commissioner and his eight remaining schools. The shock hasn’t worn off for the 69-year-old administrator.

Bowlsby still believes ESPN conspired with SEC and American to (perhaps mortally) wound his league. Bowlsby has not shared evidence to this end; both ESPN and AAC commissioner Mike Aresco denied the accusation.

“You know me well enough,” Bowlsby told CBS Sports this week. “I wouldn’t have said it unless it was absolutely true.”

Bowlsby hasn’t lost any part of his bravado since that day. Asked if it’s possible to mend fences with a powerful rights holder in future negotiations, Bowlsby did not relent.

“Any time you speak truth to power, you run risks,” he said.

That’s a glimpse of the Big 12 five weeks removed from the Texas-Oklahoma news and one week away from its 27th season. Things were never supposed to be this uncertain. At the Big 12 Media Days last month, Bowlsby kiddingly thanked reporters for not “asking the expansion question. I think I won five bucks on that.”

Now, you can’t think of the Big 12 without thinking of expansion for an entirely different reason than the league’s ultimately fruitless look at adding members five years ago.

Asked how he’s doing lately, Bowlsby sarcastically replied, “Oh, I’m having a wonderful time.”

“It’s been a long month,” he added. “There’s not any way to put a good face on it. We were shocked at the announcements. We were given no indication of displeasures on [Texas and Oklahoma’s] part. I share those feelings, and everybody associated with us shares those feelings.”

CBS Sports spoke to Bowlsby on a variety of subjects regarding his conference during an unprecedented time of upheaval. Safe to say it has suddenly become the Big 12 against the world.

Industry sources say the league’s media rights value has decreased at least 50% with the losses of Texas and Oklahoma.

The Pac-12 has decided it will not expand for the moment, eliminating safe haven for any Big 12 schools that were looking West. The Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 went off on their own to form an alliance largely to fight perception of the SEC’s growing power.

“Hopefully this will bring some much-needed stability to college athletics,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. “… Some of the events over the last couple of months have shaken the foundation of the beliefs of college athletics.”

None of the alliance conferences called Big 12 to participate.

“We want and need the Big 12 to do well,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said. “The Big 12 matters in Power Five athletics.”

Actually, what was once a Power Five now looks more and more like it will be a Power Four unless the Big 12 expands. You can understand the angst at the conference headquarters in Las Colinas, a planned development in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

“Not surprisingly, everybody is watching their backside,” Bowlsby said. “… Trust in the athletics ecosystem is not very high right now.”

It is a tenuous existence for the Big 12. Publicly, it plans to hold Texas and Oklahoma to the terms of the current ESPN/Fox contract, which runs four more years. But inside the conference, there’s a feeling the two giants will use any available excuse or legal maneuver to bolt early.

As such, the Big 12 in late July formed an expansion subcommittee made up of officials from Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Texas Tech.

“As you would expect, [it is] a smaller group that can facilitate thought and conversation that we can bring back to the presidents and athletic directors,” said Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt, one of the subcommittee members.

The Big 12 is in the ironic position of needing expansion candidates it rejected five years ago. Those would include UCF, Memphis, Cincinnati, Houston and BYU, among others. Back then, the Big 12 chose not to exercise a clause in its ESPN/Fox contract that would pay $1 billion if it added any four schools.

The league stayed at 10, in part, so as not to antagonize its rightsholders. Now the commissioner who helped make that decision is at odds with ESPN.

There is the uncertain possibility of Kansas basketball — a top-five program — playing in the AAC or Mountain West. That is possible because, even in its depressed state, Kansas football would bring 80% of the value to any conference contract. In other words, it’s unlikely that basketball alone will carry Kansas through to another Power Five conference.

Even if the Big 12 continues at eight teams, its budgets will most likely be slashed because the league’s worth has taken a hit. Will Iowa State be able to keep Matt Campbell? Will top-flight coaches in any sport be attracted to the Big 12? What will happen to the massive athletic debt services on some of these campuses?

Without the $37 million per school it gets from its media rights deal, will the Big 12 remain a Power Five conference? It may be four potentially agonizing years until the league knows as it waits for its current deal to run out.

“That isn’t going to happen for a while,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t have any particular reason to be concerned about it.”

He would like to be around for all of it. Bowlsby’s contract runs through June 2025, the month that media rights deal expires.

With the news of the week — alliance formation, Pac-12 standing pat — there may some certainty. With no additional movement coming at the top, the Big 12 suddenly has expansion leverage over Group of Five conferences. That means the eight remaining schools, nicknamed “The Hateful Eight”, just might stay together after all.

The best news: There is “significant interest” in the Big 12 from other schools, according to Hocutt. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported Friday “at least 15 schools” are interested in joining the Big 12.

Oliver Luck — the former West Virginia AD, NCAA executive and XFL commissioner — is consulting with the Big 12 on expansion.

The league must proceed cautiously. If it expands too soon, that could give Texas and Oklahoma the legal leverage they need to leave the Big 12 before the end of the current contract in 2025. The schools would have to pay up to $80 million in penalties each to leave early. However, the Big 12 would still control the schools’ TV rights.

The animosity towards Texas and Oklahoma will likely reveal itself on the field and courts as long as the two schools are in the Big 12. The blowback this time could be different than when Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas A&M left the league. The Longhorns and Sooners are two of the biggest sports brands in the country.

Mark your calendars for Oct. 2. That’s the date both Texas (at TCU) and Oklahoma (at Kansas State) play their first conference road games since the announcement.

“We’ll do every last thing we can to make sure their student-athletes have a great experience and fair experience and have the best circumstances they possibly can,” Bowlsby said. “That’s what we’re professionally obligated to do.”

There are already examples of untidy exits. In November 2010, Nebraska played its last Big 12 road game at Texas A&M on its way to the Big Ten. By the end of the 9-6 loss, the Cornhuskers were called for 16 penalties to the Aggies’ two. There are accusations of conspiracy. At the time, the Big 12 commissioned an independent review of the officiating. It found no wrongdoing.  

“I can’t see Texas and OU waiting,” said former Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin. “It’s going to be next year. One more year. As an experienced person, it was no fun being at A&M going through a conference schedule in the Big 12. I was heckled everywhere I went.”

Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012.

Bowlsby remains a member of the College Football Playoff subcommittee that proposed a 12-team bracket expansion still under consideration.

One of his league presidents, West Virginia’s E. Gordon Gee, told WVU’s school newspaper the proposal is “on life support” and would not receive his vote due to the uncertainty created by Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC. Earlier this year, Gee was enthusiastically in favor of expansion.

Another example of things changing rapidly in the Big 12.

Elsewhere for Bowlsby, life is good. God is good. His granddaughter’s recent successful heart surgery allows him to see past any league matters. The commissioner praised pediatric surgeon Charles Fraser, who is in residence at the Dell Medical School in Austin, Texas.

Fraser just so happened to attend Texas for medical school. Some things are more important.

“Chuck Fraser is an unbelievable, unbelievable guy,” Bowlsby said. “Humble as the day is long, spends eight hours a day in little children’s chests. He is an amazing healer. You’re just a nicer person when you’ve been around your grandchildren.”