Bob Bowlsby knows that something needs to change. In that sense, the Big 12 conference commissioner is just like every casual observer of college football.
Acknowledging that there's a problem is a good first step, but it's hardly a solution -- or even a blueprint for making things better.
No one knows this better than the schools in the Big 12. The exclusion of its conference champions from college football's inaugural playoff is evidence that the Big 12 hasn't recovered from its leadership failure of years past.
The ghost of Dan Beebe is still haunting flyover country.
Dan Beebe didn't love all his children equally. That's the original sin that brought us all here.
More than three years after he was essentially forced to resign as Big 12 conference commissioner, it's impossible to overlook the preferential treatment Beebe gave the Texas Longhorns -- then and now the most revenue-rich college athletic program in the country.
Beebe's preferential treatment of Texas did not go overlooked by other members of the Big 12. As his tenure wore on after his hiring in 2007, some member institutions -- particularly Nebraska and Texas A&M -- grew tired of being in a conference where one school was more important than the other.
Beebe would never say this, of course. And naturally, there were other shortcomings of his leadership that serve as evidence Beebe came with an expiration date.
Take television money. As other conferences began building their own dedicated television networks, the Big 12 dragged its heels. Schools in the Big Ten were raking in around $15 million more than schools in the Big 12, thanks to better TV deals and the young-but-promising Big Ten Network.
Beebe could have worked to build the Big 12's own custom cable network. Instead, he let Texas enter in to its own agreement with ESPN that jumpstarted the Longhorn Network -- a cable operation providing 24-hour coverage of Texas Longhorns sports.
The move gave Texas an easy $15 million in its pocket -- along with unmatched exposure as the only college sports department with its own television network -- while the rest of the Big 12 sat idly by. The Longhorn Network effectively reduced the value of any television package the Big 12 might pursue, adversely affecting the already-slim TV revenues earned by the other 11 member schools.
Not to mention the Longhorn Network reeked of Beebe's Texas favoritism.
Even so, Beebe claims he was scapegoated by the Big 12 schools. Last year, he spoke at a panel hosted by the University of Texas -- the only school he did any favors for as Big 12 commish -- and painted a picture of unfair treatment by the rest of the league:
"I feel like the conference was driving over a cliff, and they turned the bus around and ran me over," Beebe said.
Beebe contended that he could have saved the Big 12 from further disarray by convincing schools to adopt a Grant of Rights. It's a deal that guarantees if a school did leave the Big 12, its media rights and the TV revenues generated would remain with the Big 12 until the period of coverage ended.
The Big 12 does have such an agreement in place, which runs the length of its current TV contracts and serves as a strong financial deterrent to any school leaving the conference.
But the Grant of Rights was not adopted until after Beebe was out of the league.
"It's sweet because hopefully [the Grant of Rights] will be what binds this conference together and I have a great love for the conference," he said. "But it's bitter because had we taken these actions previously we may have been able to avoid the problems that have occurred."
This outlook from Beebe is at once entirely correct and completely wrong. It's true because a grant of rights might have helped keep the league together, and without Beebe losing his job.
But it's absurd for Beebe to argue that merely suggesting the move is a virtue of his leadership. The gap between proposing an idea and bringing it to fruition is actually incredibly large, not razor-thin as Beebe wants to suggest.
If anything, Beebe's acknowledgement that he wanted to install a grant of rights but was unable to do so is the perfect example of his failed leadership. He couldn't run the Big 12 because he couldn't get the league to do the things necessary to its survival.
And so Beebe left the Big 12 in 2011 by "mutual agreement." He was replaced by interim commissioner Chuck Neinas, who managed the league competently and calmed the rough waters before ceding his position to Bob Bowlsby the following May.
If you think the damage inflicted by Dan Beebe is in the rear-view mirror, think again. Here's Bowlsby talking to The Oklahoman in October about the Big 12's television opportunities given that one of its member schools has its own dedicated network:
"The Longhorn Network is a boulder in the road. It really is. They did something that almost no other institution in the country could do because of the population in the state, and we’re looking at some way to try and morph that around a little bit."
On that same panel where Beebe implied he was unfairly blamed for the Big 12's misfortunes, Bowlsby said the league believed its smaller size was a strength. The Big 12 eventually stabilized at 10 teams after losing Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M while adding TCU and West Virginia.
Its on-field football product remained strong even with the loss of a conference championship game. The NCAA requires conferences to have 12 member institutions in order to play a championship game, which disqualified the Big 12.
Nevertheless, it found success. In addition to Texas and Oklahoma as the league's powerhouse programs, Baylor rose to national prominence, aided by the exposure of Robert Griffin III's Heisman Trophy win. Kansas State rose up from its recent doldrums to become a consistent Top 25 team. And this year, TCU asserted itself among college football's elite.
The money has been there for the Big 12, too. According to Forbes, the conference ranks fifth in the country -- trailing the other four major conferences -- with $262 million in revenue every year.
But when broken down on a per-school payout, the Big 12's $26 million in annual revenue is surpassed only by the Big Ten, where members made about half a million more than Big 12 schools in 2014.
And despite all that, the Big 12 has been turned upside down. Exclusion from the inaugural college football playoff has the conference and its members distraught about what that might mean for the future.
Playoff committee chairman Jeff Long acknowledged that the conference was ultimately hurt by the lack of a conference championship game. Where other conference champions had to beat a ranked opponent on a neutral field, TCU spent the weekend beating up on lowly Iowa State.
Bowlsby had already made a sneaky play to help his conference gain representation, refusing to crown a single Big 12 champion -- which would have rightly been Baylor's, given the league rules -- because doing so would have hurt TCU's chances of making the playoff, given that the Horned Frogs were positioned higher in the playoff rankings.
That gamble blew up in Bowlsby's face. TCU fell out, and an impressive win by Baylor over then-No. 9 Kansas State wasn't enough to push it into the top four. Four of the five major conferences have a team in college football's inaugural playoff. The Big 12 is the odd league out.
And so the message is this: Without a conference championship game, the Big 12 will be last in line for the national championship playoffs. Every year, the season will start with Big 12 schools at a disadvantage.
Previously content with its circumstances, the Big 12 is restless. A league known first and foremost for its football can't afford to handicap its members.
The task of solving the problem -- and fast -- falls on Bowlsby, whose tenure may be defined by what he does to rehabilitate the league. While member schools may not be ready to jump ship -- thank the Grant of Rights clause, which runs through 2025 along with the current TV deal with ESPN -- the Big 12 faces huge consequences if it can't appease the committee by reclaiming a conference title game, one way or another.
Think loss of branding strength, loss of TV appeal, reduced exposure, a future in which the best coaches jump ship for leagues where the national playoffs are easier to reach.
Bowslby has options. He can convince the NCAA to give the Big 12 a waiver that would allow a conference championship despite, giving its football teams a leg up without diluting the conference just for population's sake.
That appears to be Bowlsby's preference, and it sounds like he's working on other league commissioners to drum up support. But it's no sure thing, especially when supporting the Big 12 means increasing the competition for your own conference.
Or Bowlsby can add member schools that contribute to the conference's stature while elevating membership to the all-important 12 teams. The conference could once again live up to its name.
Adding schools will come with scrutiny, since the Big 12 doesn't want to cheapen its product -- both from an athletic and academic perspective. But inaction will cause its own damage, building upon the losses incurred under Beebe.
Three years after Dan Beebe, the Big 12 conference remains in a volatile state.
Does the Big 12 need to add more teams? That's a secondary concern. What it needs if a conference championship game. To get that, the Big 12 needs a great commissioner.
We'll soon find out if Bob Bowlsby is that leader. Until then, the ghost of Dan Beebe is watching.