Longtime Big 12 commissioner says BYU has rare ‘worldwide reach.’ Will the Cougars help define Bob Bowlsby’s legacy?

Bowlsby helped add BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF to stabilize the conference in the wake of Texas’ and Oklahoma’s departures.

Arlington, Texas • Bob Bowlsby had the shot teed up for him. People were begging him to take it. Yet, the outgoing Big 12 commissioner flatly declined the invitation as he walked off the stage for the final time.

Not only that, he declined it twice.

“Absolutely not,” he said when asked if he wanted to take a final jab at Texas and Oklahoma — the two Big 12 programs that nearly threw his entire commissionership into chaos 11 months ago.

The follow up: Are you sure?

“Positive,” he smiled.

Bowlsby spoke like a man who didn’t have to stoop to that level on his way out. Maybe 11 months ago he would have taken it. But not now. Not when Texas and Oklahoma leaving is only a chapter in his legacy. The real marker, the college football lifer said, will be how he added BYU, Houston, Central Florida and Cincinnati to the fold to keep the conference afloat.

“I would say my body of work is satisfying to me,” Bowlsby said, wanting his lasting words to be about what he thinks will be his lasting achievement.

Less than a year ago, it looked bleak for Bowlsby. Frankly, it looked bleak for the Big 12. On Bowlsby’s ledger, he had lost two of the conference’s biggest brands to the SEC.

It was a cruel reality for the 10-year commissioner at the time. The man who championed parity in college football — the face of the expanded College Football Playoff — had witnessed the reality he rails most against.

It’s the analogy he loves to use, how the local corner grocery stores across America are being replaced by national chains. Only this time, it was his corner grocery store — the Big 12 — that was being replaced by the bigger SEC.

And that could have been the end of it. Bowlsby, 70, riding off into the sunset screaming about how big money, big television contracts, ruined college football. How ESPN and the SEC’s greed got the best of the once-great Big 12.

But it didn’t end that way. Instead, as the ACC and the Pac-12 stayed put, Bowlsby added four teams to the conference spanning two new time zones. He took a risk on the religiously affiliated BYU. He ventured into Florida and Ohio, and added another Texas market.

For the Big 12, there is no way to truly replace Oklahoma and Texas — but Bowlsby felt the conference added four of the best programs it could.

“BYU is one of the few schools that truly has a worldwide reach,” he said.

And when he was finished, he looked up at his final media day and saw the Big 12 stable. Perhaps even better positioned than everyone not named the SEC and Big Ten.

“Are there some things that probably feel a little left undone? Yeah, there are always those things,” Bowlsby said. “Fact is, there aren’t many people in my business who go out on their own terms. I’m about as close to it as you’re going to find.”

There is no doubt that time will truly tell the legacy of Bowlsby. The real impact of the four new schools will not be known until 2025, when the Big 12 straps on its boots to head to the negotiating table for a media contract. Even with the additions, heading into any media negotiation is a less appealing proposition than a root canal.

But if there was ever a conference more prepared to bargain with ESPN and FOX for a heavy sum of money for its media rights deal, it is the Big 12. A conference that is now in four time zones. A conference that is growing, as the ACC and the Pac-12 look to be hanging on by a thread. A conference that now has a truly national brand in BYU. Something Bowlsby said is just under the value of a Notre Dame.

It is no secret the Pac-12 stands to potentially lose up to $200 million on its next media rights deal. But new Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark believes the Big 12 could position itself to lose only a couple of million after Texas and Oklahoma leave.

So, as he walked off on media day not wanting to take a shot at Texas and Oklahoma, Bowlsby may have been right.

Because, for him, his legacy isn’t about them anymore. It’s about the fate of the four schools he added and the viability of the conference ahead.