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There probably won’t be too many surprises Sunday when the University of Iowa celebrates the life and career of Christine Grant inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Grant, who died in December at age 84, was a pioneer in women’s athletics, a woman who fought hard for equality not only in athletics but in all walks of life.
But there was a big surprise more than 20 years ago when she walked down the hallway and into her colleague’s office, shutting the door behind her.
“She said ‘I have two things to tell you,’” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said last week in a phone interview from his office in Irving, Texas.
She told Bowlsby, then the men’s athletics director at Iowa, she was going to retire the following summer and she had recommended the men’s and women’s departments merge.
And she wanted him to lead them.
Bowlsby was surprised by both proclamations, but mainly because Grant “would entrust me with the enterprise she built from the absolute ground up.
“To this day, it was one of the nicest professional compliments I’ve ever received,” he said.
As we celebrate the life of Grant and the 50th anniversary of Title IX, it’s important to remember there was a time when things were different. Things weren’t always equal and, in many areas, a gap remains.
But the day Grant walked into Bowlsby’s office ushered in a new era in athletics at Iowa, one that already had begun across the country. Iowa was one of a handful of schools still separating men’s and women’s athletics.
Minnesota followed in 2002 to help reduce a $21 million deficit. Tennessee made the move in 2013 and Texas merged its programs in 2017.
Bowlsby, 70, remembered the transition wasn’t easy, but was aided by “a lot of people of goodwill who wanted to do the right things.”
Bowlsby said neither department had to cut positions, something he remains “very proud of.” Some roles changed, but “we found jobs for everybody ... meaningful roles.”
“I don’t think there are ever easy transitions,” said Bowlsby, the Iowa AD from 1990 to 2006. “I knew the responsibility that comes with merging the programs.
“It was important to do it by evolution instead of revolution.”
There were men in charge of women’s programs and women in charge of men’s teams. There was a “long line of things where there were separate operations,” he said.
The process took time, years in fact, and, Bowlsby said, some “weren’t wild about” the idea.
But the department “worked through whatever issues arose ... worked together,” he said.
“I think all the boats rose,” he said.
Today, Bowlsby is on the brink of retirement. He hopes a new Big 12 commissioner will be selected by July and the transition will be complete by September, if not sooner.
“I don’t know when my last day will be,” he said.
In the meantime, there is “no shortage of things going on.”
Transfer portal and Name, Image and Likeness have opened up a can of worms in college athletics, something Bowlsby is happy to have “in my rearview mirror.”
And while he may sit on some boards or even do some consulting with the Big 12, he is ready to retire. Really retire.
“I never really thought I’d work this long,” he said.
He and his wife, Candice, have four adult children and 10 grandchildren, ranging in age from 13 years to six months. He likely will stay in Texas since two children and six of those grandkids live in the Dallas area.
“A family event is like a troop movement,” he said.
Twenty-plus years ago, Iowa had its own troop movement and made the right decision, thanks to people like Grant and Bowlsby.
“It depends where you look,” Bowlsby said when asked if inequities still exist.
“We did a thorough assessment of where there might be differences” during the merger, he said. “I don’t think Dr. Grant’s vision was to treat men’s basketball different than women’s basketball or softball different than baseball.”
Some programs still struggle to comply with Title IX today and there are “a lot of details” to work on, Bowlsby said. “They are not unimportant.”
Still, he thinks “Iowa has long been a leader in equitable treatment.”
Here’s hoping Iowa remains that way.
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