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Athletics Director Departs

Bowlsby is moving to Texas to head the Big 12 Conference.

Photo: John Todd

Bob Bowlsby concluded six years as Stanford's athletics director in mid-June, leaving to become commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, which includes Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor and is based outside Dallas. Stanford asked Bowlsby to reflect on his experiences on the Farm; this is an edited transcript.

One reaction to your move is, 'Why would you or anyone want to leave Stanford?' So, why?

Well, I can't say that I honestly wanted to leave Stanford. I wasn't looking for a job; I didn't have any thought that I would ever go to another institution. This was about 10 days from first contact to press conference, and largely it is because of being able to affect and participate in the national agenda [for college athletics]. I think that I can be more effective representing 10 institutions and a little different perspective than I can here at Stanford.

You're going to be remembered for helping to shape Stanford into a national force in football. Is that your singular achievement?

I wouldn't call it a singular achievement, and a lot of people had their hands on the oars to make the Stanford football program get better. First and foremost among those are Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, '94. There were a lot of assistant coaches, a lot of trainers, a lot of doctors, a lot of strength and conditioning people, a lot of managers, and video guys. You don't turn a ship like that one in any sort of fast fashion, and you don't do it by the strength of one person. I guess I probably had a role in it and have probably gotten more credit for it than I deserve. But there were an awful lot of people who contributed to that.

I think it was a substantial accomplishment, but I think the fact that we navigated our way through some very difficult financial periods during the six years I was here is something that is a source of pride for me. I think we merged 35 booster clubs into one unified fundraising effort, which was no small undertaking, and I think the fact that our graduation rates average between 90 and 95 percent of student-athletes who come in the front door is really the best thing that I was involved in.

What's the biggest challenge facing your successor?

I think the program is in exceedingly good shape. The infrastructure and facilities are in good shape, although we're constantly working to improve them. Our academic programs are in good shape. Competitively, the vast majority of our programs are ranked in the top 15 in the country. . . . Having said that, I think it's really important that anyone who comes in here embraces what Stanford is. You can't come in and resist what Stanford is. It's different than other places. Your value set and your principles have to be consistent with the values of this institution. That's the most difficult aspect of attracting the next director of athletics, to make sure the fit is good. If it is, it's an extraordinary place. This is a truly transformative place, and it has been for me, and I really believe it is for every student-athlete who comes through here.

And those values are?

I mean the value that says we're going to do everything we can do to be as highly successful as we can possibly be, and we're going to do everything we can on the academic side to be just as successful as we can possibly be there. And that neither one compromises the other.

College athletics nationally has become controversial in terms of its ethics and economics. How concerned are you and what do you see on the horizon in terms of problems and solutions?

What I see is an enterprise that resides within higher education, and we never should forget that. We need to make sure that what we're doing in intercollegiate athletics is consistent with the best values of higher education. And that isn't always taking place. There are places that do it exceedingly well, and there are places that do it quite poorly. I think there is an imperative to take the best of the characteristics and retain them and improve them, and take the worst of the characteristics and put in place things that incentivize it to be different. That is what attracts me to the Big 12 position, that opportunity to affect and participate in the national agenda and to shape the dialogue.

The following did not appear in the print version of Stanford.

Among all the students, alumni, coaches, faculty and staff at Stanford, was there one person outgoing athletics director Bob Bowlsby would describe as most unforgettable?

“I have an answer. I would tell you that on the limited number of occasions I’ve had an opportunity to be around him, I think (the Hoover Institution’s) George Shultz  has been that. It’s because he understands what it is to be an athlete at an elite institution, an elite academic institution, and because of four tenures as a secretary of a major governmental department. He’s a neighbor, and he’s a golfer and he is an inspiration in that at 90 he’s as actively involved in the world agenda as people half his age. I’d say he’s probably the most memorable.”

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