Gil LeBreton

Only bold thinking can save Big 12 from its UT, OU headlock

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has become the front man for America’s most dysfunctional conference.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has become the front man for America’s most dysfunctional conference. AP

As a varsity wrestler in college, Bob Bowlsby earned four letters, was named captain of the team and, as a senior, was conference champion in his weight class.

It probably didn’t prepare him, though, for the below-the-belt stuff he’s had to take lately.

If it hasn’t been a wide-eyed Art Briles all but trying to spit on his shoes at a trophy presentation in 2014, it’s been having to figuratively dance naked for Oklahoma and Texas.

The Big 12 Conference has taken a beating in the national media and, as commissioner, Bowlsby has been the factory-installed hood ornament for that.

To expand or not expand? One true champion, or two?

Bowlsby, the ex-wrestler, has been the guy in the eternal headlock, trying to free his league from yet another public relations mess.

I like Bowlsby. He’s smart. He’s articulate. His résumé touches all the right bases — Stanford, Iowa, the U.S. Olympic Committee, past-president of the NCAA Athletic Directors Association, chairman of the NCAA Basketball Committee and more.

Yet, there are knuckleheads with keyboards and talk shows that think Bob Bowlsby is a bungling clown. Again, he’s the cowcatcher on this runaway prairie train.

The public rejection of conference expansion on Monday is just the latest Big 12 embarrassment. The league tried to pull a power play and increase its TV “inventory,” to use Bowlsby’s word.

ESPN and the Fox network apparently said no, that no combination of BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and/or UConn was worth the extra $20 million per team to televise.

The Big 12 does have one new inventory item, a conference championship game beginning in 2017, to sell to the networks, and it settled for sweetening the coffers of its existing 10 schools.

Worse, in a sort of college football WikiLeaks, a memo was made public that was sent to all the members, urging that all 10 appear unanimous and on the same page.

The Big 12’s problem is simple: Two of its schools, Texas and Oklahoma, possess a disproportionate share of power. Acting together, they can make or break the conference.

And Bowlsby can’t guarantee that either will remain in the league after TV rights expire in 2024.

Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard graphically described the problem on KXNO radio this week.

“The Big 12 exists because we’ve got Texas and Oklahoma in the room,” Pollard said. “If we take Texas and Oklahoma out of the room, we’re the Mountain West Conference, and we’re gonna get $3 million.”

With the Atlantic Coast Conference set to launch its ESPN-backed network in 2019, the Big 12 is the lone Power 5 conference without its own network. It likely would already have one, if it weren’t for the shanked punt known as Longhorn Network.

Launched in 2011, LHN has 15 more years to run, and Texas isn’t about to give back one dime of the approximate $225 million it would be owed.

But if the other four Power 5 leagues already have their network deals in place, why would they begrudge Texas its annual extra $15 million?

We probably should let Texas A&M answer that. For the little guys in the Big 12, however, the response has always been Texas is Texas and Texas is always going to have more money.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Oklahoma’s strategy in the Big 12 will be, or why Sooners president David Boren suddenly is acting in concert with Texas.

The Big 12 could survive if only Texas leaves. But it would have to be aggressive and innovative in its TV negotiations. Fox and ESPN are only two networks.

If Texas left, wouldn’t there be some TV network that would help bait a lucrative hook that might lure, say, A&M, LSU and either Nebraska or Arkansas into a true Big 12 dozen?

If you’re laughing, you probably thought Texas A&M would never leave Texas, either.

Bowlsby, who is 64 and a four-time grandfather, likely will not be in the commissioner’s chair when the big reshuffling comes. But that’s the only kind of thinking that will allow the Big 12 to survive.

It’s a shame that Bowlsby, the ex-wrestler, has his hands pinned behind his back. It’s tough being the front man for America’s most dysfunctional conference.

Of course, Texas and Oklahoma could help that.

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