Three years ago this week, we pre-wrote the Big 12's obituary. Then we waited for the death rattle that would force us to press "send." Nebraska packed for the Big Ten. Missouri begged the Big Ten to propose. The Pac-10 had a bead on Colorado, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, but only if the SEC didn't snag Texas A&M first. Panic had set in on the campuses of Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State.
Yet there was the league last week in Irving, Texas, doling out $22 million each to the eight remaining original members and $11 million each to newcomers TCU and West Virginia. The Big 12 survived in spite of itself and is poised to thrive, and commissioner Bob Bowlsby -- who came aboard a year ago after interim commissioner Chuck Neinas bandaged some of the bloodiest wounds from the near-breakup -- will attempt to lead the league into a new era of (he hopes) peace and prosperity. In a phone interview with SI.com, Bowlsby explained some of the surprises from year one of his tenure and some of his plans for year two.
Bowlsby missed the ugliest parts. Former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, who fended off the first incursion by Larry Scott and his Pacific raiders by convincing the league's television partners to pay the same amount for 10 schools' inventory that they paid for 12, had his job ritually sacrificed to the realignment gods in 2011. That year, some of the finer points of The Longhorn Network being created by Texas drove Texas A&M officials over the edge. They bolted for the SEC, and Missouri followed. Beebe was canned, and then Neinas managed to make the remaining schools agree to the equal revenue sharing and Grant of Rights deals that Beebe had been touting at least a year before Scott tried to swipe half the league. Bowlsby arrived as schools were forging a new bond as (more, but certainly not completely) equal partners. This past fall, they began enjoying the spoils of two new media rights contracts. On Jan. 1, 2015, the Big 12 will team with the SEC to stage the Sugar Bowl using a new bowl business model that gives the leagues all of the power and most of the money. "Trust is growing with each passing activity we undertake," said Bowlsby, who served as the athletic director at Iowa and Stanford before coming to the Big 12. "With each business venture, with each collaboration, some of the scar tissue is being reduced and nerves aren't quite as close to the surface."
The realignment tilt-a-whirl came to a screeching halt in April when the schools of the ACC agreed to a Grant of Rights similar to the ones in place in the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12. Bowlsby appreciated this as much as anyone. "From my vantage point, that was a desirable and needed circumstance for college athletics," he said. "I don't think all this realignment has reflected favorably on college athletics." The tumultuous past few years have shaped Bowlsby's Big 12 a unique animal. While other leagues grew, the Big 12 shrank. The Big Ten and Pac-12 chased the millions offered by a conference championship football game; the Big 12 ditched its game rather than take schools its members didn't want.
These were business decisions, and Bowlsby wants his schools to understand that they are in business with one another. The bickering may have made the league feel like a dysfunctional family, but it was really a dysfunctional business -- which is easier to fix. Certainly, Texas and Oklahoma still make the most money, but realignment has taught everyone in the league about their place in the world. People at Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Texas Tech and Baylor may not like being so far behind those two schools in revenue, but without the Longhorns and Sooners, the other schools don't get to live in a (relatively) cheap house in a really, really nice neighborhood. Meanwhile, people at Texas and Oklahoma -- especially at Texas -- know their best chance to make more money is as a part of a stable league with happy partners. Just like employees who perform better when they receive better wages and benefits, the schools on the lower end of the economic spectrum are less likely to cause issues if they get a slightly bigger piece of the pie.
The size of those pie slices also explains why the Big 12 hasn't been aggressive about adding other schools. It reached to take West Virginia, and geographic issues made year one rough on the Mountaineers in just about every sport. School presidents and athletic directors were hesitant to add for the sake of adding -- especially knowing that with the exception of only a few top brands, any additions would cut the pro rata share doled out to each school. "We went through an exercise with our ADs, and I've spent a lot of time with my presidents as well talking about what would be the optimal size," Bowlsby said. "We're not 10 by default. We're 10 because we've gone through a considered process that tells us it's the best situation for us right now. That's not to say we would never add members. You can't ever say never. But we're 10 because we think 10 is the right number and because we haven't been persuaded that larger is definitely better."
The result is the last true round-robin conference schedule in major college football. As the second season using that arrangement wound down last year, there were multiple league games each week with conference title implications. With a four-team playoff beginning in the 2014 season, the Big 12 could have an absolutely thrilling finish -- especially if it can get back to the days when it produced two nationally elite teams a season. ESPN and Fox would be glad they paid top dollar for the league. The league has lobbied the NCAA to abolish the rule that requires conferences to have at least 12 members to stage a championship game, but Bowlsby said his schools could still decide against a title game even if the NCAA allows it. While four top-tier leagues now have title games and all five have had one at some point, only the SEC's game has been a runaway success. In the Big 12, the conference title game occasionally doomed a top team. "We had a bit of a checkered experience with it," Bowlsby said.
With the league stabilized, Bowlsby can begin work on tasks that might have seemed mundane -- and frivolous -- when the league was in constant flux. One priority in year two is properly branding the Big 12. College sports fans instantly recognize the SEC's circular logo when it is stitched onto a uniform or painted on a field. The Pac-12 spent a small fortune four years ago to develop its shield, but the mark now seems as if it has been around forever -- which was precisely the point. The Big Ten will scrap "Legends" and "Leaders" as division names, but the B1G logo that emerged from the same 2010 branding exercise has proven enduring and especially effective on social media platforms.
Pop quiz time. Describe the Big 12 logo. Go on. We'll wait.
You probably can't, because you don't see it on football uniform patches and don't always see it at Big 12 venues, which is exactly what Bowlsby hopes to remedy. One humble suggestion to Bowlsby and company: Decide on Roman or Cardinal numerals and stick with them. You want us to use Cardinal numbers when we write about the "Big 12," but your current logo features a banner over XII, the Roman version of 12. It's confusing, and that's probably why no one ever gets it right.
Still, the fact that we're discussing a mere logo as one of the Big 12's most pressing issues proves how far the league has come since three years ago, when the last rites were all but written.