Beebe discusses how Big 12 was saved

Updated: July 25, 2010, 6:06 PM ET
Associated Press

IRVING, Texas -- A few days after the Big 12 was preserved, commissioner Dan Beebe brought together the athletic directors of the 10 remaining schools.

There were lots of things to figure out. There also was some healing to do.

Egos had been bruised, relationships strained in the whirlwind of a week since Colorado went to the Pac-10, Nebraska to the Big Ten and this conference's fate swung on Texas' decision to stay put.

Each AD had been under enormous pressure while deciding what was best for his school. Now each was sitting with nine other guys who'd been under the same stress, a reminder that they were in this together.

"We all looked at each other," Kansas AD Lew Perkins said, "and were glad we were there."

Beebe cut right to it. Everyone had something to say, so they might as well say it.

One at a time, the ADs went around the table getting things off their chest.

"So many different things had been [reported]," Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione said. "We needed to clear the air, to separate fact from fiction."

It didn't take long. Soon, there was a sense of gratitude for sticking by each other. Then came optimism as they discussed the league's new direction.

Voila. It was exactly what Beebe wanted -- another good call by the man being hailed as "The Savior Of The Big 12."

But, who is Dan Beebe?

And how the heck did he pull this off?

Beebe sat down with The Associated Press last week to help answer those questions; it was his first in-depth interview since things calmed down. Subsequent interviews with five Big 12 athletic directors and league co-founder/executive Donnie Duncan painted a clear picture of Beebe.

He's a communicator, someone who can relate to anyone.

He tells everyone what he thinks, regardless of whether it's what they want to hear, and he expects them to do the same. It's OK to disagree, as long as the opposing view is backed up with facts and sound reasoning.

"He can take a shot and he can give one," Texas AD DeLoss Dodds said.

Beebe doesn't think he has all the answers. But he believes he can find them by talking to enough knowledgeable people.

The quickest way a staffer can get in trouble with him is by withholding an opinion. Second-quickest is not to go along with a decision once it's made.

Trust is huge. It's a given at the start of every relationship; once lost, so is the relationship.

Beebe has been in college athletics all his adult life. But scroll through all 52 years to really get to know him.

He grew up in Walla Walla, Wash., with an alcoholic father struggling to keep a small printing business going. Starting around age 12, Beebe's summer jobs were picking onions or harvesting wheat and peas.

He wasn't a star athlete, but he enjoyed playing and being part of teams. Looking back, he realizes sports taught him lessons he wasn't learning at home.

A defining moment came in ninth grade when the high school football coach told him, "Don't bother trying out. You won't make it." He wound up playing offensive line "every game for basically six years -- my last two in high school, two in junior college and two at Cal Poly [Pomona] in Southern California."

He planned to become a teacher-coach, but was soured when he saw his Cal Poly coaches fixing grades for teammates. About the same time, the lawyer-filled family of a girl he was dating tilted him toward law school.

He wound up at University of California Hastings in San Francisco. He kept his competitive juices flowing by playing rugby. His teammates were early in their legal careers and weren't very happy. So he started thinking about doing something different.

"Then I go through the placement office and see the NCAA is interviewing," he said.

He landed in enforcement during a dirty era. As an investigator and later a director of enforcement, he was involved in SMU's precursor to the death penalty and Barry Switzer's demise at Oklahoma. He also spent a year doing compliance at Wichita State.

He was only 32 when he became commissioner of the Division I-AA Ohio Valley Conference. He kept the job 13 years, although not completely by choice.

He was a candidate for Big 12 commissioner the first two times it was open and was a finalist for the SEC job. Held back by a lack of experience in a BCS conference, he joined the Big 12 as second-in-command in 2003. He moved up in '07.

His first 2½ years drew little attention, mostly by design. He believes the schools tell the conference office what to do, not the other way around, and the focus should remain on them.

"We can try to convince and cajole, but we are a service organization in that respect," Beebe said. "That doesn't mean you don't have leadership."

By keeping a low profile, Beebe went into the conference shuffling as an unknown. Keeping that low profile during all the action hurt him in the court of public opinion.

Critics portrayed him as a buffoon who was in over his head. It was written that if Beebe was running BP, "he'd be standing on the tar-stained white sand beaches in the state of Florida, emphatically declaring 'what oil?'"

Meanwhile, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott was seen jetting around wooing Big 12 schools.

"I cannot remember a single event in intercollegiate athletics where the focus came on one individual so unfairly," said Duncan, the football coach at Iowa State and AD at Oklahoma before joining the league office. "This was not a two-week effort. It was not a plane-in-the-air, what-can-we-do-about-it? panic scenario. There was a LOT of groundwork that had been laid."

About six months before the crisis, Beebe began visiting every president and athletic director to find out what they wanted.

About two months before, he set up an inner circle of advisers: television consultant Joel Lulla from New York, lawyer Kevin Sweeney from Kansas City, associate commissioner Tim Weiser and Duncan. Their first meeting was at an airport hotel.

"We played out every scenario, every aspect of what might happen," Duncan said. "It wasn't just involving the Pac-10. It was the national picture. If A moves to B, and B moves to C, then what happens? Who would pay for it? How does TV benefit? How do they not benefit? Then from a legal standpoint, what are our parameters?"

Once he was ready, Beebe spurred other conferences into action.

He started with a warning shot before the league's June meetings, telling a radio station he wanted to know "where we're going and who's going to be on the plane when we take off." He also sent an e-mail to school presidents with an attached five-page document marked "confidential," and titled, "The Case For The Big 12."

He left Kansas City on a Friday, still asking for commitments -- "or else."

Colorado bolted the following Wednesday, then Nebraska on Friday. His aggressive push was backfiring.

But Beebe knew dropping to 10 schools was a possibility and was ready for it. Getting there so quickly meant he couldn't handle a single more defection, much less the five the Pac-10 was seeking.

Yet here's another important point: Those months of prep work taught Beebe this wouldn't be decided strictly by money.

School leaders repeatedly said other things mattered, such as this part of the country having its own league and maintaining rivalries. They also had to appease alums -- and avoid alienating other folks. Don't underestimate that part, especially in Texas, where Baylor's absence from the Pac-10 invitation list could've been trouble for the re-election campaign of Gov. Rick Perry, a former Texas A&M yell leader.

All that said, money still was a huge factor.

The Big 12 has a $480 million deal with ABC-ESPN that runs through 2015-16, and a $78 million contract with Fox Sports Net through 2011-12. Beebe got both networks to keep everything intact, guaranteeing the remaining schools a bigger cut. It was a big concession by ABC because 10 schools meant no football championship game.

Nothing new was signed, but between Lulla's projections and Beebe's conversations, there was reason to believe the top schools eventually would get $20 million per year.

It was in the ballpark with other conferences. But it wasn't guaranteed.

That's where those other factors came into play.

At least, that's what he was counting on.

"I have perseverance, and a pretty positive outlook," Beebe said. "I can be down 21-0 with four minutes left and I'm going to play til the final whistle. I was in that mode."

When a trusted staffer suggested he start finding homes for the schools the Pac-10 didn't want, Beebe countered: "You to work on that. My focus is on keeping the 10."

Finally, they got the break they needed. Texas was staying.

Six weeks later, Beebe will be back in the spotlight this week with conference media days Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

He doesn't like being called "The Savior" because he knows how much others did, from his inner circle to the ADs, presidents and their inner circles.

Still, he's proud of how things played out.

"I think my characteristics were needed in this time," he said. "Different people's characteristics may be needed in other times."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press