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Can Pac-12 football avoid going the way of the Big East?

Back in 2011 the Big East followed a certain path losing football — a path the Pac-12 hopes to avoid

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Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff fields questions during the Pac-12 football media day, July 27, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff fields questions during the Pac-12 football media day Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

Is the Pac-12 Big East deja vu all over again?

Is the Pac-12 going through what the Big East experienced before collapsing in 2011, the victim of being the last to react to expansion moves in 2010?

It might be too early to say.

Or is it?

Back on Sept. 21, 2011, Big East commissioner John Marinatto met with Big East football officials after Syracuse and Pitt gave notice they would be moving to the ACC. His press release said the remaining schools “pledged to each other that they were committed to move forward together.”

A short time later, Big East football collapsed.

This past week after a prolonged search for a broadcast contract, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff issued a statement from Pac-12 administrators that in part read, “We remain highly confident in our future growth and success as a conference and united in our commitment to one another.”

Back in 2011, Marinatto, like Kliavkoff, was confident Big East football would survive. He had a commitment from TCU to join the conference and there were other candidates for expansion. But, behind the scenes, Rutgers, Maryland and others were plotting to find another home like Syracuse and Pitt.

Back in 2011, West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck remembers being in a meeting with Marinatto when he got a phone call with some very bad news. Marinatto’s face turned pale and he fainted. He was unconscious and an ambulance was called. 

TCU reneged on a promise to join the Big East and went to the Big 12 instead.

Like the Pac-12 looking to add San Diego State and SMU, the Big East courted TCU and others. It did not bring the TV contract it was looking for and it all crumbled.

Said Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross: “We were all aware of the movement happening around us. We just had a TV deal fall through with the Big East, and the Big East is looking like a burning ship, and there’s a cruise ship here to pick us up. So what are you going to do?”

Remember, all this started when the SEC invited Texas A&M and Missouri to leave the Big 12 and the Big Ten asked Nebraska to come on over. The Pac-12 looked hard at Oklahoma and Texas, but USC’s president was a leader in nixing that move, so Larry Scott instigated a move to invite Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West. Ironically, USC led the charge to take up an invite to the Big Ten last summer and take UCLA and the Southern California TV market with them.

If that wasn’t so sad, it would be downright funny.

It is apparent Pac-12 presidents are getting impatient with media negotiations and they have to dislike all the negative publicity over the past 10 days. Thus the press release vowing solidarity.

Hopefully, this notice of Pac-12 solidarity will hold up. We have no reason to believe it will not except for some speculation within the league that the schools’ administrators are becoming wary and anxious.

When the Big 12 lost Texas and Oklahoma, the league knew the foibles of inaction when A&M and Missouri left and TCU and West Virginia joined. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby quickly turned to his 2016 folder and invited Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston and BYU.

In the summer of 2022 Bowlsby’s replacement, Brett Yormark, began working months before he was supposed to and immediately jumped the line in negotiating TV rights, securing a $31 million payout per school with ESPN and Fox for grant of rights.

He then got Texas and Oklahoma to leave a year earlier than was planned and extracted $100 million from them in expected payout money. Then he put the word out he wanted a bigger Western presence and more expansion could be expected.

Kliavkoff, on the other hand, still hasn’t been able to expand the league. It’s not all his fault. History shows he is working with school leaderships that are elitist academic snobs who overvalue their worth and importance.

Pac-12 presidents were played by USC, even misled with previous promises of solidarity. UCLA’s situation stymied Kliavkoff’s momentum when the California Board of Regents demanded a hearing over the issue of UCLA owing money to Cal as an injured party in leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.

It is easy to see how other Pac-12 schools have grown tired of the prima donna drama from the California schools and it’s been going on for longer than just this year.  

Kliavkoff isn’t getting answers from ESPN and Fox isn’t interested. The move to attract streaming outlets is forward but unproven thinking. Reports indicate that more than 50% of league games could be streamed on Amazon or ESPN+.

There is no precedent as to whether college football streaming will succeed or fail. The Pac-12 is looking to meet or supersede the Big 12’s expected payout of $31 million, which could grow to more than $50 million after CFP and NCAA basketball championship and bowl money is counted.

There are some Pac-12 fans who anticipate Kliavkoff will throw a Hail Mary that will stun the college football world. 

But there is little evidence that has surfaced to support that theory. If you research national media opinions, there is more of a case of the Pac-12 losing the four corner schools (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, ASU) to the Big 12 and even more people making the case that Washington and Oregon, as the Pac-12’s most valued brands, should be first in line if the Big 12 expands.

There is evidence that ESPN is going to be very conservative after securing NBA, NFL, SEC and Big 12 football rights. The owner of ESPN, Disney, just laid off 7,000 employees in a cost-cutting move after losing millions of subscribers.

NBA business reporter Mike Vorkunov wrote on Twitter that Disney CEO Bob Iger would keep NBA rights and “be more selective” in buying sports rights.

Yormark got ESPN on board early, before the economy continued to be rocked with inflation and the high costs of goods and services. What’s left?

Pac-12 folks were led to believe they’d get equal to or more than the Big 12.

On Tuesday, CBS Sports college columnist Dennis Dodd told BYUtv the Pac-12 might make equal Big 12 money, but could also be looking at a payout in the mid- to low-$20K per team. That would turn heads to the exit doors.

More than seven months ago, SEC parties with no dog in the fight with the Big 12 and Pac-12 began predicting there would be three super conferences in the coming half dozen years and those three would be the Big Ten, the SEC and the Big 12. In that scenario, the Pac-12 would need to be absorbed, in part, by the Big 12.

“Its physical position in the United States, plus its willingness to be the Hufflepuff of college football, makes the Big 12 the most likely third wheel to the Big Ten-SEC wedding,” according to Kent Smith, who covers Arkansas.

“However, a return to the old Big 8 mentality of rough and tumble Midwestern schools means the new version of the Big 12 can actually evolve into a legitimate future threat.” 

The coming weeks are critical for the Pac-12, Kliavkoff and the solidarity-writing Pac-12 administrators we heard from this past week.

The late Marinatto knows very well how such solidarity pledges tend to end.

Good luck, George, but watch your back.


In this Aug. 2, 2011, file photo, Big East Commissioner John Marinatto speaks to reporters during Big East football media day in Newport, R.I. Marinatto resigned Monday, May 7, 2012, after less than three years on the job and a wave of departures by high-profile schools.

Stew Milne, Associated Press