LOS ANGELES — Nothing really fazes Utah coach Kyle Whittingham anymore.
So when he found out that USC and UCLA will be leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024, he focused on preparing for what comes next.
“Surprised but not surprised,” Whittingham said Friday during Pac-12 Football Media Day about his reaction to the news. “I mean, nothing can really surprise you in college football right now. There’s so much movement and things that have happened through the years.”
Whittingham expects more shifting in the future.
“There’s going to be a great deal more change, in my opinion. I think the concept of super conferences is starting to materialize, become a reality,” he said.
“Wasn’t completely taken back by the move. The timing, I don’t know if there was ever a good time, but the timing was a little bit of a surprise. That’s where things are moving. We’ll just have to wait and see when all the dust settles where we’re at. It’s not settled yet. There’s a lot of dust to come.”
Earlier Friday morning, commissioner George Kliavkoff addressed the departure of the Los Angeles-based schools. Whittingham agrees with Kliavkoff that the league can survive.
“I think the real proof of the pudding of that is going to be in the media rights deal, see how that comes out. If those numbers are right, absolutely. If those numbers are not where we need them to be, then look at other options,” Whittingham said.
“Right now it appears to be very unified, the Pac-10, the 10 that are staying, and we’ll see how it goes going forward.”
Other coaches in the league also addressed the issue during media day.
Colorado coach Karl Dorrell, who both played at coached at UCLA, knew that he would be asked about his opinion.
“It was probably shocking, was my first impression. Being in this conference for over a hundred years, I would say that was the first initial impression, was that,” he said. “But you’ve got to also recognize that when I came back to Colorado in 2020, COVID hit three weeks later.
“It was a lot of things that have been challenging and changing for me every year. It was like one more thing. What’s one more thing? Guys leaving the conference. I think it’s that time, things are evolving in college athletics.”
Oregon coach Dan Lanning is in his first season at the helm after spending last season as the defensive coordinator for the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs. He said the topic of the program’s future has come up with recruits.
“I think it’s certainly a conversation. I trust our leadership to be positioned for success. Oregon has always been a premier team in college football. I think we’ll continue to be,” Lanning said.
“Our fans are extremely passionate. Being a top-10 team when it comes to views in homes this last year, the ability to compete for championships year in and year out with coaching changes and different things. That’s still allowed Oregon to be at the forefront of competition. That will continue to be the case with our support outside of just the university, but also within the university.”
With USC and UCLA departing, Stanford is one of the schools that will be expected to help be a flagbearer for the Pac-12. Cardinal coach David Shaw said that it will be a team effort to keep the Pac-12 viable.
“I believe it’s up to all the remaining universities to be at their absolute best and really band together to show what this conference is about. Stanford always thinks that way anyway regardless of what we’re doing, it’s to be the best at what we do, right, winning championships in multiple sports, but also being a top five university in the world, not just in the United States, to have outstanding young people that come to our place to flower and do special things,” he said.
“That’s how we think anyway. We talk about Stanford being a launching pad for leaders. We want our people to be leaders. We want them to be leaders. They have to think like leaders. For us, without taking the mantle for the conference, really for us being the best we can be and pushing our young people to be the best they can be, that’s our main goal. As far as the conference goes, really working with the other nine schools left in this conference to make this conference the best it can be.”
First-year Washington State coach Jake Dickert said the Pac-12 has staying power.
“College football is changing, right? There’s a lot of parameters that we need to continue to keep in place, to preserve what we all love about the traditions and the rivalries of college football,” he said.
“It’s always going to be with a student-athlete center to it. I love it. I think it’s going to be competitive, but don’t make no mistake, the Pac-12 is going to be here for a long time in those power conferences playing big-time football. I’m excited about that. I know there’s challenges out there, but at Washington State, our players, our people, we’re going to adapt to it and we’re going to survive and we’re going to keep advancing. College football in the pureness of the game I think will always be there. I think we all have to fight to preserve that.”
UCLA coach Chip Kelly was asked how the move to the Pac-12 will change the dynamics in Los Angeles, as well as the West Coast and nationally.
“I don’t know if expansion is done. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know where this is,” he said. “I think people last year at this point in time, we all sat in here as a conference of 12 and talked about what (Texas) and Oklahoma were doing going to the SEC.
“Now we sit here talking as a conference of 12/10. I don’t know what’s next domino is to drop. One thing I do know about this game, everybody complains about the game, where it’s headed, but I think the product on the field is as good as it’s ever been. I think the coaching that’s going on in college football right now is second to none.”
Shaw is hoping that the relationship with USC and UCLA will continue.
“Hey, realignment is realignment. It’s been happening for a couple years now. Surprised about the news in our conference, but my hope is, as I’ve been saying all year, our relationship with USC and UCLA doesn’t change, that we continue to play each other even if they’re out-of-conference games,” he said.
“These are longstanding rivalries that I hope that we maintain. I’m still a firm believer that over time these things will self-correct, whether that’s 10, 15, 20 years down the road, whether it is at some point completely reforming the conferences by region or becoming super conferences, whatever, who knows. But for right now we love being in the Pac-12, and we hope to maintain those Pac-12 relationships with the other 10 institutions and continue to play high-level football. Still an incredibly deep conference with a lot of good coaches and players that we’re really excited about.”
First-year USC coach Lincoln Riley preferred to keep the focus on this upcoming season instead of what’s going to happen in two years.
“Obviously I’ve been asked once or twice today about the conference realignment. Obviously we’re aware of it,” he said. “It’s certainly an impact mostly in recruiting right now, but certainly would like to keep the focus as much as we possibly can on the Pac-12 Conference, our team this year, all the great players, potentially great teams in this conference.
“I think there’s a ton of excitement, and rightfully so.”
Arizona State coach Herm Edwards, who has been associated with the Pac-12 from the time that he played at California in the 1970s, shared an historical perspective on what’s going on in the league, and in college football.
“You just think about this conference alone. I can remember growing up on the West Coast, and it was the big five, big six. That was, what, in 1959 til 1964. Then it became the Pac-8, a conference that I played in at Cal Berkeley, right? There in ‘78 it switched over and became the Pac-10. Lo and behold in 2011, whatever it was, it became the Pac-12. I think sometimes we sit here and we just realize the era that we’re in, that’s what we remember, right? So if you’re in this new era, this is what it is. Well, it’s changing,” Edwards said.
“I say this, and I say this in a humble way. Change is about growth sometimes and opportunity. According to what and how you believe it and how you sit, it affects people different … The funny part is this. Everyone is trying to figure out what is it going to look like. We don’t know. It might change again next week. No one knows. But eventually it will change. Someone else will be sitting at this table. There will be new guys writing stories. They’ll be talking about, Hey, you remember what happened back in 2022? That’s life. That’s just how it works. We can hold onto whatever we want to hold onto. That’s over with. You can’t hold onto it. You got to adjust. Some will like it, some will not. That’s just how it works now. I think all of us are looking for answers. We don’t have answers. We have opinions. Everybody can play commissioner and president and A.D., all those people, say, I would do it this way. That’s great. Eventually there’s people with sound minds that are looking to do what’s right for college football. That’s the bottom line.”
Whittingham said the Southern California region will remain an important place to mine talent, regardless of which conference USC and UCLA are competing in.
“It’s certainly in our recruiting footprint,” he said. “We’ll always have a connection to Southern California, the proximity to Utah. It’s just an hour-and-twenty-minute plane flight. I think we’re always going to have a presence down here.
“Is there going to be maybe some Pac-10 games that are neutral site games that take place in southern Cal? I think we’ll figure out some ways to always have a presence. We’ll continue to recruit southern California, obviously. If you look at all the areas that we do recruit, the majority of players on our roster are from the southern California area.”