Arizona State got it right with Big 12, but Michael Crow did not inspire confidence

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State has a history of hesitance when it comes to conference realignment. Some habits, it seems, are hard to break.

In 1976, the Pac-8 met with Arizona State and the University of Arizona, desert schools firmly rooted in the Western Athletic Conference, to discuss their potential interest in joining and boosting the West Coast league.

The meeting in Tucson lasted under two hours. UCLA chancellor Charles E. Young described it to news reporters as a “get-acquainted session.” Even so, as everyone gathered for a photo, Arizona State athletic director Fred Miller held back.

“I don’t want to be part of a family photograph,” he said.

Nearly five decades later, after a long run in the Pac-12, Arizona State experienced similar realignment reluctance, enough to rattle its fan base over 24 gut-wrenching hours. Eventually, after the departures of nearly half the conference, school president Michael Crow realized the obvious. The Sun Devils had to leave.

With the conference crumbling, Arizona State on Friday applied for Big 12 membership along with rival Arizona and Utah, effective in 2024. With Colorado already Big 12-bound, and USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington headed for the Big Ten, the Pac-12, with roots dating to 1915, has splintered, probably beyond repair.

Despite ominous signs that have surfaced over the past few years, it’s been an astonishing, jaw-dropping collapse. Like watching an avalanche from a distance. You see it coming. You feel the vibration. Then, suddenly, it’s here, demolishing everything in its path.

Arizona State tried to weather the storm. For those familiar with Crow, this should not have come as a surprise. The president’s loyalty has been a Pac-12 staple. He supported Larry Scott for far too long. He trusted the mission and long-term health of the Pac-12 Networks. He believed in the Conference of Champions.

It’s no coincidence that after the Pac-12 finally got rid of Scott, the conference introduced new commissioner George Kliavkoff in Tempe. Arizona State was a trusted ally. If you were to draft schools that would have stood beside the conference during a realignment storm, Arizona State would’ve been an overwhelming No. 1.

This was how it played out.

Although he was born in California, Crow, 67, has Big 12 roots. His dad was in the Navy, so the family moved often. Crow attended Iowa State, where he threw the javelin, graduating in 1977, or right about the time Arizona and Arizona State prepared for their move to the Pac-8. Crow later worked at Iowa State as director of the institute for physical research and technology. He knows the conference.

Even so, the Arizona State president initially didn’t warm to the idea of joining the Big 12, even after USC and UCLA announced intentions to leave, a first and massive foundational crack in the Pac-12 structure. Crow always has modeled Arizona State after Stanford, strong in academics and athletics with sharp focus on Olympic sports.

It’s not that he didn’t understand football’s importance, he just didn’t always agree with the sport’s direction. He was not a fan of paying high salaries to coaches. More recently, he frowned upon athletes profiting off name, image and likeness.

In a conversation last summer, Crow said Arizona State was “very wedded” to the West Coast. He said the state of Arizona wasn’t like Iowa or Kansas, and that playing in the Pac-12 for the past 44 years had been a proud honor. The translation wasn’t difficult: The Sun Devils had no intention of planting their pitchforks elsewhere.

Ultimately, their hands were forced.

The shift began Tuesday when ESPN reported Kliavkoff presented to conference stakeholders a primarily subscription-based Apple streaming deal for the Pac-12’s next media-rights contract. The reported per-school payout was much less than the $31.7 million the Big 12 has in place with ESPN and FOX.

With Arizona State needing to fund 26 sports, this didn’t cut it. But even with the Big 12 lifeline, Crow explored options. Maybe what seemed obvious to everyone else wasn’t to him. Unknown factors certainly were at play. In the end, though, it didn’t matter. Once Oregon and Washington decided to leave, the music stopped. Arizona State was out of time.

The Sun Devils will do fine in the Big 12. It won’t solve all their problems, but it will provide stability. The annual clash with Arizona will continue, and new rivalries will form. Arizona State, for example, hasn’t played TCU in football since 1975. It hasn’t played Baylor since 1990. The Sun Devils never have played Iowa State or Kansas.

A change of scenery will do them well.

In a 2003 profile published in The Arizona Republic, Crow discussed the need for universities to “evolve or die.” As Arizona State president for two decades, he has done this extraordinarily well. Once known for partying, Arizona State today is known for innovation. US News & World Report has ranked Arizona State first in this category eight years in a row. It’s a point of pride.

Crow, however, hasn’t always applied the same approach to sports. It contributed to the Pac-12’s downfall. It could have cost Arizona State in realignment. For better or worse, college sports have changed. Crow has been slow to do so.

Related reading

Stewart Mandel: Pac-12’s demise is story of 12 years of hubris, apathy, astounding mismanagement
Dana O’Neil: Latest conference realignment shows stunning lack of thought or foresight
Conference realignment 2023: Timeline of college football rumors, moves and what’s next

(Photo: Zac BonDurant / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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