In 2010, Colorado opted to flee the Big 12 for what was then the Pac-10 amid fears that Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma were about to leave for other leagues and decimate the Buffs’ conference. Which they eventually did.
Thirteen years later, Colorado’s board is expected to vote Thursday to rejoin the Big 12.
Think about just how many things the Pac-12 had to get wrong over those 13 years to arrive at this precarious moment where it may soon be down to just nine members. Think about the fact that just two summers ago, after powers Oklahoma and Texas bolted the Big 12, new commissioner George Kliavkoff and his league presidents felt no need to grab a TCU or Houston when either would have come crawling in a nanosecond.
Former commissioner Larry Scott may have set the Pac-12’s tumble in motion with his combo of arrogance and aloofness, but Kliavkoff, his successor, has now rolled the boulder right up to the edge of the cliff with a unique cocktail of naivete and negligence.
It’s admittedly debatable whether Kliavkoff could have done anything to prevent USC and UCLA from leaving for the much-richer Big Ten. Some folks within the league say the warning signs were there that its golden ticket, USC, was getting antsy. Others say the L.A. schools’ defections last year came as a complete shock.
But Colorado? … He really can’t keep Colorado?
Colorado is in discussions on a potential return to the Big 12, and its Board of Regents has scheduled a special meeting for Thursday.
Here’s the latest: https://t.co/cLWVaw5Kbv
— Max Olson (@max_olson) July 26, 2023
How demoralizing must it be for a school that’s gone 27-76 in conference play to have the leverage to singlehandedly destabilize your league. How much more time could he have possibly needed to prepare for the possibility than, oh, the last 13 months?
At no point since June 30, 2022, would any of the Four Corners schools — Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State — leaving be considered a shock. And yet, it does genuinely appear that Kliavkoff — the same guy who once formed an “Alliance” with the ACC and Big Ten based on “an agreement between three gentlemen” — did not see this one coming. Had he even a hint Colorado might leave this week, he probably would not have said or done any of the following at his conference’s football media day last Friday:
• When asked whether it was a “major concern” that the Big 12 may poach his schools, he called it “not a concern,” said that realignment “will come to an end for this cycle” and that “the truth is, we have bigger fish to fry.”
• On the topic of his league’s interminable media rights negotiations, he said the longer the league has waited, the better their options have become, and that presidents’ and chancellors’ “commitment and patience will be rewarded with an announcement in the near future.”
• And when the league hosted a lunch-hour roundtable to discuss College Football Playoff expansion, one of the invited panelists was none other than Colorado AD Rick George, a former committee member.
Mandel: Where does Pac-12 stand on TV deal, realignment? League insists it isn’t concerned
In hindsight, the first sign something might be amiss came when George rushed off stage afterward and purposefully dodged a group of reporters — at media day.
As realignment sagas go, this one is uniquely bizarre. In a vacuum, losing Colorado would seem entirely insignificant to the conference. The program is now three decades removed from its Eric Bieniemy/Kordell Stewart/Rashaan Salaam glory days and last played in a major bowl game in 2001. While CU performs better TV-wise than one might expect — fifth-best among the non-L.A. Pac-12 schools from 2015-21 — it would not be considered “additive” if the league were starting from scratch today. Unless potential TV partners were willing to gamble hundreds of millions on Coach Prime becoming the Buffs’ savior.
And yet, because of its own continued ineptitude, CU leaving is a huuuuuge deal for the Pac-12.
For one thing, it makes the conference look even weaker than it already does. Since taking over the Big 12 a little over a year ago, commissioner Brett Yormark has outmaneuvered his Pac-12 counterpart at every turn. He landed an extension with ESPN and Fox a year earlier than expected, making the Pac-12’s negotiations more difficult. He’s spent a full year courting the Four Corners schools and is ultimately set to reel in Colorado in part because he’d locked in assurances from ESPN and Fox that any Pac-12 additions would receive the same $31.7 million-per-year share as his current members come 2025. Whereas Kliavkoff has yet to deliver his own members assurance of any TV numbers of any kind beyond this coming year.
But of course, the much, much bigger deal will be if Colorado’s departure becomes the domino that causes other Pac-12 schools to leave.
For weeks, administrators across the conference have expressed confidence both that Kliavkoff will land the plane on the TV deal, and that Colorado was the only school still intrigued by the Big 12. If there are in fact new bidders that came to the negotiating table recently, as Oregon AD Rob Mullens and others said last week, and if it results in a deal with a similar dollar figure to the Big 12’s, the Pac-12 could ostensibly just swap in San Diego State for Colorado and be done with the thing.
But even that would not play out cleanly. The Pac-12’s inability to nail down its deal sooner has all but assured the Aztecs won’t be able to join before 2025, lest they have to pay the Mountain West double their exit fee. Plus, as of media day on Friday, there were at least two schools still opposed to expansion, per two league sources. One would think they’ll reconsider that stance now, though this being the Pac-12, never gamble on it acting rationally.
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Colorado officials may provide a more complete picture in the coming days as to their rationale — one that likely includes Deion Sanders’ desire to recruit Texas — but this much is obvious: CU ran out of patience with the Pac-12.
Last Friday, its commissioner said, “Getting the right deal has always been more important to our board and to the conference than getting the expeditious one.” At least one school disagreed, and if even one more follows, the conference may cease to exist.
Surely Kliavkoff must be aware of that possibility.
(Top photo of George Kliavkoff: Kirby Lee / USA Today)