LAS VEGAS — University of Utah athletics director Mark Harlan and football coach Kyle Whittingham came to the defense of embattled Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff on Friday, saying the league boss has handled the delays and uncertainty over the media rights deal as well as could be expected.

“I think our words and actions speak for themselves. We are a proud member of this conference and look forward to its future success.” — Utah athletics director Mark Harlan

Hand-picked to share the stage at Pac-12 football media day with Kliavkoff and Pac-12 associate commissioner Merton Hanks for a Q&A with reporters who cover the league, Harlan stressed that Utah’s commitment to the conference is stronger than ever and that the long-awaited media rights deal is imminent and will be palatable to one of the league’s newest members.

“I think our words and actions speak for themselves,” Harlan said. “We are a proud member of this conference and look forward to its future success.”

Harlan has emerged as the leading voice among the league’s ADs when it comes to rumors that some schools from the so-called four corners states, including his own, could potentially be poached by the Big 12 because of the delays over a media rights deal.

The Pac-12’s current deal expires after the upcoming school year, which coincides with league heavyweights USC and UCLA departing for the Big Ten.

It was Harlan who famously tweeted, “Give me a break” when reports flew fast, furiously and almost always anonymously that Utah was about to bolt to the conference that rival BYU joined just recently.

There was no media rights deal announcement on Friday, but Kliavkoff spent a lot of time fielding questions about it, as was to be expected.

He said all 10 remaining schools in the league are “unified” and “on board” in his quest to secure a media rights deal, despite the lengthy, yearlong delay and that Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark was able to get a deal for his league just months after taking over for Bob Bowlsby.

“I will tell you that what we have seen is the longer we wait for our media deal, the better our options get. I think our board realizes that,” Kliavkoff said, noting that schools and fans will be rewarded “for their patience” in “the near future.”

At one juncture, Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 is “not announcing a deal on purpose today because I want the focus to be on football,” implying that a deal was already done.

Asked for clarification on that statement that the deal seemed to be “done and codified” a bit later, the commissioner backed off it a bit by saying, “I think you’re reading too much into that.”

So the saga goes on.

Kliavkoff and Harlan both said the drawn-out process has not affected recruiting, noting that the schools are doing “better than ever” in that regard.

“I think two things come to mind for me,” Harlan said. “Last year when there was a lot of drama (over) why we were here, it was not remarkable. It was somewhat expected.

“But the kind of season that we had where our coaches and student-athletes just tuned it all out, as George I thought explained extremely well, we had one of the strongest seasons we’ve seen in our league. I think that was a real sign that all the noise around doesn’t matter because of the coaches and student-athletes we have here.”

For his part, Whittingham confirmed later that Utah doesn’t seem to be losing any recruits over the lack of a media rights deal, or uncertainty it has caused.

“The commissioner is a great leader. He is the right guy to be forging ahead in order for this conference to continue. Obviously, we are waiting for the TV deal to come out,” Whittingham said. “I think it is going to be good. I don’t have any inside info, but just from what I hear I think we are going to be pleased with it.

“The conference is in a great spot. We got six teams ranked (in preseason polls) most likely going into the season. I think that is a show of strength. I think that even though we are going to lose a couple teams after the season, I think we are going to be just fine.”

As if having Harlan onstage with him wasn’t enough, Kliavkoff threw Utah fans another bouquet when he was asked if he was encouraged by Utah’s success since it joined the Pac-12 in 2011 with Colorado.

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“It is really exciting when you find a team that can come in the conference and invest the way Utah invested and have the success they’ve had,” said Kliavkoff, hired in 2021. “What a blessing. It’s terrific.”

With expansion a distinct possibility in the future, Kliavkoff was asked if there are any universities out there now that are capable of doing what Utah has done.

“Yes,” he said emphatically.

Earlier, when asked about San Diego State believing that a Pac-12 invitation was imminent — causing the school to pen a withdrawal letter to the Mountain West Conference — Kliavkoff said he would not disclose his conversations with any potential expansion candidates.

“I will tell you, generally speaking, we’ve never given anyone an indication that anything would be different than the sequence I just mentioned, which is get our media rights deal done, grant of rights signed and then we will consider expansion,” he said.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham speaks at Pac-12 football media day Friday, July 21, 2023, in Las Vegas.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham speaks at the NCAA college football Pac-12 media day Friday, July 21, 2023, in Las Vegas. | Lucas Peltier, Associated Press