The Pac-12 commissioner’s office has been a no-spin zone since George Kliavkoff took charge of the conference on July 1. That remained the case following the conclusion of his first football season — a ghastly four months that saw an unprecedented number of non-conference losses and a winless bowl season.
“I would call it a disappointing season,” Kliavkoff told the Hotline on Sunday, the day after Utah’s loss in an epic Rose Bowl brought 2021 to its conclusion.
“We had our worst non-conference performance, by winning percentage, since 1983, and a very unfortunate bowl season. We have a lot of work to do, and I’m excited to get to it.”
The Pac-12 was 9-23 against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, with 11 losses to the Mountain West and Brigham Young. It went 0-5 in bowl games and failed to produce a playoff team for the fifth consecutive season.
All in all, it was an eye-opening first fall for Kliavkoff.
“I saw a lot of Pac-12 football in person, and I would put our skill-position players up against any in the country,’’ he said. “But we have a size disadvantage with our offensive and defensive lines. We need to recruit bigger, stronger, faster kids on the line of scrimmage …
“It’s not going to be an immediate turnaround. We’re in the valley, and there’s work to do to climb the hill.”
Kliavkoff’s tenure has unfolded against the backdrop of upheaval in college sports. His first day on the job coincided with the beginning of the era of name, image and likeness, which allows athletes to be paid for promotional endeavors.
His third week was swallowed up by the news of Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, which prompted the Pac-12 to consider expansion and ultimately led to the creation of an alliance with the Big Ten and ACC.
Then came one of the most tragic and tumultuous seasons in conference history, with the death of Utah defensive back Aaron Lowe and the dismissal of three head coaches (USC’s Clay Helton, Washington State’s Nick Rolovich and Washington’s Jimmy Lake).
COVID also played a role, forcing one game to be rescheduled (Cal-USC) and, Kliavkoff believes, impacting the collective. Pac-12 teams didn’t practice or compete as much as their peers in other leagues in 2020, which might have undermined success in the opening weeks of ’21.
“There are things that are beyond our control,’’ Kliavkoff said. “It’s not an excuse, but with COVID, for instance, we’re operating in very restrictive jurisdictions, more restrictive than other conferences. That made it hard for us (in 2020), and I think there was a carry-over effect to our performance this year.
“And I think we’re facing more broader societal issues. For instance, youth and high school participation in our footprint is falling off faster than it is in other footprints.”
The Pac-12 isn’t entirely at the mercy of forces beyond its control. In the coming months, the conference will determine whether to maintain the nine-game league schedule (or drop to eight) and assess the future of the division format — all with an eye on maximizing College Football Playoff opportunities.
Playoff expansion will help the Pac-12 on numerous fronts, especially recruiting, but the implementation of a new format is several years away.
“We are actively trying to fix (the CFP),“ Kliavkoff said. “We are the most flexible conference about expansion.”
The Pac-12 would support an eight- or 12-team model. But any structural changes before the end of the current contract, which runs through the 2025 season, require the consent of all 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame.
To this point, there are no signs of unanimity.
“I don’t think we should focus on how to amend the current contract, because that would take an 11-0 vote,” Kliavkoff said.
“Instead, we should focus on how (the playoff) would look at the end of the (contract) term. Maybe a smaller group can agree on a format for that, then pull others along.”
The most significant issue under Kliavkoff’s control is the next version of the Pac-12’s media rights partnerships. The conference must balance the desire to maximize revenue with the need to secure prime broadcast windows and limit the number of night games.
But there, too, Kliavkoff faces a limiting factor: The existing contracts with ESPN and Fox run through the 2023-24 sports season.
“We have 30 months left, and I’m counting every hour,’’ he said. “I’m exploring every avenue possible (to make changes before the 2024 football season). I guarantee it will be fixed in 30 months, but I’m trying my hardest to do it quicker.”
No changes of significance can be accomplished without campus approval. The head coaches and athletic directors are working with the conference office to craft strategies to improve the football product. And crucially, Kliavkoff’s 12 bosses are on board.
“I have 100 percent buy-in,” he said. “Not just from the ADs and coaches but also from the presidents and chancellors.”
Kliavkoff finished his assessment of 2021 by emphasizing that the focus on football at the campus and conference levels “doesn’t have to be at the expense of continuing to be the ‘Conference of Champions.’”
“It can be symbiotic,” he added. “We can continue to win at Olympic sports and women’s sports — football can be part of the engine that drives the success elsewhere.
“We have, by far, the most successful athletic programs in the country. But there are two big gaps. That’s winning football championships and winning men’s basketball championships. I am going to do everything I can to elevate those sports to the level of the others.”