Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Exclusive: Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby considers Texas, OU’s departure for the SEC a ‘personal betrayal’

Bowlsby still expects Longhorns, Sooners to stay in the league through June 2025

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks in measured tones about Texas' and Oklahoma’s decision to leave for the SEC. Asked if he’s still pissed off, the answer is nuanced but clear. 

“Being, to use your term pissed off about it, I can’t allow myself that,” Bowlsby said. “I have to get over the sense of personal betrayal and do what’s necessary for our eight continuing members. And that’s what we did.”

Personal betrayal. 

That’s what he feels Texas President Jay Hartzell and his OU counterpart Joe Harroz Jr. did when they schemed behind the scenes earlier this year to change conferences. Bowlsby fully expects both the Longhorns and Sooners to remain in the Big 12 until June 30, 2025. But you’ll forgive him for keeping the contract close, just to be certain.

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with the American-Statesman at the Big 12 men’s basketball media day, Bowlsby laid bare his feelings about UT and OU’s move. “We’re going to have to find ways to get along,” he said. “We have to work together, and we will. But I would say trust is at a relative low.”

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks to reporters at Big 12 football media days in Arlington on July 14. Less than two weeks later, reports surfaced that Texas and Oklahoma intended to leave the conference in order to join the SEC. "I have to get over the sense of personal betrayal and do what's necessary for our eight continuing members," he said Wednesday.

More:Adios, Big 12: Southeastern Conference presidents vote to invite Texas, Oklahoma to join league

More:Texas A&M regents instruct school president to vote yes on Thursday letting Texas, OU into SEC

So why does Bowlsby believe the two schools are leaving?

“Haven’t the vaguest idea,” he said, sitting in the bowels of T-Mobile Center. “To this day, they’ve given us no answers to that question. Either one.” 

Why not?

“You’ll have to ask them that,” Bowlsby said. “I’ve asked repeatedly, and they never made us aware of any concerns in advance. When we’ve asked the question since then, we’ve gotten no response.”

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte speaks with Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby before the 2018 Big 12 championship game between Texas and Oklahoma at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

Do Texas and OU know the competition will be much harder in the SEC? It’s widely believed it would be much easier to reach the College Football Playoff in the Big 12 than the SEC, where Alabama reigns supreme and everyone else struggles.

“That’s not my responsibility to explain that to them,” Bowlsby said. “They’ve got 50 years of experience. They ought to be able to figure that out for themselves.”

Texas’ top officials, like Hartzell and UT System Board of Regents chairman Kevin Eltife, still have never gone in depth about why they wanted to leave the Big 12. Their only public comments have been carefully-crafted statements about UT’s long-term future. 

“They’re thinking they’re going to recruit better and they’re going to get more money,” Bowlsby said. “Anybody that thinks Texas’ football problems have been a result of league affiliation are completely delusional.”

Texas fans wear face and body paint as they cheer on the Longhorns during last Saturday's 32-24 loss to Oklahoma State at Royal-Memorial Stadium. The crowd was just under 100,000.

Texas fans have long complained about the home schedule. For example, few fans are excited about Kansas coming to Royal-Memorial Stadium on Nov. 13.

“Well, here comes Vanderbilt,” Bowlsby said. “Every league is structured similarly to what ours is. There’s three or four bell cows and there’s the rest.”

Ever since the news broke in July that Texas and OU were leaving, Bowlsby has been on the defensive. He was hurt by what he felt was UT and OU’s deception, a close friend of his told the Statesman. 

High-ranking UT sources told the Statesman this summer that the decision was driven in part by TV negotiations. The networks did not want to extend their current TV deals, something Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

But the Big 12 asked its members to sign a five-year extension of the grant of television rights, according to UT sources at the time. Bowlsby said flatly on Wednesday “that’s absurd.”

More:Texas-sized vacancy: Senate holds hearing on UT, OU’s Big 12 departure

“We never asked them to extend the TV contracts. There was never an ask for an extension of the grant of rights,” Bowlsby said. “There was never any negotiations with ESPN. There was never a request to extend the contract. It was a routine look-in, and I wasn’t at all surprised or disappointed that they said four years was too early to begin negotiations.”

Hartzell was part of a three-president committee to study the league’s TV contracts. Did his knowledge of the TV situation prompt Texas’ decision?

“Well, we have two presidents that are very new in their chairs,” Bowlsby said, referring to Hartzell and Harroz. “So, you’ll have to ask them what they felt like they knew and what they didn’t know.”

Hartzell appeared before a panel of Texas state senators on Aug. 2 and said the move became clear “into the summer” about leaving the Big 12. Bowlsby told that same panel the Big 12’s television contracts would be cut in half with Texas and OU leaving.

“I want to set the record straight: we have and will continue to honor all agreements,” Hartzell told the panel of state lawmakers. “We have not violated any Big 12 bylaws.”

Bowlsby said Wednesday the Big 12 has not initiated any legal proceedings against Texas and OU.

Having lost the Big 12’s two bell cows, Bowlsby became motivated to keep the league afloat, his friend said. Texas and OU were somewhat banking on the Big 12’s possible implosion, so they could leave immediately without paying any stiff penalty — possibly as much as $80 million each.

The Big 12 recently extended invitations to Houston, Cincinnati, Central Florida and BYU. Those schools gladly accepted and will join the league for the 2023 football season. Basketball-wise, the Big 12 becomes a fantastic league. But football drives all financial decisions. Cincinnati is currently No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 football poll. 

More:Bohls, Golden: Will that Texas loss to OU change everything (for good or bad)?

“They’re good football programs, they’re good basketball programs. They’re good broad-based programs. And they’re really fine universities,” Bowlsby said.

A high-ranking Texas source told the Statesman in September that UT and OU were allowed to vote on whether the Big 12 could expand. “They both abstained,” Bowlsby said.

There’s a growing belief that Texas and OU will find ways to join the SEC in 2023. But asked if he expects to have a 14-team Big 12 in 2023, Bowlsby said, “Yeah. They’ve told us they’re staying until June 30, 2025. I take them at their word until they demonstrate something contrary to that.”

Can you take Texas and OU officials at their word? “Well, between what they’ve told us their intentions are and what our written agreements state, that’s what I rely on,” Bowlsby said.

Bowlsby, who turns 70 in January, thought he was on a glidepath to retirement. Now, he’ll stay on as long as the remaining conference members would like. “I’m not going to leave our members hanging,” he said.

Just don’t expect to see him in Austin anytime soon.

“Probably not.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.