At the end of last summer, an opportunity presented itself to the Pac-12gate. Texas and Oklahoma had left for the Southeastern Conference, leaving the remaining Big 12 schools in the dust with no choice but to look west for what appeared to be an increasingly safe “Power Five” conference home.
Of course, the Pac-12 football product had been down for more than a decade, largely due to the decline of USC. But the Trojans still represented a flagship blue-blooded program located in the country’s No. 2 media market. As was the case for Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12, USCRooted presence equaled stability. And, in the formation of college athletic conferences, such a tide can lift all boats.
First year Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff was getting calls from desperate Big 12 schools and had focused on a few that he felt had enough added value to seriously consider expanding the Pac-12 footprint across America’s Great Plains.
Kliavkoff assembled a committee of three presidents and three athletic directors to decide whether or not to recommend the expansion to the larger group. The group met on a Zoom call to go over a deck of 20 slides. But the Pac-12 was only about 15 minutes into its hour-long presentation before USC President Carol Folt spoke.
Folt told the group she didn’t understand why the Pac-12 would grow and expressed surprise that they were even talking about it, according to multiple sources who knew about the call but weren’t authorized to speak publicly due to the sensitivity of the subject.
“Carol shut it down,” a source said.
“She chilled the whole process,” another source said.
At the end of August, the Pac-12 announced that it would not develop.
Ten months later, on June 30, USC and UCLA announced they were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten from August 2024continuing college football’s move toward two superpower conferences that Texas, Oklahoma, and the SEC began the previous summer.
Now that USC and UCLA are heading to the Chicago-based Big Ten, Stanford, Washington and Oregon would be among the next wave of Big Ten targets after Notre Dame priority, putting the Pac-12 in jeopardy additional.
Meanwhile, the Big 12, which has regrouped as the remaining eight schools added four new members, looks set to poach every Pac-12 school with a wandering eye.
The Pac-12 could have added the top Big 12 schools last summer, positioning itself as one of the top four conferences, regardless of the L.A. schools’ long-term intentions. Instead, USC’s negative response combined with its escape to the Big Ten a year later put the Pac-12 in a precarious position.
“We are not going to respond to anonymous comments or hearsay,” Folt said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.
At the time, there were clear reasons why USC did not want to expand. Within the Pac-12, USC leaders weren’t the only ones to express such reservations. Adding members would mean dividing the already frustrating Pac-12 revenue pot into multiple hands. And, given that USC had yet to be invited to the college football playoffs, adding more competition within its own conference would only make it harder to achieve that elusive goal.
At Pac-12 media day on Friday, Kliavkoff recalled that he was vacationing in Montana with his family that surreal Thursday morning when he received an urgent text message from a Pac-12 official. Driving in Idaho, he found a place with cell phone reception and pulled over. He quickly turned around, feeling blindsided by the news that his Los Angeles stalwarts had betrayed their nearly century-old relationship with the league and its peer institutions.
Not even a year into his tenure as Pac-12 commissioner, Kliavkoff hasn’t had much time to make his first program any happier. He was definitely trying. Removing the divisional tie to the league championship game would certainly help USC. But now the Trojans were gone, without any warning, as Kliavkoff had no indication of the Trojans’ wanderlust.
USC coach Lincoln Riley said Friday that the school’s openness to evaluating his future conference affiliation was discussed with him before he took the job in late November.
“I kind of had my head held high with that,” Riley said. “We had conversations when I took the job, not specifically about the Big Ten, not about an imminent move, but we knew we were going to have to watch the landscape of what was happening. You have to be up front -guard, and so I’m glad that our people have been progressive enough to seize what I think is going to be a great opportunity, and I certainly understand the reasons behind it and fully support it.
A year after the Pac-12 could have seized the moment by expanding to complete its next media rights negotiations – the league could have added Texas Christian, for example, to add the Dallas-Fort media market Worth to his offers – Kliavkoff is now fighting for his league’s future from a much less advantageous position.
Asked at his press conference on Friday whether USC had “misled” him, Kliavkoff said, “I’m not going to talk about it. We’re going to take the high road and not talk about what happened in the past.
Kliavkoff said the past month has been a “whirlwind”.
“We’ve had two board meetings a week for the past four weeks,” Kliavkoff said. “Looking my colleagues in the eye, understanding their commitment, that their first priority is to ensure the Pac-12 survives, thrives, grows and succeeds. They are attached to the conference. I think the best thing to do is ask them about it.
The natural sequel given recent events: Why would Kliavkoff — or anyone in college athletics, for that matter — trust anyone else?
Later Friday morning, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens spoke to a group of reporters about the situation at his school. Oregon is the best remaining football brand in the Pac-12 and is presumed to be vying for a spot in the Big Ten. But, with no invite in hand, the Ducks have no choice but to hold their own with the Pac-12 and make the most of it.
“Your initial reaction is a personal emotion and what it means for your league and for my school,” Mullens said, “but ultimately what was [USC and UCLA] supposed to do? They are also in a difficult position. I’m trying to take a step back.”
It was a media day like no other in Pac-12 history. The event, ironically, took place at the Novo Theater in downtown Los Angeles, yet USC athletic director Mike Bohn and UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond were absent for their usual appearances to support their football coaches and players a few miles from their campuses.
Over the next two years, Pac-12 presidents, athletic directors and coaches will split their meetings into two parts — one the Trojans and Bruins can be told about and one they can no longer attend due to a conflict of interest. .
Kliavkoff attempted to “take the high road” Friday in his prepared remarks about USC and UCLA, expressing disappointment but saying “we cherish our relationship with their student-athletes, coaches, staff, faculty, alumni and fans. “.
But, listening to him express his displeasure with the prioritization of money over athlete welfare by college athletics, there was no need to wonder where he was pointing his finger in the judgment.
“We should measure … our ability to provide the highest level of athletic competition for our student-athletes without unnecessary travel, time constraints and other burdens on competition that impede their academic success,” Kliavkoff said.
“We are at a critical juncture, and the decisions we make in the near future will determine whether we head into a world in which a small handful of conferences play professional sports at the expense of tens of thousands of academic opportunities.”