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Canzano: Pac-12 Conference is fighting more effectively under George Kliavkoff
Laughter at conference has stopped.
The Pac-12 Conference knew the brand was broken a while back. In November of 2018, the conference was in deep crisis. Then-commissioner Larry Scott pulled out his playbook, spent six figures with one of the top crisis-management firms in the country, and threw a cocktail party.
FleishmanHillard had helped steer other corporate partners through choppy waters. Levi’s, Chevrolet, JPMorgan Chase and Crocs were all clients. Scott was referred to the firm, however, by The Alibaba Group, a Chinese e-commerce company that he’d developed deep ties with.
The public relations firm dispatched two executives — J.J. Carter and Alexa Waltz — to the Pac-12’s downtown San Francisco headquarters. The conference athletic directors and university presidents were invited for cocktails, dinner and a strategic presentation.
None of it worked.
New Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff celebrated his one-year anniversary on Friday. He hasn’t completely resurrected the brand of the Pac-12. There are still a pile of looming issues on the horizon, including an important media-rights negotiation. But something struck me this week as I thought about the state of the Pac-12.
The snickering at the conference has stopped.
The laughter has diminished.
Kliavkoff did that. Not by hiring a consultant or working from a crisis-management manual. Instead, he did it with leadership.
In his first 12 months, Kliavkoff navigated a pandemic and found the landscape of college athletics shifting beneath his feet. Amid all that, he underscored the need for conference universities to invest in football and connected deeply with the member campuses. He also announced that the Pac-12 would abandon the expensive downtown-San Francisco headquarters and allow employees to work remotely.
The Pac-12 formed an alliance with the Big Ten and ACC. Kliavkoff then got about assuming a strong public stance in meetings surrounding the future of the College Football Playoff. The new boss is described by Pac-12 staffers as “warm” and “engaging” and “forward thinking.” But publicly, what I see in Kliavkoff is a guy who isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and mix it up.
He likes to scrap — and the Pac-12 needed a fighter.
Under Kliavkoff, staff members at the Pac-12 report that they feel galvanized. Conference members are uneasy about the changes coming in the NCAA-world, but they’ve got a commissioner who will battle on their behalf. Nationally, the narrative has shifted, I suspect because people look at Kliavkoff and see a person who has a line of victories in his wake and exudes confidence.
He won big at some prior stops, including MGM Grand Resorts, HULU and NBC Universal Cable. But I’ll admit, I didn’t know who Kliavkoff was when the Pac-12 announced him as the new commissioner last May. I Googled his name and fumbled through a column in which I lamented how battered and splintered the conference felt. I wondered if Kliavkoff could be the unifier that was so desperately needed.
The Pac-12 ADs tell me they feel like Kliavkoff has pulled them together. He comes from a non-traditional background with no college campus experience. But Utah AD Mark Harlan told me this week, “George has been terrific. He is so thoughtful, transparent, and authentic. I smirk when I read comments surrounding other Power Five commissioner searches insisting that they ‘MUST’ find a collegiate practitioner in these evolving times.
“Is that a shot at our guy?”
Harlan told me he called Kliavkoff last week and asked the commissioner if he might join an advisory board meeting in person in Salt Lake City on short notice.
“He didn’t hesitate, flew out, met with them for three hours, had dinner and jumped on a late Southwest flight, probably in a middle seat,” Harlan said. “That’s the type of leader you want.”
Kliavkoff and his wife, Ellen, live in Las Vegas. Their daughter, Laney, is a junior at the University of Georgia. Their son, Henry, plays basketball at Division III Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. The last year has probably felt like a whirlwind at times. But the commissioner has been especially visible at Pac-12 events and on the conference campuses.
Today, Kliavkoff is in Oregon.
He’s attending the Pac-12 rowing championships at Dexter Lake, 16 miles from Eugene. Then, he’s popping over to the University of Oregon and Hayward Field for the conference track championships.
It’s early, I know. It’s only been 365 days or so. And the bar was set low. But the Pac-12 was so desperately in need of direction that it feels like it’s had a monumental shift. The mindset changed. The outlook is different. The action from the conference feels proactive vs. reactive. Kliavkoff doesn’t fashion himself a sprinter, but his first leg looked like a blistering pace.
There’s a lot left to do.
The Pac-12 still badly needs to make the four-team College Football Playoff invitational. It needs to land a lucrative media-rights deal. These are dicey times in college athletics. But the Pac-12 narrative has already shifted. The laughter stopped not long after George Kliavkoff showed up.
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