New Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark: Kansas ‘a big part of what we’re building’

photo by: Zac Boyer/Journal-World

Incoming Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark gestures while speaking with reporters during Big 12 media days at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on July 13, 2022.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Brett Yormark remembers tuning to CBS on Saturday afternoons while growing up in New Jersey in the late 1970s and watching Bob Knight pace the sidelines as the coach of the Indiana men’s basketball team.

The Hoosiers were one of the most successful teams in the country under Knight, who led them to the NCAA championship three times in 12 seasons. They left such an imprint on Yormark that, upon graduating from high school, he decided to attend Indiana.

Even from a young age, Yormark understood the power and reach that comes with being a national champion — or at least being affiliated with one.

“One of the best ways, I think, to market a school and to really build a brand as an institution is through sports,” Yormark, the incoming commissioner of the Big 12, said Thursday morning in an interview with the Journal-World.

“I think Kansas is kind of in that same conversation. People have grown up watching Kansas and their team throughout the years and it’s truly a national brand. They should be very proud of it. They’re in the conversation every year.”

A former CEO of the Brooklyn Nets and most recently the COO at Roc Nation, music icon Jay-Z’s entertainment agency, Yormark was formally introduced as the conference’s next commissioner during a news conference at AT&T Stadium on Wednesday. He will assume that responsibility on Aug. 1 following the retirement of Bob Bowlsby, who has been in that role since 2012.

What Yormark has already learned is that the landscape of college athletics is evolving quickly. The day after his hiring was announced, UCLA and USC were accepted into the Big Ten, which they will join in 2024 after departing the Pac-12. Their decisions run parallel to those made a year ago by Oklahoma and Texas, which will leave the Big 12 for the SEC in 2025.

The Big 12 will add BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF as full members effective July 1, 2023, but Yormark called Kansas “a pillar school in the conference.” He said the university will be central to the Big 12’s attempt to thrive in what appears to be the dawning of the era of the superconference.

“It’s a legacy brand,” Yormark said. “It’s a national brand. My knowledge of the business and the brand of Kansas is really all about basketball, but I know they’re building their football program, which is great. But boy, they’re a big part of what we’re doing here.”

Yormark has not yet met men’s basketball coach Bill Self — he will do so during a planned visit to campus next month — but has had a chance to speak several times with Kansas athletic director Travis Goff, whom he called “smart, engaging, very friendly and very likeable.” He also met Wednesday afternoon with second-year football coach Lance Leipold, learned they have mutual friends and said he believes the future of the team is “in good hands.”

“I think it’s got a lot of upside potential, which, if you can capture that, that’s a real good thing,” Yormark said. “Hopefully, in time, he will be able to do that. I don’t know their numbers, their attendance and all that stuff, and I’ll have to dig into that, but just generally speaking, we used to say the same thing back in the day when the Nets were horrible. We had so much upside, and if we could capture just a percentage of that, it would be fantastic, just from a business perspective. I would assume Travis feels the same way.”

Goff said Wednesday that he believes Kansas has “the greatest potential in Power 5 sports in our football program” given its lack of success over much of the past two decades. Yormark again compared the situation to that of the Nets when he was hired in 2005 as they were playing at a stale arena and experiencing a decline in fortune.

Their move in 2012 from northern New Jersey to the $1 billion Barclays Center, whose construction Yormark oversaw, led to their emergence in popularity.

“When you think about upside, you just need to see gradual improvement so you can sell the vision and the mission, and hopefully, this is a big year for (the football team) to really move forward in a positive way so people can start visualizing that improvement,” Yormark said. “But I would certainly look at it no different than Travis does. He’s got the gold standard (in men’s basketball) and now he’s going to improve the football, and once he’s got the two operating at their fullest potential, he’s got something really special.”

Goff said in May that he was optimistic the university would be able to share a plan for renovating David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium by the end of the year. Given his lack of familiarity, Yormark said he could not substantively address the importance of that project.

“I know football drives a lot of the conversation and a lot of the value (in collegiate athletics),” he said, “I’ve got to kind of dig into that a bit more and understand where Kansas is in that particular area.”

Yormark said that although Bowlsby “has left us with something really good,” it is now his responsibility to help the Big 12 evolve. Central to that, Yormark said, is Kansas’ success, and he wants to begin identifying the challenges that are specific to the university so they can be overcome.

“From where I sit — and obviously, I don’t come in officially until Aug. 1 — they’re a big part of what we’re building,” he said.


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