Bob Bowlsby, who has led the Big 12 since 2012 and most recently steered it through the tumultuous announcement of the departures of Texas and Oklahoma, will step down from his role as commissioner later this year, he said Tuesday.
Bowlsby, who turned 70 in January and has three years remaining on his contract, told ESPN he made the decision within the past two weeks but wanted to wait until after the Final Four to announce it. He said he knew he didn't want to extend the contract and spoke to conference leaders in an "honest conversation about the difficulty of the last two years and the challenges that were before us." He called it "very collaborative and very mutual in the outcome."
"They knew that sometime in the next year or two I was going to look for an off-ramp, and so the more we talked about it, the more we got to the point where, yeah, maybe it makes sense to transition now and bring somebody in that has a little longer runway," he said.
Bowlsby said there wasn't one particular incident that pushed him toward the move, but he cited conference realignment and the 2020 season that was ravaged by COVID-19 as events that took a particular toll.
Last year, after Texas and Oklahoma -- the league's two most prominent members -- announced they were bolting for the SEC, Bowlsby steadied the league and engineered the additions of BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston, who will join no later than the 2024-25 academic year. Texas and Oklahoma have publicly said they will remain until their Big 12 rights expire in 2025.
"The departure of OU and Texas was a stressful circumstance, and the process to bring on the new members was pretty high energy because it happened over a relatively short period of time," he said. "There's always plenty to do, but the last two years have been particularly stressful for society and athletics.
"On the 14th of August  we didn't know if we were playing football two weeks later. When you consider the amount of revenue and the number of student-athletes that are involved, the implications of canceling football games, those are pretty weighty decisions that have to be made in real time, and they come with their fair share of stress."
Bowlsby was one of four members of the College Football Playoff management committee who authored the original plan for a 12-team field proposed in June 2021, along with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. Following more than eight months of meetings and debates, the CFP announced in mid-February it would remain at four teams for the next four years following an 8-3 vote -- a decision Bowlsby had publicly voiced his frustrations over. The group is meeting in-person in Irving, Texas, later this month for its annual spring meeting, and Bowlsby said he doesn't expect to contribute much more to expansion discussions.
"The way it looks to me -- and I haven't talked with [CFP executive director] Bill [Hancock] about this recently -- but the way it looks to me is we're probably another year away from going back to the drawing board on playoff structure," Bowlsby said. "I could be wrong about that. But I think the resolution of that process is going to be after I've retired."
Bowlsby said he continues to believe that the 12-team model "has some substantial value and is structurally superior to other models, but reasonable people can disagree on it."
"I continue to believe that's the right place for us to be," he said, "but I think it's probably unlikely that I'll have any role in it just due to the timing."
The conference said a national search will begin for its next commissioner in the next few weeks. Bowlsby said his involvement with the hire "would only be upon request."
"Who knows how long it will take?" Bowlsby said. "They're going to hire a search firm and work their way through it. But it could be 60 days before they identify somebody. It could be six months."
Bowlsby said the Big 12 asked if he would consider a consulting arrangement after the new commissioner is hired. He said he would do whatever he could to help, "but only if the new person wants such help." He said "their vision is that I would stay until that person is actually in the office and in the seat" and he's willing to do that.
Bowlsby was appointed commissioner in 2012, following defections from Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado and Texas A&M to other leagues. He added TCU and West Virginia and was able to maintain the Big 12's role as a Power 5 league and reinstated the conference's title game in 2017.
During Bowlsby's tenure, the Big 12 has won 25 NCAA team national championships, including the past two men's basketball championships by Kansas and Baylor.
Bowlsby called the decision a "mixed bag of emotions."
"There's some feeling of things left, not completed," he said. "But you know, some of the things that are not completed, it's gonna be a long time before they're finalized. Things like some of the congressional initiatives and rules changes and conversations about student-athlete compensation and those kinds of things. They're not near-term resolutions.
"The league is in good position, and by bringing in new leadership now, I think there's an opportunity for that person to really get their feet on the ground and deal with some of the challenges going forward. I admit to being a little melancholy about it, but the other side of it, the conference is in good shape. We'll distribute the largest amount of money in the history of the league this year. We're winning at high levels and it's a good time competitively. I think we've got four good schools coming in good athletics programs, good regents, but there's never a time when there's no issues. And so this seems like a reasonable time to hand it off to somebody else."