Details emerge on the series of events that led to the Pac-12′s fatal Friday

University of Utah’s president and A.D. add to the chorus of voices from the exodus, explaining what led to the conference’s demise.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah president Taylor Randall, left, and athletic director Mark Harlan hold a news conference at Rice-Eccles Stadium after announcing the school’s entrance to the Big 12 Conference, Monday, Aug. 7, 2023.

With five universities announcing their departures from the Pac-12 Conference in rapid succession this past Friday, the ensuing days have been filled with emotional postmortems and analytical number-crunching.

On Monday morning in a news conference at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utahs Taylor Randall and Mark Harlan shared their perspective on the mortal wounding of the once-great sports league, and the Utes’ decision to ultimately join the Big 12 in 2024.

The University of Utah’s president and athletic director, respectively, were mostly circumspect in addressing how the timeline of events unfolded, but ultimately straightforward in their rationale for moving on.

“You have to do what’s best for the institution that you’re at,” said Harlan. “… And we’re gonna do what’s best for Utah.”

Fatal Friday

Friday began as a day that myriad Pac-12 members believed would see the conference move into a new era, with another round of discussions to be held around Commissioner George Kliavkoff’s last-ditch plan for the Pac-12 to sign a TV rights deal with the streaming service Apple TV — a plan that lacked the exorbitant guarantees that other conferences were giving to member universities, but which several Pac-12 presidents nevertheless saw as forward-thinking and filled with potential upside.

That optimism quickly cratered when their counterparts from Oregon and Washington did not join the call.

“[Friday] morning at 7 a.m. [PT] was another called meeting of the Pac-12 presidents, and some schools didn’t show up,” Arizona State President Michael Crow told reporters on Saturday. “So you might know that then, therefore, the conference was no longer viable.”

The Pac-12 had already absorbed a series of punishing haymakers over the previous weeks and months via announced defections from other member institutions.

USC and UCLA caused shockwaves in June 2022 when they revealed they were departing the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. It was another blow when, a week after the Pac-12 Media Day, Colorado announced it was taking a deal to join the Big 12.

A more substantial TV rights guarantee apparently proved too enticing to pass up.

“There were a lot of forces at work, including the overlords of the media empires that are out there that were driving a lot of this,” Crow said. “The Colorado departure was really an indication of the fact that there was great instability in the media market, and it created an unstable moment.”

However, some in the Pac-12 simply just didn’t find the Apple TV plan to be sufficient.

While subscription benchmarks potentially could have driven the value up, that was an iffy proposition. Meanwhile, there became an apparent fissure — ultimately unbridgeable — between those who saw the vision in Apple’s streaming-heavy format and those who could not abide the total absence of “linear” television options such as ESPN or Fox or CBS.

“I have to say that this was heart-wrenching. It was backwards and forwards, and there were moments when I thought it was going in one direction and then in another. In the end, we looked at the deal that we had — the only deal that we had — and it was clear that it was not giving us what we thought. It was not the deal we had been discussing just days before, and it was not going to secure [the conference],” Washington President Ana Mari Cauce told reporters on Saturday. “When you have a deal where people are saying one of the best aspects of it is you can get out of it in two years, that tells you a lot. We really needed to have the stability for our players, for our coaches, for our teams.”

With Washington and Oregon suddenly out of the picture (on top of USC, UCLA, and Colorado before them), Crow said the Arizona schools — who had agreed some time ago to “not split up under any circumstances” — felt that was the final nail in the coffin for the Pac-12.

“You can’t be in a non-viable position for more than a few hours, in our minds,” he said. “We resolved that. You have two teams not present and no media contract — you’ve got to act.”

Writing on the wall

ASU athletic director Ray Anderson said his program was a big advocate for keeping the league together, but ultimately saw the writing on the wall.

“We were trying to save it and stayed in the trenches as long as we could,” said Anderson, “until it became clear that it was no longer in our control.”

Their Utah counterparts were pretty buttoned-down Monday about when the university first began to consider other options and when it ultimately made a hard pivot to deciding Big 12 membership was the way to go.

Harlan, after all, had been a staunch and vocal advocate of the idea that the Pac-12 would carry on, saying at the league’s Media Day that the idea of Utah being on the move was untenable.

But the ground around all of them shifted quickly.

Randall said in his opening remarks Monday that he and other university presidents in the conference had worked diligently for more than a year to find a workable solution to the TV rights deal. But as the various institutions examined the Apple details (which he called “an innovative construct”) and began plugging in the numbers, there clearly was a lack of unanimity behind the proposal.

“Ultimately, the dynamics of collegiate sports and media markets bring us to where we are here today,” Randall said. “… Every president in the Pac-12 — including Washington and Oregon — was trying to hold this thing together.”

But there was always an undercurrent of it being on the verge of falling apart, which became exacerbated when Colorado made its move.

Randall, when asked if the U. had any “substantive conversations” with the Big Ten in recent weeks, said he was going to “keep lots of conversations relatively private,” but conceded, “We explored lots of options.”

As, apparently, did just about everyone else.

And so it was this past Friday that Oregon and Washington accepted an offer to move to the Big Ten. The Big 12 then moved quickly to vulture some other appealing pieces, making offers to Arizona, ASU, and Utah.

The U.’s board of trustees voted unanimously in an emergency meeting Friday evening to accept an invitation from the new conference.

With the Pac-12 suddenly reduced to a Pac-4 as of next year, the programs left behind naturally have a slightly different perspective on the decisions their counterparts made to so quickly bail out.

“We are disappointed with the recent decisions by some of our Pac-12 peers,” Washington State President Kirk Schulz and Athletic Director Pat Chun said in a joint statement. “While we had hoped that our membership would remain together, this outcome was always a possibility.”

Cal football coach Justin Wilcox, who is an Oregon graduate, was more blunt.

“It’s really sad. From what I know, it probably didn’t need to come to this. But things happened along the way,” he said. “Really unfortunate, frustrating. There’s some anger there.”

“What this enterprise was built on was regionality and rivalries. That is gone. That is leaving the Pac-12,” Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes told The Oregonian. “Some of the most special pieces about our model is regionality of competition and rivalries. Those things are forgotten.”

Randall and Harlan are certainly sympathetic to those schools, and even acknowledged some bittersweet feelings of their own, considering the century-plus-long history of the Pac-12, to say nothing of Utah’s former elation at getting to admitted to the league a dozen years ago.

But they felt jumping ship to the Big 12 enables them to better look out for their program’s best interests.

“It’s an innovative conference that is looking toward the future,” Randall said Monday. “… I’m very, very optimistic.”