You have to hand it to George Kliavkoff. He came out confidently and boldly swinging just after breakfast Friday at Pac-12 football media day in Los Angeles.
Kliavkoff was in the national spotlight, sitting on the pointed end of a spike Friday morning.
Because of the defections of USC and UCLA from the league’s breadbasket of Los Angeles, his opening remarks and Q&A afterward were among the most anticipated and covered sports moments this summer.
Obviously under pressure, unfairly put in this position in his first year on the job, Kliavkoff took a few swings at other leagues and media reports that he perceived had been lobbing “grenades” at the Pac-12.
Kliavkoff: "I've been spending 4 weeks trying to defend grenades from every corner of the Big 12. I get why they're scared. I get why they're trying to destabilize us."— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) July 29, 2022
With the Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren throwing out overtones of future poaching during his league’s football media day remarks earlier this week, and soon-to-be Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark declaring the league was “open for business” during his media days in Dallas, everyone eagerly anticipated what the voice of the Pac-12 would deliver.
Sporting an open-collar shirt under a sports jacket, Kliavkoff delivered no breaking news, but he did what he needed to do, setting a confident, aggressive, authoritative tone for a league that has been under attack since June 30 — defection day.
Kliavkoff’s opening remarks centered on building up the league, emphasizing success as a trendsetter in college athletics. He called Pac-12 schools exceptional institutions.
He said Pac-12 schools have been meeting twice a week since news came that USC and UCLA were heading to the Big Ten. The athletic directors, presidents and chancellors discussed a game plan that included utilizing media rights and expansion.
He described the “collegiality” of the remaining 10 schools as strong, refusing to say he’d just been lied to by defectors just 40 days earlier.
Asked about Yormark’s quote that the Big 12 is open for business, Kliavkoff said, “I appreciate that. We haven’t decided if we’re going shopping there or not.”
A few moments later he explained, “That remark is a reflection that 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.”
And the Big Ten culpability?
That may have been his strong/weak moment. It was funny, but it missed the point. He sent a zinger to the Big 12, ignoring the elephant in the room — the Big Ten is the one that did indeed destabilize his conference.
Yormark is the new guy on the block and fair game. But Warren? I think Kliavkoff is scared to death Warren might call Oregon, Washington, Cal and Stanford next. Or vice versa. And, quite frankly, they’d listen.
One of the more interesting things Kliavkoff said was in response to a reporter’s question inquiring if there is a chance USC and UCLA would reconsider and come back into the fold.
Before saying it was a long shot, Kliavkoff said UCLA is under a lot of heat from fans, alumni, faculty, the community, the California Board of Regents and the governor of California, and that there are a lot of voices that are displeased with its decision to go to the Big Ten.
“I’d say UCLA is in a really difficult position. There are a lot constituents related to UCLA that are very, very unhappy. It’s unlikely, but if they wanted to come back we would welcome them.”
Kliavkoff deftly defended the Pac-12 and its remaining members. He did a hard sell on how the remaining programs were dedicated and committed to sticking together. He said he’d looked people in the eye during discussions and was confident in what promises were made.
He then took a shot at what is happening in the big picture with college athletics, that money is driving change and those changes are not all good, not in the interest of the college athlete.
“It is clear that financial considerations have become the primary driver for many recent decisions in college sports. A singular focus on money will cause more harm than good in college athletics,” he said.
He declared the establishment of five or 10 conferences chasing money is not best for the thousands of college athletes spread across the country, and the current trend is destructive as some leagues move toward fielding professional players.
Kliavkoff said the 10 FBS conferences should stand up and take control of NIL ahead of what the NCAA does and has failed to do, establishing guardrails where there are none at present.
That includes allowing boosters to use NIL as inducements before commitments. He said that is wrong and an enforcement mechanism should be put in place immediately.
All in all, Kliavkoff came off as he should. He’s in a fight to save his league. He believes after the Big Ten is through with its media evaluation, the Pac-12 will receive word on its. He thinks future media partners and digital revenue streams will be enough to keep the remaining 10 schools happy.
“We already have significant interest from potential partners, including both incumbents and new digital media partners,” he said. “We are confident in the long-term values of our rights.”
For now, this was the response the Pac-12 needed from its leader, although most experts believe his league remains extremely vulnerable in the weeks to come.
Under the gun, Kliavkoff did appear understandably a little under stress. But the battlefront speech he needed to give the troops set the tone as Pac-12 schools open up camps next week.
He had his Churchill moment. Give him a grade B.