Bowlsby: direction of college sports could hurt wrestling

Updated: February 23, 2024

Note: Few people with a wrestling background have been more involved with nearly every level of college sports than Bob Bowlsby, who recently came out of retirement to serve as an interim athletics director at Northern Iowa. This was the position he held for eight years before becoming the athletics director at Iowa (1991-2006) and Stanford (2007-12), before eventually became the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference before stepping down last summer. During those years, he also served on many NCAA committees, including dealing with the current N.I.L. rules and transfer portal. Recently, the former wrestler from Waterloo (Iowa) West High School and Minnesota-Morehead spoke with WIN Editor Mike Finn about the issues in today’s college athletics, especially the impact on wrestling.

WIN: Do you have a word or phrase on how much has college athletics has changed over 33 years since you first served as UNI’s A.D.?

BOWSLBY: It has changed dramatically. There are components where, little by little, it has gotten to be very expensive to participate at the highest levels. The only thing worse than being in the athletics arms-race is not being in the athletics arms-race … if you fall behind and don’t empower your coaches and athletes with the tools they need to get the job done in a modern environment. It’s changed in that it used to be facilities that were beneficial to college athletes. Now, it’s collectives (N.I.L.), the efficiency of transfer rules. It’s evolved and it’s probably going to change and evolve.

WIN: Many people are concerned about the future of the NCAA as it deals with the impact of the N.I.L. and transferring athletes. Do you have hope with this change in college athletics that things will once again be positive?

BOWLSBY: I was the co-chair of the NCAA Solutions Group that was looking at N.I.L. We got very far down the continuum from being highly conservative to doing almost nothing to getting to the place where a wrestler could run his own camp for money. He could go out and make public appearances or speeches for pay or do autographs or participate in jersey sales. They could have agents, financial advisors; do a lot of things by the time we were done and we’ve moved a long way down the continuum.

This Q&A appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

There were some things we said we didn’t want to have done. We didn’t think it was right for student-athletes to appropriate institutional logos, intellectual property of the university. We didn’t think it was right for them to use university’s indices or colors; things that were not athletes’ property. And also, anything athletes got involved with were not supposed to be an inducement to transfer. Obviously, that went right out the window.

We also envisioned a third-party enterprise that would oversee N.I.L. so that we had some national consistency and sunshine on how the thing was being operated and who was making how much money. There is a lot of anecdotal information out there that so-and-so is making seven figures. Those numbers are largely unreliable.

WIN: It almost feels like college athletics has created a Pandora’s Box, where the impact could get even worse. Is that accurate?

BOWLSBY: I think that is right. The question I have going forward: Is it possible to get the genie back in the bottle? We begged to have the NCAA put these in place and the NCAA president could have put them in place on July 1, 2021. But, chose not to because we were going to get sued for restraint of trade … and we would have. But, we also would have put a stake in the ground so that we could have said to states that we’re considering laws or institutions that wanted to put programs in place.

Instead, we left 350 institutions without any guidance and we still have no rule to this day and now we have 25 states that have gone about it on their own and put these laws in place and we have another 25 states that don’t have any laws or guidance to consider putting laws in place. 

So, it’s a fair question to ask if we can get the genie back in the bottle. And to jump to a wrestling perspective, I think what will happen is more and more resources are going to be siphoned to football and men’s basketball and men’s Olympic sports are going to be in jeopardy like they were previously (while dealing with Title IX issues).

It isn’t going to happen at Northern Iowa, but there will be places that will discontinue. The House lawsuit (against the NCAA) is brought by a young man (Grant House) at Arizona State on behalf of swimmers; essentially the same as the Alston case (in 2021 when courts ruled the NCAA violated the Sherman Act). 

Nobody told the kid before he filed this lawsuit that he’s probably going to cause half of the men’s swimming programs to be dropped.

It’s men’s Olympic sports in general that will be in jeopardy. Once a bunch of those go away, institutions will be able to discontinue women’s sports because they will have significantly more women’s sports than men’s sports. 

WIN: Are you concerned that sports like wrestling might be forced to exist on their own?

BOWLSBY: You could have more of a club environment, which is more of a current NCAA Division III model, which is not reliant on revenue. They do it on a more modest level, but they have good competition. I’m not sure that would satisfy people, compared to the enterprises they are involved with now.

WIN: What recommendations would you make to Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association?

BOWLSBY: Mike and I have been very close friends and colleagues for many years and so we talk about these things. Mike has been a tireless worker on behalf of wrestling. He has been the guy who has spoken truth to power, relative to the coaches. He’s had things to say that were correct that the wrestling coaches did not want to hear over the years and he did it anyway. Mike has been as important to the sport of wrestling as any person I could name.

But there is only so much one person can do. A lot of times these decisions don’t have anything to do with the sport involved. It has to do with the money that it costs to sponsor that sport. Getting rid of sports is a terrible way to save money because the politics of it is just brutal. It never goes away. Every alum in that sport hates you. 

WIN: You mentioned that Mike Moyer has tried to speak to the coaches, who sometimes have a different perspective. Since coaches, and not administrators, tend to be the decision-makers when it comes to wrestling, what can be done to better help coaches see the big picture?

BOWLSBY: The NWCA board is mainly wrestling coaches. You want to have some more diverse perspectives on there. The thing that has been the most frustrating to me over a period of time in wrestling is that you tell wrestling coaches what you think is likely to happen and they don’t always want to listen.

One of the things that frustrates me and would be a way to strengthen the sport is to have a dual-meet national team championship. The last time I spoke to the NWCA Convention was 10 years ago. I said we really need to get a team-sport championship in wrestling and we could do it. But as you know, the big guys (Division I programs) don’t want to do it. Among the people who are at the top of the game, there is a rare coach who wants to contribute to the strength of the sport (and is open to change) because they like it the way it is.

WIN: For some, NCAA Division I wrestling is being split in that a fewer number of those programs are from Power-5 conferences. Should the teams from Power-5 programs take more of an attitude in helping all the programs to help the division grow?

BOWLSBY: If the top of the food chain wants wrestling to stay strong, they need to be thoughtful about the rules they put in place. What we are doing right now is exclusionary, rather than inclusionary. They need to do things to make all the boats rise. 

I can speak on behalf of Oklahoma State coach John Smith. When the Big 12 was down to four programs, I remember he told me he wanted some of the mid-major programs to join the Big 12 because he feared those programs might be dropped if they were not part of a strong conference.

Recently, the NWCA held a Multi-Division National Duals here in Cedar Falls, and there is talk they might create a tournament for the Non-Power-5 programs, where few are ranked in the Top-25. It would be nice if all the Division I programs would get involved, but that is not what we need. We need for an NCAA-sanctioned tournament for Division I programs. It would be nice if we had an individual tournament that is held in February and an elimination dual-team tournament that would end in early April. Wrestling is one of only five championships that make money under the NCAA umbrella so it is not really a financial question.

WIN: Do you hope that will happen?

BOWLSBY: I don’t think of hope as a strategy. You need to get the people at the top of the food chain convinced we need to have a dual-team championship. There are some who believe that the only time the NCAA tournament can happen is in March or the world is going to end. That’s wrong. You can do it the third week of February, then have a dual-team championship a few weeks later.

WIN: Finally, you grew up with the sport. What do you think about the sport and would Bob Bowlsby have been as successful had he not been a wrestler?

BOWLSBY: Wrestling continues to deliver life lessons, which are available in other sports, but perhaps the price of commitment is not as high in those sports, compared to wrestling. It’s a difficult, tough sport. I don’t think I would have been good at anything without wrestling. 

I think I probably learned more about leadership, about being out all by myself on the mat, than I could have learned in the classroom. In wrestling, you learn about perseverance and self-reliance. Nobody is going to do it for you. If it’s going to get done, you are going to do it.

For example, if I go into any negotiation, I can hear my (former Waterloo West) coach Bob Siddens say, “Don’t take a back seat to that guy.” He’s over my shoulder all the time.