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Gordon Monson: The Utes hate leaving the Pac-12, love being in the Big 12 and don’t have any other choice

The conference, because of previous decisions that had been made by league leaders, could not be saved, the Tribune columnist writes.

A dance. Multiple dances. Dances with wolves.

That’s what had to be done by Taylor Randall and Mark Harlan on Monday. The samba, the rhumba, the salsa, a little foxtrot, a little hip-hop, and a little cha-cha-cha.

The music in their heads was thunderous and rhythmic for one primary reason: It had to be.

The Utah president and the Utah athletic director boogied hard across the podium, making statements and taking questions from the wolves with notepads and microphones during a news conference at which everyone on hand wanted to know details about the school’s move from the Pac-12 to the Big 12.

Play the songs, Sam. Play ‘em again, loud and proud.

Those dances jumped between gratitude for the Pac-12 and what that conference did for Utah, athletically and academically and financially, and excitement looking forward to participation in the Big 12. It also grooved and pirouetted between what was good money-wise for the university and what was in the best interests of Utah’s student-athletes. Those things don’t always match up.

On the one hand, the administrators didn’t want to disrespect their old colleagues, some of whom are coming with them, and their old league. On the other, they expressed great enthusiasm for their new partners, looking forward to their new association.

It even got to the point where Harlan described the locations of Big 12 schools as “incredible cities.” Um. Have you been to Lubbock? Stillwater? Ames? Lawrence and Manhattan? Waco?

Towns with their charms, indeed. Incredible cities? Well, now, let’s hold off on that declaration.

This is an example of the back-and-forth. Harlan said the following, sending compliments to the rear and up ahead:

“The Pac-12 experience for the University of Utah, I would like even to think it’s been more profound than it has been for many other members. It changed this university. I saw it from afar working at other Pac-12 schools. I saw the rise of Utah, academically and certainly athletically. It’s been a special, special ride. And we’re excited about this last lap ahead. So many championships we have to defend this year. … There’s incredible people in that conference.”

Nice.

He also said: “But as we move forward, I, too, am so excited about the opportunity in the Big 12. … A lot of great people, incredible cities. You go on the road and all the sports there and it’s sold out. … There’s a lot of enthusiasm. Commissioner [Brett] Yormark has got a vision.”

I guess two divergent things can be true at the same time. The Pac-12 was great, the Big 12 will be great as well.

Still, it was obvious from what was said, and, frankly, from what had been said over the past year, that Utah’s preference was, had been, to find a way to stay in the Pac-12, to keep it together.

Randall said it like this: “We expended every energy to figure out how this [media rights] deal could move forward. … Each [Pac-12] university was plugging in the numbers and kind of making their own decision. The outcome is where we are today.”

The schools, every one of them that had the opportunity, took the path to the biggest pile of money in front of them. Oregon and Washington going to the Big Ten, Utah, Arizona, Arizona State following Colorado to the Big 12. USC and UCLA were already spoken for.

In the final minutes of discussion regarding the proposed media rights deal with Apple between the Pac-12 schools, it became clear that each of them would do what was singularly best for each individual school. Randall essentially said he had no interest in throwing any university under the bus, and he wanted to stay away from providing details about who did what when in those final moments on Friday. It was plain to see that Oregon and Washington going to the Big Ten blew the Pac-12 apart.

“Every president, including Washington and Oregon, was trying to hold this thing together,” Randall insisted. Until they weren’t.

And when they weren’t, Utah, Arizona and ASU did what they figured they had to do: Join the Big 12.

In the run-up to that, the prez said: “We explored a lot of options.”

As for Colorado bailing before the Apple deal had been fully presented and clarified to the remaining stable of Pac-12 schools, Harlan said: “I can’t speak for Colorado. Every institution has to do the best for whatever institution you’re at. … They did what they had to do.”

What … they … had … to … do.

If there’s an echo in here, it’s because institutions of higher learning and football have to chase the money. In the modern world, that’s a fact. More on that in a minute.

While many outsiders have criticized Pac-12 leadership through the negotiation process, Randall said he “appreciated [George Kliavkoff’s] efforts,” adding that the commissioner had done what he could to save the conference.

But the conference, because of previous decisions that had been made by league leaders, could not be saved.

Some question the notion, the prudence, of universities aligning with other universities that are geographically far-flung. That not only interferes with regional rivalries, it sometimes throws a burden on the aforementioned student-athletes, who now have farther distances to travel in order to play conference foes. Nobody knows yet exactly how or if the Big 12 will be divvied up to reduce travel concerns — Harlan said some of the opponents the Utes will face inside the new league are closer in proximity to Utah than Pac-12 schools were. This much is undeniable, and Harlan acknowledged what was inarguable — that UCF and West Virginia are thousands of miles away from Salt Lake City.

While there was care and concern repeatedly expressed on Monday for Utah’s student-athletes, the travel will be something those folks will have to make accommodation for, as far as study time and physical fatigue go.

Randall emphasized the importance of what he called “the student-athlete experience.” Harlan said a high priority was that student-athletes “will be taken care of.”

Cash, though, comes first. Both Randall and Harlan used a straight-in-your-mug phrase in characterizing the Utes’ move: “Plugging the numbers.”

Turns out, those numbers were plugged and the mathematical equation came to the same conclusion: Follow the money.

“Ultimately, the dynamics of collegiate sports and media markets bring us to where we are here today,” Randall said.

It could be argued that the more money available to schools, athletic departments, the more of it can trickle down to the athletes, so they, too, benefit from the windfall.

One other item Randall brought up was the renewed league rivalry with BYU. He called it “fun.”

Others use a different word to describe it.

While both administrators said they agreed that, as Randall put it, “This is a big day for the University of Utah and Utah athletics,” and Harlan said, “Our future is bright,” the athletic director used another descriptive word that summed up the last week for the Utes.

“Bittersweet.”

They, at the end, didn’t get exactly what they wanted exactly where they wanted it. But they got what they got where they got it, which was better than what Oregon State and Washington State, Stanford and Cal got.

“I wouldn’t bet against the Big 12,” said Randall. “That’s what makes us so excited to be there.”

“We want,” said Harlan, “to get in there and win right away.”