‘No Pac-12 schools are joining the Big 12:’ Pac-12 working to save collapsing conference

LOS ANGELES — George Kliavkoff has been wired. Not only because of the sparks that practically fired him due to the loss of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten – yes, he’s so upset – but the Pac-12 commissioner has also been wired to the traditional meaning: his obligatory mobile phone.

It features instant updates from a network of Pac-12 presidents, chancellors and athletic directors who now report to it whenever a Big 12 school reaches out.

“It will be passed on to me,” Kliavkoff told CBS Sports. “It’s a constant stream of nonsense. Let’s be very clear. No Pac-12 schools are joining the Big 12.”

Kliavkoff called his shot that the Big 12 won’t encroach, which in these turbulent times is true until they don’t. He is a commissioner trying to save his conference on two fronts. The Big Ten have taken their bite and continue to have options. The Big 12 is definitely checking out Pac-12 schools.

At the same time, the Pac-12 continues to explore its own expansion.

During a day-long media car wash that included a one-on-one interview with CBS Sports, Kliavkoff portrayed anger, compassion, bravado and optimism. In the end, there should be some sympathy.

“I spent four weeks trying to defend grenades from all corners of the Big 12,” he said as the media day kicked off. “I understand why they are scared. I understand why they are trying to destabilize us. I was fed up.”

Kliavkoff hopes his world will stop spinning. He came to this role as an innovator and change agent at MGM. At the time of his hire, he was the most untraditional commissioner in the Power Five, if not the country. Now insert your level of bad juju here: On June 30, when he learned of the defections, Kliavkoff was one day away from the anniversary of his hiring and the start of name, image and likeness rights for the athletes.

That day marked the end of the Pac-12 as we know it. The league will likely survive, but only in modified form.

It could suddenly rip off attractive San Diego State (among others) and become the equivalent of a Mountain West Plus.

He could also stay at 10 teams. A Pac-12 AD told CBS Sports it was “the best and only option.”

The result is a highlight of what West Coast football has become of late – isolated from the mainstream due to a lack of college football playoff appearances, which ultimately led to a defection California talent to the Southeastern powers.

Either way, it’s clear that recent events have left a mark on Kliavkoff’s psyche and sense of duty. He was vacationing in Montana when it all happened. First it was the fish that bit, then it was the modern university landscape that bit him in the back.

“Last year there was a drift away from collegiality and trust among conference commissioners,” Kliavkoff told CBS Sports. “It’s really, really disturbing.”

Collegiality is another way to define grown men playing nice with each other. The vagaries of college athletics had their way with him and others. We’re still only one bulletin away from what appears to be the latest corporate raid.

League coaches on media day were already calling it the Pac-10. Tongue-in-cheek, UCLA coach Chip Kelly shared the exact distance between LA and Rutgers (2,765 miles or 4.5 hours by plane). USC coach Lincoln Riley told CBS Sports when he accepted the job. there was no direct knowledge of a move to the Big Ten. But USC being USC, it’s well known that the school has always had options.

Meanwhile, Kliavkoff looked like a man who had been pummeled by a degrading collegiate model. Not in the literal sense, of course, but the crude nature of conference raids carried out in the name of television money has become so commonplace that the raw emotion of those affected never fails to leave a mark.

That’s not to say the commissioner is above the Big Ten poaching his two flagship universities. It’s clear that he and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren haven’t spoken since before the raid.

“We have no plans to talk in the future,” Kliavkoff said sternly. “Kevin has my phone number.”

He hasn’t spoken to the CEOs of USC and UCLA since they called the day after the leak to inform him of the departure from their schools.

The irony of the media days themselves was obvious. They took place in this city which was the center of the conference. Now, Los Angeles will be home to no Pac-12 members from 2024.

“I took on this job because of what we do for student-athletes,” Kliavkoff said. “At the end of the day, this feels like a short-term financial decision that likely puts student-athletes in a worse position in terms of health and safety, travel and academic pursuits. It’s unfortunate.

“I feel for our athletes at UCLA and USC.”

Kliavkoff said he would support both schools over the next two years.

“Why?” asked Billy Witz of the New York Times.

“Because,” the commissioner said, “it’s the right thing to do.”

With the loss of USC and UCLA, Kliavkoff is currently overseeing a conference, the remnants of which need to think long and hard before committing to signing any legal documents that would commit them to the Pac-12 in the future.

Asked directly about his commitment to the league with a binding rights grant, Oregon AD Rob Mullens said he should study the landscape, including future college football playoff expansion.

What he didn’t say: We’re all-in. And it’s a shame to see the Pac-12 rock so much. It probably won’t dissolve, but it certainly won’t be the same.

It’s sad to see a good man or woman leading a conference being treated like this – again. But as injured as the Pac-12 appears, he had his chance. Last year, several Big 12 schools contacted the Pac-12 after Texas and Oklahoma left for the SEC. None have received traction due to what a Big 12 source called “elitist” Pac-12 presidents.

Now these presidents are weighing their options. Sources told CBS Sports that the Big 12 are optimistic that their annual media rights will be “significantly greater” than $30 million per year starting in 2025. That figure currently matches the Pac-12 cap with its remaining 10 members, according to industry sources.

SMU has been mentioned as a possibility for the Pac-12 to enter the rich recruiting grounds of Texas, but there’s a reason he’s still in the United States. TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech (Big 12) and Texas (leaving the Big 12 for the SEC) are more popular with other conferences.

San Diego State looks like the Utah of a few years ago – ready to enter the big time after years of investing in its sports infrastructure. The new Snapdragon Stadium is one of the most beautiful venues in the country.

Conferences can bounce back. A year ago, the Big 12 looked like it could disappear. It was formed from the detritus of the old Southwest Conference. Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M still seemed to have options.

The Pac-12 was founded as the Pacific Coast Conference in 1907. It represents the West Coast and its culture. On sunny days like Fridays, the crowds would rather go to the beach than to the LA Coliseum. Still, being on top in this town and the Pac-12 is – or was – something special.

Pete Carroll lit up the city at a time when it lacked an NFL team. Kelly made Oregon a national powerhouse with the talent he recruited from that region. UCLA has its basketball heritage. Utah, while not exactly the West Coast, has waited decades to get its chance at the big time. Now the Utes are giving the league its last power base; they are favorites to win their second straight Pac-12 title.

“I knew I was entering a job that was a headache where there were repairs to be made from decisions that had been made previously,” Kliavkoff concluded. “The puzzle just got a lot more complicated. It’s okay because I love puzzles.”

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