When MGM executive George Kliavkoff was presented as the Pac-12′s new commissioner on Thursday, there was a single emphasis he had to capitalize, underscore, mark, circle, stress, scream about, do the hokey-pokey around, and celebrate.
Something his resume, his background didn’t exactly demonstrate, shout out or highlight, not in any obvious way.
Welcome to the jungle, George.
The league’s shortcoming in that sport was correctly pointed out by Kliavkoff as the conference’s “greatest weakness.”
And with that, the new guy was off to a fantastic start.
Mike Schill, the head of the Pac-12 search committee and the president of the University of Oregon, said during the introductory news conference that the committee completed an exhaustive search for just the right commissioner, and that Kliavkoff is precisely that.
Kliavkoff has the “ability to see where the hockey puck is going to go,” Schill said. “He will lead the conference of champions to a great future.”
He called the new commish a “forward thinker,” a leader who could help the conference “adapt to the future,” hitting a moving target.
As for Kliavkoff, he focused on his work history, including corporate achievements, digital strategies, prowess with cable networks, sports licensing, managing live events, sports betting ventures, and relationship building.
“I am transitioning from the best job in entertainment to the best job in sports,” said the former collegiate rower. That’s right, the man used to competitively row a boat, which might have brought back haunting images of failed commissioner Larry Scott, who as a former college tennis player was king of the small sports.
But Kliavkoff was prepared to at least partially answer a question he knew was coming, the one about the league’s biggest trouble spot.
“Success in football is really important to the Pac-12,” he said, mentioning structural issues, such as conference and nonconference scheduling and the expansion of the college football playoff.
He didn’t get specific, but, he said, “Everything is up for review.”
He said he aimed to “fix” the Pac-12 Network’s distribution problems. And the league’s football recruiting lapses, saying: “We need to be more aggressive in teaching the legacy of the Pac-12 [to recruits].”
His recognition and acknowledgement of the huge football crater the league has fallen into in recent years is a positive step forward for the Pac-12.
Everybody knows the league in the past, at least since the long ago time when it’s had any authentic forceful impact on the national scene in the college landscape’s most important sport, has covered up its “greatest weakness” by singing its own praises as a leader across the board in tennis, golf, volleyball, swimming and diving, lacrosse, softball, rowing, gymnastics, golf, track and field, cross country, fencing and whatever else.
The Pac-12 has been, by its own suggestion, the conference of champions.
Kliavkoff said he understands the juncture has arrived for the league to be the conference of what most Pac-12 sports fans really care about: the conference of football champions.
At least that used to be what Pac-12 fans cared about.
Nobody’s quite sure, not anymore, not since the conference has yielded and vacated its place as a true contender for a national football championship. The last Pac-12 national football title came by way of USC in 2004.
Since then, it’s been Texas, Florida, LSU, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Alabama, Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Alabama, Clemson, LSU and Alabama.
The Western part of the United States hasn’t been this ignored, this insignificant, this … unattended, since the period before gold was struck in California the better part of two centuries ago.
As far as the top level of college football goes, Pac-12 schools have been left in the lurch, not because they were wronged, rather because they haven’t been worthy, even worse because they’ve been forgotten.
Kliavkoff wants that playoff expanded, but his charge will be to see that once Pac-12 teams get in, if they do, they actually do something with the opportunity.
Since 1920, there have been 16 national football champions from current Pac-12 schools. The present absent span of 16 years is the second-longest such skid. The only one to exceed it was from 1933 to 1953. And over that period, the absence was a whole lot less costly.
The era of the college football playoff — since 2014-15 — has not been open much to the Pac-12, with only two schools ever being invited: Oregon the first year and Washington the third. The past four seasons have seen Pac-12 programs wholly shunned.
And the longer that cloak of invisibility covers the conference, the shorter the supply of the lifeblood of high quality college football becomes: recruiting.
Kliavkoff checked that box, at least in word, with vigor.
Even in the talent-rich region of the West Coast, California in particular, Pac-12 schools are finding it more difficult to haul in top young prospects over prestigious programs elsewhere. The reason: Elite talent wants to play not only where it can win championships, but also where football really matters. And it seems to matter more in the Southeast and the Midwest, where television cameras are aimed and stadiums are full.
Note the plethora of unoccupied seats at many Pac-12 buildings. That trend began long before a pandemic reared its ugly head. And Kliavkoff already knows better than anyone the aforementioned failings of the Pac-12 Network, a brainchild that has cost the league and its institutions as much in economic losses as in eyeballs looking a different way.
There are other challenges Kliavkoff must face down in his new “best job in sports.” The righteous relationship between academics and athletics is always a sticky wicket, administrators preferring to at least appear less hypocritical than they really are.
He knows the dollars are crucial to the conference’s survival.
And he knows the straightest path, the super highway, to getting those dollars … err, advancing the student-athletes’ experience at Pac-12 schools … is to do whatever’s necessary to build a strong foundation under the sport that matters most.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.