LOS ANGELES — George Kliavkoff arrived on the fourth floor of the Novo Theater on Friday afternoon and slid into a plastic chair in a corner of the room.
He’d already delivered a state-of-the-conference speech in front of a packed room. Now, he was ready for our one-on-one interview.
A table covered with black draping sat between us. Flowing, sheen curtain panels hung along the wall. The space — typically used as a night club — was dimly lit, with purple and orange light bulbs. I led with the question that has been on my mind for a while.
“Where were you when you found out?”
The Pac-12 Conference commissioner spent the last month sequestered. Kliavkoff made no public statements. He offered no insight into the defection of USC and UCLA. His conference was poached of those Los Angeles schools, then talked about like it was some kind of truck stop by the Big 12.
All of it, without comment.
“I was in Montana on day two of my first vacation, driving,” he said. “I was in a spot where I had almost no cell service. My deputy commissioner left me two messages saying, ‘You need to get to where you have cell service.’”
Kliavkoff’s next move was to get to his home base in Las Vegas, where he had full use of the resources he’d need to communicate with his bosses. He then decided to go silent “because I could have spent all day, every day on the phone refuting media reports and what I needed to do was get to work.”
Earlier Friday, Kliavkoff received mixed reviews for his performance on the main stage. Some felt the conference commissioner deviated from his message when he quipped, “With respect to the Big 12 being open for business, I appreciate that. We haven’t decided if we’re going shopping there or not yet.”
Others loved that a conference with a black eye and a fat lip punched back.
The pointed remark came as part of the question-and-answer portion of the event. Earlier, in his scripted speech, Kliavkoff had been far more collegial and reserved. But in that moment, he traded his scalpel for a sledgehammer. He later said his frustration stemmed from a month spent defending against grenades launched from every corner of the Big 12.
“I understand why they're doing it,” Kliavkoff said, “when you look at the relative media value between the two conferences. I get it, I get why they’re scared, why they’re trying to destabilize it. I was just tired of that.”
A win for the commissioner?
You decide. I’ll wait to see how Kliavkoff performs where it counts — media rights revenue. He’s in an exclusive, 30-day negotiating window with ESPN and Fox. Beyond that, he’ll wait for the Big Ten’s media package to be finalized, then let the market determine what the Pac-12’s rights are worth.
I asked Kliavkoff in our sit down interview whether the Pac-12’s media distributions or access to the College Football Playoff mattered more. Which is more valuable — a pile of money? Or a path to the promised land?
“Both,” he said.
Kliavkoff told me he expects the conference to “absolutely” have access to the playoff. Also, he believes that the Pac-12 will ultimately end up “in the middle” of the Power Five Conferences when it comes to media rights distributions.
He also told me that he could foresee a situation where a university that reaches the playoff, for example, might garner a much larger share of that windfall.
“That type of bonus,” Kliavkoff said, “would incentivize members where it counts.”
Don’t be surprised when that comes true. Also, I think it would extend to the NCAA Tournament units that the league typically splits evenly.
I think what we learned on Friday was that this journey isn’t anywhere near a resolution. It likely won’t be settled until at least September, maybe longer. There’s still some anxious parties. The news of USC and UCLA’s departure dominated the event, sure. But it felt like the Pac-12 changed the conversation some.
I interviewed 34 coaches and players on Friday during media day. I also spoke to a couple of Pac-12 athletic directors and a line of conference employees. Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith jumped from station to station along radio row and told me it felt like going through “a car wash.”
I laughed at that.
I sure needed it.
Some other things overheard at Pac-12 Media Day:
• Stanford coach David Shaw, 3-9 last season, on how he’s feeling about the upcoming football season: “I feel like a tiger in the weeds.”
• Chip Kelly on when he learned UCLA was leaving for the Big Ten: “I was on the 14th hole at a charity golf tournament in New Hampshire. They told me, ‘This is happening in an hour, don’t tell anyone.’”
• Utah QB Cam Rising on the one player he’s happy isn’t in the Pac-12 anymore: “Kayvon Thibodeaux — he presented a problem.”
• Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff on whether UCLA could reverse course and come back to the conference: “We’d welcome them back with open arms.”
• Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on the ability to adapt: “It’s a must, or you get left behind. Whether you like the changes or not, it’s survive or you get left behind.”
• Stanford defensive back Kyu Blu Kelly on his side hustle: “Nobody knows this but I’ve developed a video game. It’s coming out soon.”
• UCLA offensive tackle Jon Gaines II: “I’m a cat person. I have three cats. Dogs are cliche’.”
• Arizona coach Jedd Fisch on college football looking more like a professional league: “It gives us a little bit of an advantage because of our NFL experience. We know what free agency looks like.”
• ASU coach Herm Edwards on the changes in college football: “We thought it was sacred. It’s changing before our eyes and we’re struggling with it.”
• Utah defensive back Clark Phillips III on where he was when he heard that USC and UCLA were leaving the Pac-12: “I was in yoga. I was rolling up my mat and my phone started blowing up.”
• USC coach Lincoln Riley on what he learned from Mike Leach: “A lot of things that aren’t relevant to anything. Mike lives outside the box. I try to think outside the box — once in a while.”
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Oh I wish he could’ve said what we all think…FU to the Big 10. From a family of IU Hoosiers, I was disgusted with the addition of Nebraska, Rutgers, Maryland when it happened. They bring NOTHING athletics wise.
And having those Cali schools in my conference makes me ill. Californication.
Just for fun I hope USC gets a mud hole stomped in them every Saturday. Just for fun though hahahaha.