Late last summer, opportunity knocked on the Pac-12’s door. Texas and Oklahoma left for the Southeastern Conference, leaving the rest of the Big 12 schools in the dust and no choice but to look west for what looked like an increasingly safe “Power Five” conference home.
Of course, the Pac-12’s football crop has been in decline for more than a decade, largely due to USC’s decline. But the Trojans still represented a blue-blooded, cutting-edge program in the nation’s No. 2 media market. As with Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12, USC’s established presence equaled stability. And such a wave in the formation of college sports conferences could lift all boats.
First-year Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff fielded calls from desperate Big 12 schools and zeroed in on a few he felt had enough added value to seriously consider expanding the Pac-12 into America’s Great Plains.
Kliavkoff assembled a committee of three presidents and three athletic directors to decide whether to recommend expansion to a larger group. The group met on a Zoom call to go through a deck of 20 slides. But it was only 15 minutes into the hour-long presentation before Pac-12, USC President Carol Folt spoke.
Folt told the group he didn’t understand why the Pac-12 would expand, and said he was surprised they were even talking about it, according to multiple sources familiar with the call but not authorized to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the topic.
“Carol shut him down,” a source said.
“He cooled off the whole process,” another source said.
In late August, the Pac-12 announced it would not expand.
Ten months later, on June 30, USC and UCLA announced they were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten beginning in August 2024, continuing college football’s move toward the two superpower conferences Texas, Oklahoma, and the SEC had begun the previous summer.
Now that USC and UCLA are on their way to the Chicago-based Big Ten, Stanford, Washington and Oregon are reportedly among the next wave of Big Ten targets after priority Notre Dame, putting the Pac-12 in even greater jeopardy.
Meanwhile, the remaining eight schools combined after adding four new members to the Big 12 are poised to sweep any Pac-12 school.
The Pac-12 could have added a top 12 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, coupled with its run to the Big Ten a year later, put the Pac-12 in a precarious spot.
“We will not respond to anonymous comments or rumors,” Folt told The Los Angeles Times.
At the time, USC had clear reasons for not wanting to expand. Within the Pac-12, USC leaders were not alone in expressing such reservations. Adding members would mean dividing the Pac-12’s already frustratingly small revenue pot between more hands. And given that USC has yet to be invited to the College Football Playoff, adding more competition in its conference will make that elusive goal more difficult to achieve.
At Pac-12 media day on Friday, Kliavkoff recalled being on vacation with his family in Montana that surreal Thursday morning when he received an urgent text message from a Pac-12 official. While driving in Idaho, he found a spot with cell phone reception and pulled over. Blindsided by the news that his players in Los Angeles had betrayed their nearly century-long relationship with the league and their peers, he quickly turned the car around.
Less than a year into his tenure as Pac-12 commissioner, Kliavkoff didn’t have much time to make his first program happier. He was definitely in the process of trying. Eliminating a divisional tie to the league championship game will definitely help USC. But now the Trojans disappeared without warning, for Kliavkoff was given no indication of the Trojans’ wanderlust.
USC coach Lincoln Riley said Friday that the school’s openness to evaluating future conference relevance was discussed with him prior to his late November start.
“I got my head up a little bit,” Riley said. “When I started, we had conversations, not specifically about the Big Ten, not about an imminent move, but we knew we’d have to watch the picture as it unfolded. You have to be at the forefront, and that’s why I’m glad that our people were progressive enough to seize what I thought would be a great opportunity. I certainly understand the reasons behind it and fully support it.”
A year after the Pac-12 was able to seize the moment leading up to upcoming media rights negotiations — the league could have added Texas Christian, for example, to add the Dallas-Fort Worth media market to its bid — Kliavkoff is now struggling. from a less advantageous position for the future of his league.
Asked at a press conference Friday if USC had “burned” him, Kliavkoff said, “I’m not going to talk about that.” We will take the high road and not talk about what happened in the past.”
The past month has been a “whirlwind,” Kliavkoff said.
“For the past four weeks, we’ve had two board meetings a week,” Kliavkoff said. “Looking into the eyes of my colleagues, I understand their commitment that their first priority is to keep the Pac-12 alive, thriving, growing and successful. They are committed to the conference. I think it’s best to ask them about it.”
A natural follow-up to recent events: Why does Kliavkoff or anyone in college athletics trust anyone else?
On Friday morning, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens spoke to a group of reporters about the state of the school. Oregon is the Pac-12’s best remaining football brand and is believed to be in the hunt for a spot in the Big Ten. But without an invitation in hand, the Ducks have no choice but to stick with the Pac-12 and do their best.
“Your initial reaction is your personal emotion and what it means for your league and my school,” Mullens said, “but at the end of the day, what else happened? [USC and UCLA] should he have done? They are also in a difficult situation. I am trying to withdraw from it.”
It was a media day unlike any in Pac-12 history. The event, ironically, was held at the Novo Theater in downtown Los Angeles, and yet USC athletic director Mike Bohn and UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond were absent for their customary speeches to support the football coaches and players a few miles from their campuses.
For the next two years, Pac-12 presidents and athletic directors and coaches will split their meetings into two parts — one where the Trojans and Bruins can meet, and one where they are now prohibited from joining because of a conflict of interest. .
Kliavkoff tried to “take the high road” in prepared remarks Friday about USC and UCLA, expressing frustration but saying “we value our relationship with their student-athletes, coaches, staff, faculty, alumni and fans.”
But listening to him express his displeasure with college athletics putting money ahead of the athlete’s well-being, one didn’t have to wonder where he was pointing the finger in his judgment.
“We must measure … our ability to provide our student-athletes with the highest level of athletic competition without unnecessary travel, time demands and other burdens on competition,” Kliavkoff said.
“We are at a critical juncture, and the decisions we make in the near future will determine how we move toward a world where a small handful of conferences play professional sports at the expense of tens of thousands of academic opportunities.”