Bob Bowlsby steps down as Big 12 commissioner amid growing frustration over uncertain future of college athletics

Bob Bowlsby has always been a wrestler at heart, a badass who would smash your face into the mat to score a point. He enjoyed the sport, reaching captaincy of his team at Minnesota State-Morehead and winning the conference title at 167 pounds as a senior in 1975.

But even wrestlers wear out.

Amid the announcement that the 70-year-old man Bowlsby would step down as Big 12 commissioner after a decade, such is the conclusion drawn by some of his closest collaborators. Recent events had simply taken their toll.

“He’s becoming like a lot of us,” a colleague said. “He’s frustrated.”

Everyone at the administrator level faces the uncertain future of college athletics – a world that now includes name, image and likeness; the transfer portal and player empowerment, while the authority of the NCAA is slowly but surely diminishing. It’s not the version of college athletics that Bowlsby — or any of his peers — signed up to lead.

Bowlsby, however, faced the added burden of having the rug pulled from under him and his conference as perennial powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas abruptly announced they were moving to the SEC in July 2021.

News of the Sooners and Longhorns joining the league came just a week after he announced to the media that his conference had never been so united. Bowlsby will retire still claiming the SEC and ESPN conspired to destroy the Big 12, and he claims he has the receipts but won’t reveal them.

The pressure didn’t end there, as it turned out that the work he had done to extend the college football playoffs was also a waste of time. The migrations from Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC created divisions and suspicions among the leaders that exist to this day. There may be an expansion in four years, at the earliest, but it will be without Bowlsby in charge of the Big 12.

It was a little nerve-wracking to watch it all unfold.

He moved quickly, however, to add Houston, Cincinnati, BYU and UCF in an effort to maintain league strength despite losing the Oklahoma and Texas brands.

“Bob saved this conference. In doing so, he had to take a very strong position against ESPN,” a Big 12 source said.

Then there was COVID-19, which disrupted everyone’s psyche. It was time for a director deeply devoted to his family and his grandchildren to make a career.

“It hasn’t been all rosy at this point in his life personally,” said Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec, current chairman of the Big 12 presidents. time with his wife, children and grandchildren.

“I sat with him in San Diego at the site of the first round of the NCAA tournament with two of his grandchildren. He was just beaming.”

Bowlsby’s departure creates a power shake-up as SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey now becomes the lead senior administrator at the Power Five level. When Bowlsby’s replacement takes the Big 12 job, none of the original commissioners who shaped modern college athletics will remain in power.

Bowlsby might be the most important figure yet to step down due to the restless nature of college athletics. The landscape is changing so quickly and with such impact that it is forcing administrators around the world to question their future.

The current state of the NCAA does little to help matters because the organization is in such disarray and has lost so much of its reputation that it turns out its president needed cue cards to identify the winner of Monday night’s NCAA Tournament Championship Game.

Bowlsby likes to use terms like “collegiality”, “cooperation” and “shared beliefs”. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of that in college athletics right now. The man who gave Jim Harbaugh his first Power Five job at Stanford, led the Big 12 through a few rounds of realignment and endured the Baylor sex assault scandal also served on any NCAA committee that you can name.

Apparently he’s had enough.

Bowlsby is not ready to consult in retirement. That’s it.

He recently told a colleague that they could call him as long as it didn’t become routine. The old wrestler hangs up the shirt.

Bowlsby will, however, remain until a new commissioner is appointed, allowing the successor to negotiate a new television contract. The current deal expires on June 30, 2025 – interestingly, the same day Bowlsby’s existing contract would have run out.

A new commissioner is expected to be announced within three months, Schovanec told CBS Sports.

A short list of candidates emerged. Among the names: former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, Pac-12 Associate Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt, Washington State President Kirk Schulz and Baylor President Linda Livingstone.

It’s probably a good idea for the new commissioner to negotiate this television deal. This person will be the one to deal with TV executives and navigate a new NCAA. That is, of course, if there is even an NCAA in the future.

Meanwhile, Bowlsby will be a place I find him frequently on Sunday phone calls – arguing over grandkids, hosting holiday gatherings and getting away from it all.

Except that now, this time of family and relaxation is permanent.