The search for the next Pac-12 commissioner is still in its infancy, but things are going to start cranking up sooner rather than later.
On Feb. 5, the league announced it had retained top talent recruitment firm TurnkeyZRG to aid in its commissioner search. Locally, Turnkey may ring a bell, as it aided the University of Utah a few years back in its athletic director search, which eventually yielded Mark Harlan.
In the days since the TurnkeyZRG announcement, the Pac-12 executive committee, which is composed of University of Oregon president Michael Schill as chair, Washington State president Kirk H. Schulz, and University of Washington president Ana Mari Cauce, has had an initial meeting with the search firm.
An outline proposal of the selection process is forthcoming, at which point, Turnkey can start to identify some potential candidates. The Pac-12 has already declared its intention to have a new commissioner in place by the end of the academic year, which would allow crossover with outgoing commissioner Larry Scott, who is set to depart on June 30.
“Overlap is critical,” Schulz told The Salt Lake Tribune in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Larry has been really good with this transition, he wants to see the conference do well. Overlap is critical so the next person can pick his brain, hear about what has worked, and start to put his or her imprint on the job.”
Given nearly half the Pac-12 is on the quarter system, the end of the academic year means different things to different schools, but multiple Pac-12 sources have told The Salt Lake Tribune that the target date to have a new commissioner in place is June 1 or thereabouts.
As TurnkeyZRG gets involved with June 1 as a target date, there will continue to be significant chatter in regard to what type of leader the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors want to succeed Scott.
“For myself, as one of 12 voices in the room, I want someone with on-campus experience,” Schulz said. “They need to understand an academic environment, how sports play a role at colleges, the challenges our different campuses face. It is hard to do that coming from a different profession.”
An interview request to speak with Schill was declined by the University Oregon. Cauce also declined, but her office provided a statement to The Tribune.
“I know many are interested in what we’re looking for in the next commissioner,” Cauci’s statement said in part. “I would say that nothing is off the table. We’d love to see candidates with experience running a major conference, but are also very open to someone “outside the box.” The most important thing is that we find someone who cares about students and higher education, has sound judgment around finances and the ability to lead.”
Scott came to the Pac-12 in March 2009 from a different profession, having spent nearly six years as the chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association. He had no experience as a college administrator, and while the early years of his tenure were celebrated, the final years of his time as commissioner have been heavily scrutinized. That has left the Pac-12 in need of a significant reboot, while almost guaranteeing Scott’s successor will be, as Schulz hopes, the complete opposite in terms of prior experience.
West Coast Conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez is one name being bandied about in the early stages of the search. A Bay Area native, Nevarez’s early work in college athletics included serving as Cal’s assistant AD for compliance and legal affairs, in addition to her working as the athletic department’s senior woman administrator. From a continuity standpoint, Nevarez makes sense, given she was the Pac-12′s senior associate commissioner from 2010-18.
Schulz was firm in his belief that the next commissioner does not necessarily have to have Pac-12, or even West Coast ties, but there is something to be said for a qualified candidate having the ability to show up on Day 1, already having some idea of the lay of the land. Nevarez, with high-level experience in college athletics, a history inside the Pac-12 and West Coast roots, fits the mold, but so do some other names out there.
Longtime Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, widely considered to be at the top of his profession, was the AD at Arizona State from 2000-05. Having steered one of the country’s elite, not to mention largest athletic departments for more than 15 years would be a selling point, but his candidacy would not be without warts. In 2018, Smith was suspended for 17 days for his mishandling of domestic violence allegations against then-Buckeyes wide receivers coach Zach Smith.
Alabama AD Greg Byrne is another administrator viewed as being at the top of his profession. Byrne’s career has included stops at Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona, where he was the athletic director from 2010-17.
For what it’s worth, with longtime ACC commissioner Jim Swofford set to retire, the league presidents tabbed a Power Five administrator, Northwestern AD Jim Phillips, as their next commissioner, a move that has been lauded since the December announcement.
Whoever winds up as Pac-12 commissioner, that person will be dealing with the next set of media rights negotiations for the league, which will begin in late 2022 or early 2023. The Pac-12′s current media rights deal expires at the end of the 2023-24 academic year.
From a financial standpoint, from a viability standpoint, from a perception standpoint, the much-ballyhooed next media deal is going to remain in the spotlight for the foreseeable future. In speaking to The Tribune, one Pac-12 source voiced what most everyone has been saying for a while now, that the next media deal “needs to be a home run. It can’t be a single.”
The burden of making sure the Pac-12 ups its media rights package does not have to fall solely on the new commissioner.
Schulz answered, “a definitive yes” when asked if the league would consider farming out the media negotiations to a consultant. A decision on that, one way or the other, will partially fall to the next commissioner.
As recently as September, at which point Scott was under contract through June 2022, there were reports of Pac-12 decision-makers readying to go with an outside consultant for media negotiations, with that person not reporting directly to Scott, but to the Pac-12 executive committee.
“Other conferences are doing that, it happens everywhere, but it really depends on the next commissioner,” Schulz said. “Does it help be media-savvy? Maybe, but you go hire someone who understands where you are, work a deal back and forth, and the commissioner selects how to do that.
“There are people out there that believe you have to have a commissioner that’s worked in sports media. FOX, ESPN. That is not the case.”