Pac-12 commissioner wants collegiality back in college sports. But deep down, he knows platitudes won’t save his conference

It wasn’t long after Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff bemoaned the lack of collegiality in college sports recently that he made about the least collegial remark you’ll ever hear from someone in his position.

Asked about his new Big 12 counterpart Brett Yormark’s line a couple weeks ago that his league was “open for business” in expansion — perceived, perhaps, as a signal flare at antsy Pac 12 schools in the wake of Southern California’s and UCLA’s departure to the Big Ten — Kliavkoff shot back with the only line that will be remembered from Pac-12 media days.

“We appreciate that,” he said. “We have not decided whether we’re going shopping there or not.”

Kliavkoff later acknowledged it was a comment made out of frustration, given how tenuous a position the Pac-12 has been in since the shocking news that the league’s anchor members in Los Angeles were on their way out. Are the remaining Pac-12 schools strong enough to stay together? Do Oregon and Washington have any path to follow USC and UCLA to the Big Ten? Will the so-called Four Corners schools — Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State — seek more stable refuge in the Big 12, or might the Pac 12 have a way to lure current Big 12 members west?

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff speaks during Pac-12 Media Day at Novo Theater.

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff speaks during Pac-12 Media Day at Novo Theater.

At this moment, even Kliavkoff cannot reliably predict what’s to come. He’s got a group of presidents who are talking about solidarity in conference meetings but looking at options in private. He’s got a Big 12 that feels newly emboldened to recruit its members. And at least on the surface, he doesn’t seem to have an expansion move that will replace what was left with USC and UCLA.

“I’ve been spending four weeks trying to defend against grenades that have been lobbed in from every corner of the Big 12 trying to destabilize our remaining conference,” Kliavkoff said. “I understand why they’re doing it, when you look at the relative media value between the conferences. I get it, I get why they’re scared, why they’re trying to destabilize it. I was just tired of that.”

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Welcome to college sports, George, where betrayal, selfishness and survival long ago surpassed the “student-athlete experience” as the hallmark of a successful conference. What, did you think major conference commissioners are getting paid $3 million a year or more these days to make a football schedule and sit on NCAA committees?

The job is, and for quite a long time has been, about doing whatever is necessary to maximize the revenue being distributed to member schools. If that means raiding or even destroying another conference, too bad. That’s the system college presidents allowed, so that’s what they got. They haven’t changed it or fixed it because they don’t mind a system of winners and losers — as long as they’re on the right side.

That’s why it’s hard to reconcile Kliavkoff’s stance that all the remaining Pac-12 schools have looked each other in the eye and committed to stay with the behavior of every other university over the last 20 years of college sports clawing over each other to land in the best possible conference situation possible.

And why it’s hard to take seriously any suggestion that it’s time to calm the waters on realignment when the Pac-12 itself has played victim and predator alternately for the last dozen years.

In fact, you can trace a lot of the chaos of today back to 2010 when the Pac-12 made a bold public play to add Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado, all of which were members of the Big 12 at the time.

It’s hard to say how close the deal really came to happening — there’s some speculation Texas engineered the whole thing for leverage — but the mistrust and instability it created undeniably led Texas A&M and Missouri to jump to the SEC when that opportunity came along.

Kliavkoff wasn’t leading the Pac-12 then, but then-commissioner Larry Scott had the right idea. He just couldn’t close the deal, ended up settling for Colorado and Utah and signed a media rights package that would ultimately leave the league vulnerable to what happened last month.

What Kliavkoff is responsible for was deciding last summer not to add any Big 12 schools when the likes of Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU were reeling from the shock of Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC and evaluating whether the Big 12 was still a viable conference for them in the future. He’s also partially responsible for cutting the Big 12 out of the so-called Alliance that the Pac-12 formed with the ACC and Big Ten, with a promise (but not written on a contract) not to raid each other.


It’s easy to sympathize with Kliavkoff’s predicament and the challenge he’ll have maintaining the Pac 12’s viability, but at this stage of the game nobody’s got time for a loser’s lament about what college sports at its most virtuous should be.

“Our long-term measure for the success of college athletics cannot be how much money we consolidate into ten or five or two conferences, but rather should be our ability to support the largest number of student-athletes while still facilitating competition between schools and conferences he said.

Sorry, but that train pulled out of the station a long time ago and it’s not coming back.

Kliavkoff isn’t a college sports lifer but rather an entertainment industry executive the league pulled out of Las Vegas for the purpose of creating more revenue. That’s the job Kliavkoff signed up for, and it’s the one he’ll have a lot of trouble doing successfully now that USC and UCLA are gone. Of course he’s right that rivalries should matter, geography should matter and what’s best for the athletes should matter.

But college sports collectively gave up on that world a long time ago. Like it or not, this is a revenue game with winners and losers. USC and UCLA decided to make a move before getting stuck on the losing side.

Appealing to an old-fashioned notion of what college sports should be won’t save the Pac 12. But if Kliavkoff is serious about having the option to destroy a peer conference, he better get on with it because waiting around for something to happen in this dog-eat-dog world will only get you left behind.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY. Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff can’t save league as college sports changes

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