IRVING, Texas — In the wake of the Penn State scandal, the Big Ten Conference produced an 18-page plan that included a stunning proposal.
Give commissioner Jim Delany the power to fire football coaches.
When the idea hit the public square, the Big Ten quickly backtracked and said that proposal would not be considered by league fathers.
But merely the discussion of such a concept shows the difference in philosophy from the Big 12 and peer leagues like the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12. Those conferences have anointed their commissioners with power.
The Big 12 has been slow to allow its commissioner to make important conference decisions, much less institutional decisions.
And that's been the case historically, going back to the old Big Eight and Southwest Conference days.
So as the Big 12 starts the Bob Bowlsby era — he took office July 1 and greets us Monday with a press conference at Big 12 Football Media Days across town at the Westin Galleria — it's fair to ask if anything has changed.
In the wake of two straight years of defections — Colorado and Nebraska in 2011, Missouri and Texas A&M in 2012 — will Big 12 politics evolve? Will Bowlsby centralize power in a conference that always has been run by the school presidents?
Will Bowlsby take the lead on visionary decisions like conference expansion and media ventures, or will he merely be executor of whatever the 10 presidents want?
“I don't think Dan Beebe was a puppet by any means,” OSU president Burns Hargis, the current Big 12 chairman, said of the Big 12 commissioner deposed last September. “And I can assure you that being a puppet was not part of the qualifications we were looking for in our job description.”
I'll accept the latter. Can't accept the former. Beebe clearly was fired because some Big 12 schools saw him as a figurehead controlled by the University of Texas. Personally, I don't think that was a fair description, but clearly it was the belief of some, including OU president David Boren.
Of course, there's a big difference between puppet and weak. I do think Beebe was a weak commissioner, not because he was incapable of quality leadership, but because this league's tradition and desire has been weak leadership.
The greatest example ever, of course, was former commissioner Kevin Weiberg, who pushed for a Big 12 Network. League leaders — from Texas and OU and Nebraska and A&M — patted Weiberg on the head and told him to scoot along.
You know what happened next. Weiberg resigned and helped the Big Ten launch its cash-cow network. Institutional endeavors, like The Longhorn Network, helped splinter the Big 12.
But perhaps there is reason for optimism.
Bowlsby did not take kindly to the inference that he will be less than a Delany or a Mike Slive (SEC) or a Larry Scott (Pac-12).
“I would suggest you do a little homework on me,” Bowlsby said. “I haven't been a puppet over the years.”
Bowlsby suggested his background — 16 years as athletic director at Iowa, six years as AD at Stanford — provides him the unique vantage point of being on board for the Big Ten's remarkable financial growth and Scott's recent transformation of the Pac-12 from a loosely confederated league to a united power broker.
Plus, Bowlsby has the added bonus of experiencing it from places as diverse as Iowa City and Palo Alto.
“I bring a campus perspective,” Bowlsby said. “I've been there a long time. It's fair to say, having had campus experience recently causes me to look at the issues differently than Larry or Jim or Mike Slive might look at them.”
The nine-month term of interim commissioner Chuck Neinas also provides some hope for Big 12 evolution. Neinas, who took over for Beebe in September and handed the reins to Bowlsby, guided the Big 12 through perilous times and appeared to do so with some degree of autonomy.
“If they've hired me to be the commissioner, I'll act like the commissioner,” Neinas said the day he was hired. “I might be there for the interim. But if you look at my record, I'm not afraid to make decisions.”
Months later, Neinas sat in his Big 12 office and rebuffed the idea that the conference prefers weak commissioners.
“Over time, you earn your authority,” Neinas said. “It's not given. You earn it.”
Neinas said that when he was approached about the job last September, conference leaders admitted they had problems.
“They were interested in a new set of eyes, identifying problems and helping solve their problems,” Neinas said. “Everyone is working together.”
Well, everyone works together in the Big Ten and SEC and Pac-12, too. But Delany and Slive and Scott are empowered to lead their leagues. To make decisions and form consensus and set agendas.
The Big 12's commissioner has not been.
Neinas actually was influential as the Big Eight commissioner from 1971-80. But his successor, Carl James, served 16 years, until the formation of the Big 12, and wielded little power.
“In the old days, presidents weren't involved,” Neinas said. “We could hardly get them to go to a meeting. The athletic directors had the authority. Bob Devaney (Nebraska), Ernie Barrett (Kansas State), Eddie Crowder (Colorado). They didn't have to check with their presidents. They made the call.”
Those days faded as collegiate sports became bigger business.
“Everything has become more complex,” Neinas said. “The NCAA emphasized, they wanted presidents involved. Our board (of presidents) is very involved. They don't micromanage. They make decisions on key issues.”
Agreed. Big 12 presidents historically have not micromanaged. They've just managed. That needs to change for the Big 12 to remain among the top-tiered conferences. The Big 12 must let Bob Bowlsby lead.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.