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Mandel: Pac-12’s cause of death is about gross failure of leadership


On the morning of Nov. 12, 2011, Palo Alto, Calif., was the improbable epicenter of college football. ESPN’s “College GameDay” was live from Stanford, where that night the undefeated, third-ranked Cardinal hosted sixth-ranked Oregon. The Pac-12 finished that regular season with three of the top six teams in the country. It was the same year that the league signed what was then the richest television contract in college sports history (12 years, $3 billion).

That this same storied conference would be on the verge of extinction just a dozen years later seems utterly inconceivable. And almost entirely self-inflicted.

There will presumably be many eulogies written about the demise of the West Coast’s beloved, century-old Conference of Champions, a league that produced the likes of Bill Walton, Marcus Allen, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Morgan.

This is not that story.

This is the story of how 12 years of hubris, apathy and astounding mismanagement turned a once-shining mansion into a smoldering vat of ashes, with Oregon and Washington now following UCLA and USC to the Big Ten and Utah, Arizona and Arizona State set to join Colorado in the Big 12.

Just months after that 2011 Stanford-Oregon game, the conference broke ground on a San Francisco studio facility for the soon-to-launch Pac-12 Networks. Former stars like Ronnie Lott and Marshawn Lynch joined commissioner Larry Scott in lofting ceremonial power drills. This was to be a seminal moment in Scott’s rebranding of the old, sleepy, Pac-10 Conference into a cutting-edge national trendsetter.

“It will feel ‘West Coast.’ Modern,” Scott said of the network that day.

But the conference’s next 12 years felt a lot like that studio building — a vacant space full of unrealized potential.

Larry Scott was commissioner of the Pac-12 from 2009-2021. (Alika Jenner / Getty Images)

Upon the retirement of longtime Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen in 2009, Pac-10 presidents looked outside their industry and hired Scott, then CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association. Their mandate: Raise the profile of a proud conference long hindered by its time zone and an outdated TV contract (remember Fox Sports Net?).

Almost immediately, he wowed them. First, with an audacious and nearly successful attempt to lure Big 12 powers Texas and Oklahoma out West and form a 16-team conference, ultimately adding Colorado and Utah to become the Pac-12. Then, he stunned the industry by luring ESPN and Fox into a bidding war with Comcast that quadruped the league’s previous annual TV revenue.

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From that point forward, the presidents, led by Scott’s principal champion, Arizona State’s Michael Crow, gave him anything he wanted — and what he wanted most was to launch a media company that he would run for a princely salary (eventually $5.3 million).

Scott’s ill-advised strategy to launch the Pac-12 Networks without a proven media partner like ESPN has been well-documented. The bizarre seven-channel model struggled to gain distribution and never came close to delivering its projected revenue figures. It became an albatross from which league members could never escape.

But it wasn’t just Scott who screwed this up. As The Athletic recounted last year, the league in 2015 had a deal in hand to finally get the network on DirecTV — and the presidents, led by Crow, rejected it. Were this the SEC, they would not have been allowed back at work the next day. But that’s not how they do things out west.

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It’s a lazy stereotype to say that West Coast fans “don’t care” about football. They absolutely do. They’re just not as devoutly religious about it as, say, Auburn fans, who will show up and tune in whether the Tigers are 10-2 or 2-10. And many of the Pac-12’s football programs gave their fans reason to tune out for much of the 2010s.

Most notably, longtime powerhouse USC became a poster of dysfunction from the day Pete Carroll left in 2009 to when Lincoln Riley arrived in 2022. Oregon and Stanford eventually leveled off, the latter more dramatically than the former. Washington had a brief moment under Chris Petersen, as did Wazzu under Mike Leach. But UCLA was irrelevant, the Arizona schools invisible, and Colorado was just plain terrible.

Utah, the league’s saving grace, has been good enough to win the conference the past two years but not great enough to reach the College Football Playoff — a recurring theme. The conference failing to produce a CFP entrant for six consecutive seasons (and counting) did immense damage to its national brand. So did a 1-8 bowl season in 2017 and one nonconference face plant after another.

Elite West Coast recruits began leaving for Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State. Apathy began sinking in. But not just apathy. Angst.

Other conferences have endured their moments as the punchline. The Big Ten was the “slow” conference from roughly 2007-13. The Big 12 had its “One True Champion” era. But Scott himself became the human face of the Pac-12’s woes, mocked and criticized for a long list of fiascos — standing by his general counsel, Woodie Dixon — after he inexplicably overruled an in-game officiating review; staying in a $7,500 Vegas hotel suite during the conference basketball tournament; taking a $2.2 million bonus shortly before laying off or furloughing half the conference staff in 2020.

The presidents could have pulled the plug on Scott at any point along the way but instead largely ignored the issues and went on with their lives. Again: apathy.

Scott finally was forced out in 2021, replaced by yet another search-firm special, George Kliavkoff, then president of entertainment and sports at MGM Resorts International in Vegas.

The terminally upbeat executive had no idea the extent of the mess he was walking into. Distrust. Unpaid bills. (We later found out the network owed Comcast tens of millions in overpayments.) And, just a few weeks into the job in July 2021, massive upheaval across college sports.

That being said, nearly every move he made to try to clean it up was more baffling than the previous.

When Oklahoma and Texas left the Big 12 for the SEC, the Pac-12 could have been an aggressor and fortified itself for the future by adding strong athletics schools like TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma State. Instead, it stood pat. That fall, Kliavkoff entered into the now-infamous handshake “Alliance” with the ACC and Big Ten.

That winter, Kliavkoff, who had said in his introductory news conference he would push for an expanded Playoff, became one of three commissioners to vote against it. The delay pushed its now-impending arrival back to 2024 instead of 2023 when its champion this fall would have automatically qualified.

Then came the big one: USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. It’s debatable whether he could have done anything to stop it; those wheels were set in motion during the Scott heyday. But from that point forward, Kliavkoff had just one job — negotiate a lucrative enough television deal to keep the conference together.

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He failed spectacularly.

The first sign of trouble passed largely unnoticed: Whereas then-brand new Big 12 counterpart Brett Yormark brought in the big guns — WME Sports and IMG Media — to work on the league’s media strategy, Kliavkoff hired a boutique firm, Sports Media Advisors, run by a guy named Doug Perlman. It just so happens Kliavkoff and Perlman were classmates at University of Virginia law school. Within months, the Big 12 and its schools, whose current contract runs a year longer than the Pac-12’s, managed to jump the line and secure extensions with ESPN and Fox that gobbled up potential time slots and put a target — $31.7 million per school — on the Pac-12’s back.

Signs of trouble began leaking out last fall. Kliavkoff and his advisers reportedly opened talks with ESPN and Fox asking for an entirely unrealistic number — closer to the SEC’s than the Big 12’s. He naively held out hope the UC Board of Regents would block UCLA’s exit. And to the befuddlement of media consultants everywhere, he insisted on completing a deal before inviting potential new members, leaving San Diego State and others hanging in the wind.

Way back in December, he suggested the deal had been delayed because he knew Colorado was about to hire Deion Sanders and up the league’s value. Seven months later, we finally know the real reason — there never was a deal. Or at least not one his members would approve.

By all accounts, Kliavkoff genuinely was blindsided that Colorado chose to leave when it did, days before he was set to present networks’ final offers. He also genuinely believed he would go into the room Tuesday, present a unique offer from Apple — by which the members would make far more than their Big 12 counterparts if they met certain subscription thresholds — and everyone would rush to sign a new grant of rights.

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This was his sales pitch to a room full of schools that a dozen years earlier let Kliavkoff’s predecessor sell them on overly optimistic Pac-12 Network subscriber targets. It’s no wonder that within days, five of the remaining nine had accepted invites to conferences that could tell them exactly how much they’ll make.

The whole thing is sad, surreal and just downright bizarre. Arizona State and Utah clearly don’t want to go to the Big 12. Oregon, according to multiple people with knowledge of its deliberations, loved the idea of trying to become the top dog in a smaller conference. Now it’s going to be one of 18 and have to compete for Playoff berths with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, USC and others.

But in the end, all of them felt they had no choice. And now Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State are left behind.

The Pac-12, like the Southwest Conference, the WAC and the Big East before it, is passing on from the major college football earth. Cause of death: gross failure of leadership.

Required reading

(Top photo of George Kliavkoff: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)



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