When George Kliavkoff was announced as the replacement for embattled Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott in May, the general reaction from the college football world was one of surprise. Kliavkoff, the former president of MGM Sports & Entertainment with only peripheral experience in college sports, was not a name anyone could have expected the Pac-12 to choose as its captain to guide the league out of the ineffectual waters it has inhabited for the better part of the past decade.
Less than a month into the job, there is still much to be seen about how Kliavkoff will leave his mark on the Pac-12. What is clear, however, is how high the conference is aiming with him at the helm.
In his opening remarks at Tuesday’s Pac-12 Media Day, Kliavkoff drove home the conference’s goal to reassert itself into the College Football Playoff. It’s been four years since the Pac-12’s last appearance (Washington in 2016) and 16 since the league’s most recent national title (USC in 2004), a drought that Kliavkoff is making his priority to end.
“I want to be 100% clear: going forward the Pac-12 conference will make all of our football-related decisions with the combined goals of optimizing CFP invitations and winning national championships,” Kliavkoff said. “This is a decision fully supported by all 12 of our athletic directors.”
It’s also one heralded by the Pac-12’s coaches. That type of talk will fall short of swaying the playoff committee, but every coach who spoke about their early impressions of their league’s new commissioner described feeling invigorated by Kliavkoff’s “pep talk” in the group’s first meeting with the commissioner earlier in the week.
“The thing that he said that I really like is, ‘You know what, we’re gonna make this a championship conference,’” Colorado coach Karl Dorrell said. “That’s what I want to hear, I want that expectation from our leader to tell us that this is all about winning championships . . . We need to get more teams involved in (the CFP), and I think he wants to help that process and do the things that are necessary for us to get into that next step. We’re very encouraged.”
One issue that’s held the Pac-12 back from reaching those heights, as Kliavkoff sees it, is the balance from the top of the league to the bottom. The Pac-12 plays a nine-game conference schedule, which the commissioner believes has been a detriment to getting a team in the CFP. Kliavkoff says the conference will discuss the possibility of moving to an eight-game schedule, among other potential changes.
“There’s no weeks off,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Pac-12’s balance. “You look at some of the other Power 5 conferences, there’s some teams in the bottom half of the league that you just got to show up and you’re going to get a win. That doesn’t happen in the Pac-12 . . . that’s one of the reasons why we haven’t been to the CFP for several years, is we cannibalize each other and beat up on each other.”
Would the kinds of changes Kliavkoff is proposing bring an end to that level of parity?
“We’ll see. I don’t know . . . I’m not trying to make an excuse of why we’re not in the CFP,” Whittingham said. “I think in order to gain the respect, I guess you could say, of the rest of the country, we’ve got to have a presence there. We just simply haven’t over the last three or four years.”
That perceived lack of respect is a reflection of the Pac-12’s limited history in the sport’s marquee event. The conference has received just two out of 28 bids in the CFP’s seven-year history. Clemson and Alabama have each made the field six times, while Ohio State and Oklahoma have both been selected four times.
Where Kliavkoff and the Pac-12 coaches see league parity as a roadblock in the conference’s path to the CFP, Scott once saw it as a point of pride. In addressing imbalanced schedules between the Power 5 conferences, Scott said in 2019 that Pac-12 teams were not looking to “skate through as easily as possible” in their attempts to reach the CFP.
Two years later, it’s clear the Pac-12’s new commissioner views playoff berths as the highest priority, more so than playing the toughest possible schedule. It’s a perspective that, early on in Kliavkoff’s tenure, has resonated with the league’s coaches, who use similar descriptors of their new commissioner: intelligent; collaborative; articulate; impressive. Coaches stopped short of comparing Kliavkoff to Scott, instead opting to focus on the road ahead.
“I never talk about the old stuff because I think there’s a lot of positive things that were done. You want to focus on that . . . ,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “All we look forward to is strong leadership that’s going to be a difference maker, have an impact. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”
Kliavkoff addressed other topics of grand importance to the Pac-12, including the league’s woeful media rights deal and lack of distribution of the Pac-12 Network that has limited the number of eyeballs on Pac-12 games and left the conference way behind financially compared to the SEC and Big Ten. Scott had high hopes for the Pac-12 Network, and the product has fallen well short of any bullish expectations. Kliavkoff is eyeing a better result in the next round of media rights negotiations for 2024. Until then, the status quo remains.
Kliavkoff will use the next months and years to course-correct the conference’s ills that have led the league to its current lower rung on the Power 5 ladder. First impressions don’t solve those problems, but they count for something. In his first broad address as the conference’s new leader, Kliavkoff painted a lofty picture of how high the Pac-12 could ascend to. Next, comes the hard part: proving it on the field.
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