Once upon a time, and it wasn't that long ago, the Big 12 conference was basically on life support.
Nebraska, for a host of reasons, pulled up stakes and went to the Big Ten. Colorado departed as the Pac-10 expanded to the Pac-12.
Texas A&M and Missouri took off for the SEC.
Other suitors, most notably the Pac-12, flirted with Texas and Oklahoma, threatening to bring the entire Big 12 house down.
But today things look pretty rosy for the Big 12 because it took some smart and practical steps.
First, it brought in Chuck Neinas, a veteran college administrator, as interim commissioner. Neinas calmed everybody down.
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Then the Big 12 added West Virginia and TCU. From a football standpoint, the Big 12 is stronger than ever with seven teams in the current BCS top 25.
In May it hired Bob Bowlsby, the athletic director at Stanford, as the full-time commissioner.
In June the Big 12 created the Champions Bowl in conjunction with the SEC. The details of the Champions Bowl are still in the works but it is expected to fetch Rose Bowl money ($80 million per year) when all the papers are signed.
And in September the Big 12 hit the mother lode, signing a new 13-year, $2.6 billion television deal with ESPN and Fox that will pay each school at least $20 million per year. The schools also agreed to sign their individual TV rights over to the conference for the length of the deal. In short, no school can leave without forfeiting their TV rights, so everybody is locked in.
At long last, the Big 12 has stability.
Bowlsby, also a former AD at Iowa and chairman of the NCAA men's basketball committee, joined me Tuesday for a segment of The Tony Barnhart Show.
Q: You've been on the job since May. What have you learned about the Big 12 that you didn't know before?
A: As with all new jobs, you probably should have asked a few more questions. But what I've really found out is that we have 10 institutions that really compete at a high level. They have a mutual commitment to one another. I found out they're pretty satisfied with 10 positions in the league. And what I've really found out is that they openly admit that some of our wounds in the past were self-inflicted. I think we've all learned from that and I'm really excited about what the future has in store for the Big 12.
Q: So your presidents are happy with 10 teams? Any concerns about not having a championship game in football?
A: Actually I think the lack of a conference championship playoff at the end of the season is a good thing for us. I like our path to the national championship playoff. I think that theoretically you're always going to have your best two teams playing each other in some sort of championship game at the end of the year and one of those teams is going to be coming out of that game as damaged goods. If it's your team that's more highly ranked or your team you thought might have a better chance at the national championship, all of a sudden those hopes are dashed. So I really like us playing a full round robin of nine games in the league.
Q: There is money to be made from a championship football game. What about that as a reason for expansion?
A: I think until we're convinced that larger is better, we will be poised. Obviously we're not oblivious to what's going on around us. But our members feel pretty good about 10. And right now we're going to be distributing over $20 million per year per member. And ultimately, that's one of the big reasons you're in a conference.
Q: What has it been like working with the other commissioners on things like the four-team playoff?
A: I was really surprised when I came into this how collegial everyone was in trying to work through the issues. I walked into a room full of commissioners, and granted most of them were people I've already had relationships with. So I had the advantage of knowing the players. But what I found was that it was very collegial, very professional. It will shock people to know that (SEC commissioner) Mike Slive and (Big Ten commissioner) Jim Delany actually sit next to each other at the meetings once in awhile. They really trust and like each other and believe that each other has good ideas. So I've been surprised by that.
Q: You told Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com last week that the commissioners were "very close to getting [the playoff] really right." You also said that "sweating the details" was very important. What did you mean by that?
A: It's important that we get the format right. I think the four-team playoff is just exactly the right thing for us at the present time. But we've got to have a selection process and ranking process that makes sense and is understandable. We have to have transparency about it. I think there are still those out there that think we ought to have an eight-team or 16-team playoff. I don't see that coming anytime soon. And I think that this is the right model.
Q: What else do you like about the four-team format?
A: It's being accomplished inside of the bowl games. It is enhancing what has already been a terrific postseason in college football. But the biggest thing that I think is an advantage of this is that it builds upon what is already a tremendously strong regular season. The months of October and November are some of the best in all of sports. And this system, also, is likely to strengthen the month of September because there will be a strength of schedule component to the selection process. And I think it's going to recapture New Year's Day and New Year's Eve and really make it all about a celebration of college football.
Q: You have served as chairman of the NCAA's men's basketball committee. When all is said and done will the football selection committee be very similar?
A: I think a committee of somewhere between 18 and 24 will end up being what gets configured. I think it will likely be a combination of people that have had a background in football. It could be former coaches, could be former athletic directors, former commissioners. It will likely be representatives for each of the conferences that are involved. And the conferences will be able to use their own measures as to how they decide who is going to participate on their behalf.
Q: On the basketball committee, representatives of conferences have to leave the room when one of their teams is being discussed. Will that be the case in football?
A: I think there will be a recusal system where institutions, organizations, individuals who have a dog in the fight are going to have the opportunity and obligation to recuse themselves from consideration of that team. And I expect that this will be every bit as high an integrity process as I found the basketball committee to be. When your team was in the mix, you were out in the hall and there wasn't any question about that. There wasn't any advocacy. There wasn't any voting for your own team. And I expect that this will be exactly that same way.
Q: Why was the creation of the Champions Bowl a good deal for the Big 12?
A: It was a good deal for the Big 12 because of the partnership with the SEC. They have won six national championships in a row. Does that create a daunting task for us? Yes, it certainly does. But they're the best in college football and we want to do everything we can to compete and defeat them when we have a chance. And that's a tall task. I'm not making any predictions but we want to compete with the very best in the country. I think that's what our coaches want, that's what our athletic directors want and that's what our fans expect. The Champions Bowl really has been transformative for us. We're looking forward to a very long relationship with the SEC.
Q: What is the timetable for getting the details of the Champions Bowl done? We are hearing Dallas and New Orleans as possible sites.
A: We're very close on the television, which is one piece of it. We have narrowed the sites down to a couple, and we haven't announced who they are. We started with five and we're now down to two. It will be one of those two sites and I would guess that within the next two, three weeks we'll come to closure around a site. We'll complete the television. And we'll go about the blocking and tackling that will be required to get this game up and running after the 2014 football season.
Q: The Big 12 is one of two conferences (the Pac-12 is the other) that plays a nine-game conference football schedule. Are you committed to that over the long haul?
A: Actually the commitment was made before I came on board, but I believe in it. I think that creates the truest champion. It allows for traditional rivalries to be played every year. Do you sometimes beat one another up? Yes, there is that possibility. And I think that is somewhat balanced with not having the championship game on a postseason basis. So we think that it is the best way to demonstrate who our best team is and to keep all of those rivalries going forward. We have committed to that in our television negotiations. Each league has to go through their own process and decide. And we've decided that the nine-game schedule is the best for us.
Watch The Tony Barnhart Show on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.