It might be an exaggeration to say that Chuck Neinas saved the Big 12 Conference, but it’s hard to imagine what the conference would be like without his recent involvement.
He took over as interim commissioner last September after Dan Beebe was fired — at a time the conference, a once-proud group of 12 teams, was slipping from 10 toward eight teams and even greater uncertainty.
And in a matter of eight months, Mr. Neinas stabilized a conference on the verge of disintegrating. Even better, he presided over the welcoming of Texas Christian University and West Virginia University to the conference. They replaced Texas A&M and Missouri, both of which quit to join the Southeastern Conference. “The main thing,” Mr. Neinas told the Kansas City Star, “was to solidify the conference, get them working together and moving forward together.”
He did that, and much more. To his credit, he had the respect of conference officials from the outset. He had earned it through a long and varied career that included service as Big 8 Conference commissioner from 1971 to 1980 and that has left him one of the most respected college figures in the country.
Mr. Neinas hasn’t just stabilized the Big 12, he has been involved in a vastly improved television package that is expected to sharply increase the teams’ annual revenue and boost regional and national TV exposure. Schools could each receive up to $20 million a year, more than twice what some of the members now receive in such arrangements.
More recently the Big 12 and SEC have announced plans for what is being called the Champions Bowl, a postseason game between the two conference champions. If the champions are involved in the national championship picture, the next strongest available teams from the two conferences would play.
Just as important but perhaps less tangible is the effect Mr. Neinas has had on the conference’s unity. His professionalism, his force of will and his good will prevailed over the rivalries that left the conference vulnerable. As a result, the Big 12 is as strong now as it has been in recent memory.
It is strong enough that members don’t feel pressured to expand, despite the extra revenue a conference championship would attract. And it is strong enough now that other schools with solid programs — Florida State comes immediately to mind — have expressed overt interest in joining the Big 12.
And the conference is strong enough to have attracted Bob Bowlsby, former athletic director at Stanford University, to succeed Mr. Neinas July 1.
Mr. Bowlsby will face all the challenges of contemporary college athletics, but thanks in large part to Mr. Neinas, he will start from a position of strength.