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Golden: Big 12 appears to be in good hands with ever-diligent Bob Bowlsby in charge

  • Bowlsby met with reporters at Big 12 Media Days Wednesday

ARLINGTON — Bob Bowlsby saved college football last season.

The Big 12 commissioner takes a modest approach any time I drop the savior tag on him, but he proved prescient last summer when he was the first Power Five boss to announce his conference would be playing amid COVID-19 concerns worldwide.

The Big 12 said, “Let there be football.”

There was football.

And yes, it was good.

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Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby walks onto the stage at AT&T Stadium on Wednesday morning, the first day of Big 12 media days in Arlington. Bowlsby is cautiously optimistic entering the season as the conference is preparing for a fight with the new Delta variant of COVID-19.

He told us at Wednesday's Big 12 media days that he was pretty much exhausted, from pandemic meetings with medical committee czar Ed Stewart to twice-weekly meetings with his athletic directors and his Group of Five colleagues to keeping the phone lines open for the unwelcome news that an outbreak had occurred somewhere.

Thankfully, the Little Conference That Could handled the pandemic pretty well, completing 90% of its schedule across all sports in a banner year that included five national championships and a Directors' Cup win for Texas, success that was magnified by success not only on the field but on the medical front.

The league distributed $35 million each to its members, but was $4.5 million short of what it had hoped. The shortfall was felt most on campuses where the loss of revenue could be directly traced to the obvious drop-off in attendance and the subsequent decline in merchandise and concessions sales.

The fall will bring with it the hope of a return to normalcy, but a recent upswing in positive tests nationwide attributed mostly to the new and more sinister Delta variant of the coronavirus has Bowlsby and others in a cautiously optimistic mood as the season approaches.

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Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell said locker room leadership was key in how the Cyclones dealt with the pandemic. “I think the greatest thing we learned and I’ve always believed is when you have player-driven leadership, when the players in the locker room say, ‘This is the standard, this is how we are doing things and this is the expectation,’ then you can get through anything,” he said.

"I wasn't excited about revisiting protocols for this fall,” Bowlsby said. “Yet I think if you're honest with one's self, you have to look at this and say, ‘Yeah, we wish we were done with it, but we're probably not quite done with it.’”

Not done by a long shot, but feeling a lot better than we were, say, 11 months ago, when the general consensus was trending toward a fall without tackle football at the college level.

I really like the fact that Bowlsby, entering his 10th year in the big office, pulls no punches when it comes to which side of the fence he resides on in terms of getting vaccinated.

“We are certainly, as we go forward, encouraging student-athletes to get vaccinated, and in doing that, to minimize the impact that the Delta variant will have on our activities,” he said.

"Frankly, anyone not getting vaccinated is taking unnecessary and unwarranted risks. And that's not just student-athletes; that's anybody in our society," he continued. "I think the Delta variant may, indeed, be a blessing for us because it punctuates the fact that we're not done with this yet.”

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The biggest reminder came when North Carolina State’s baseball team — the Cinderella story of the NCAA Tournament — came up with a mouth full of ash after eight players tested positive before a College World Series elimination game against Vanderbilt.

The Wolfpack were unceremoniously sent home packing, a stark illustration of the virus’ total disregard for a serious national title run. And while we’re at it, NC State’s CWS contingent — locker room and staff — must look in the mirror because it played a huge role in the team’s ouster.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks to reporters during Big 12 media days on Wednesday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Media days wrap up on Thursday with Texas, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas taking center stage.

“It was a wake-up call,” Bowlsby said. “It’s a really good example of how you can get off the rails in a heck of a hurry if you’re not vigilant. It goes back to the self-discipline being the coin of the realm. You’re going to have to be self-disciplined. If you’re not vaccinated. You’re going to have to be testing as soon as you possibly can and you can keep track of trend lines.”

In other words, coaches who aren’t pressing their players to get vaccinated are playing with fire.

The latest numbers show that 48.5% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, which is far below what President Biden had hoped for at the beginning of the year. Bowlsby told Sports Illustrated in May that most of the Big 12’s teams were around 75% fully vaccinated, which provides a rosier outlook for the summer. That said, it's difficult to feel pity for teams that aren't getting vaccinated given the stakes at play.

When it comes to how things play out this fall, it will all come down to how the teams handle this thing. The NCAA doesn’t appear interested in handing down any sort of mandates, so it’s up to the coaches to keep their players focused on the task at hand.

Texas and Iowa State were two of the better success stories in how to manage a locker room during a pandemic. While the Horns had their ups and downs on the field under Tom Herman — who, as it turns out, was coaching in his final season — they came through the pandemic in pretty good shape, as did the Cyclones.

“I think the greatest thing we learned and I’ve always believed is when you have player-driven leadership, when the players in the locker room say, ‘This is the standard, this is how we are doing things and this is the expectation,’ then you can get through anything,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said.  “Fortunately for us, a year ago, we had tremendous senior leadership. That was really powerful.”

Bowlsby and the league ADs will have to figure out if they should continue to employ roster limits or if it’s safe to go back to full strength. The battle against this virus is ongoing, and while some have pushed it to the back burner of their thinking, it’s still a formidable foe, not only against football teams but the public at large.

Like Campbell said, leadership is the biggest weapon, and with Bowlsby at the helm, the Big 12 is in good hands.