SALT LAKE CITY — Two weeks before Utah locked arms with Arizona and Arizona State and stepped off the Pac-12 plank, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan was asked to address speculation that some schools in the conference, including his, would have to abandon ship. Two weeks ago, Harlan shared the stage inside a Las Vegas nightclub — transformed in the daylight into what would become home to the seemingly last-ever Pac-12 media day — with commissioner George Kliavkoff.
“We are a proud member of this conference,” Harlan said, “and look forward to its future success.”
The chatter of a far-off fate evolved into reality in just a few weeks’ time.
Utah was a proud member of the Pac-12 and it does hope for future success. But the university is an outsider now, having been forced to play a hand in the fracturing of a 108-year-old conference. Utah jumped with Arizona and Arizona State to join the Big 12 just hours after Oregon and Washington informed fellow Pac-12 leadership members that they were joining at the hip and moving to the Big Ten.
Mandel: Pac-12’s cause of death is about gross failure of leadership
It was a spectacularly dramatic day filled with breaking news reports of optimistic alignment, then a historic and rapid disintegration. As Arizona president Robert C. Robbins said Monday, those left in the conference were prepared to convene last week and “sign in blood our grant of rights” to the Pac-12. No pact was honored as together the Ducks and Huskies scattered, leaving this chapter of college football realignment simultaneously the most absurd and the most cutthroat.
Utah president Taylor Randall and Harlan held a news conference Monday morning inside Rice-Eccles Stadium. Unlike previous news conferences, the Crimson red banner hanging behind them held no current conference affiliation. The Pac-12 logo, once a local badge of honor, was gone forever.
The withering away of the Pac-12 ultimately arrived due to the media rights deal that was underwhelming compared to its Power 5 compatriots. As noted by The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel, Kliavkoff and his team presented to the Pac-12 schools a deal with Apple that would run five years in length and offer $23 million per university after months of vowing landmark options. Randall called the pitch an “innovative construct” but resorted to the trope of “plugging the numbers” as a reason why so many schools, including his, left.
When studying the Apple deal, Randall said he felt like at times “you were more a venture capitalist analyzing something than looking at a traditional media deal.”
For Arizona, the Big 12 offered stability while the Pac-12 was ‘selling candy bars’
In his own media appearance over the weekend, Arizona State president Michael Crow hinted that ESPN and Fox, longtime media partners with various college football conferences, poisoned the college football well.
“There were a lot of forces at work, including the overlords of the media empire, that were driving a lot of this,” he said.
When asked to comment on Crow’s assertion, Randall said from a university president’s perspective, it’s about looking broader than dollars and cents. But dollars and cents do the loudest talking as evidenced by the end of this mutation of college football. Utah, Arizona and ASU enter the Big 12 as full rights shareholders, meaning they’ll be part of the estimated $31.7 million each school is expected to receive from ESPN and Fox beginning in 2025.
Harlan expounded on a question about revenue sharing within Utah’s new conference by referencing the importance of a linear TV partnership.
“I will say that the thing I’m most excited about with this television dynamic that we go into is it’s obviously with two of the major providers in Fox and ESPN who obviously we know well,” he said. “This does position us to have a lot of visibility going forward and I think that’s what I’m most excited about.”
Where does Utah fit into this new abstract landscape? The Utes are entering a new conference in a markedly different manner than they did when making the jump from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 in 2011. In their dozen years in the Pac-12, Utah went from greenie to goliath having won the last two Pac-12 conference titles.
For the first time since joining the Western Athletic Conference in 1962, the school will not play conference games in California. Instead, it introduce itself to new conference foes in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Ohio, West Virginia and Florida. The future will be different, but not one foreseen by Utah’s longtime head coach.
Long a predictor of this moment, Kyle Whittingham told ESPN at Pac-12 media day that super conferences were going to be part of the equation in the coming years. Turns out, it took all of two weeks.
Realignment is going to be part of college sports into perpetuity. There’s no logical end to it.
Here’s Kyle Whittingham’s vision, in part, of what’s to come in “2-5 years.”
“It’s going to be unrecognizable from what it is now..” pic.twitter.com/MaHGzu57Kx
— Kyle Bonagura (@BonaguraESPN) July 27, 2023
After a fall camp practice Tuesday evening, Whittingham addressed the media as a soon-to-be member of the Big 12 in 2024 by saying his program is “all about the Pac-12 this year.” Whittingham said he was notified of the move to the Big 12 from a phone call with Randall and Harlan last week.
“It’s something that’s a positive in the big picture, obviously, but again, all our attention is on what’s going on (ahead of the season opener against Florida),” he said. “I’m immersed in what we’re doing here and you only worry about things you can control.”
For much of the last year, the Pac-12 schools had no control over what lay ahead as they waited for Kliavkoff to present a deal worthy of sticking it out together. Two groups of schools went their own way, venturing away from the regional comforts they’ve known for decades in exchange for the unknowns of a new college football world.
“You have to do what’s best for the institution that you’re at,” Harlan said.
(Photo: Rob Gray / USA Today)