Gordon Monson: Utah President Taylor Randall’s $50M ask alone didn’t doom the Pac-12

Randall’s reported role in the conference’s failed media rights negotiations has drawn heavy criticism, The Tribune columnist writes, but there’s blame to go around.

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

Warning: This column contains no nicotine, nor will it be hazardous to your physical health, but it includes scattershot blame and, ultimately, a sad life lesson to learn. Proceed with caution.

There is great irony in what George Kliavkoff emphasized in his introductory news conference as Pac-12 commissioner two-and-a-half years ago. He said one of his first items of business for the conference was to fix what he called its “greatest weakness” — football.

He knew that was the straw that stirred the drink for a conference to thrive, not just survive. Strange it is, then, that as the league blows apart, four of its schools headed to the Big Ten, four to the Big 12, two to the ACC and two straight into the mystery and malaise of lawsuit purgatory, the fracturing Pac-12 features seven teams ranked among the nation’s Top 20.

Heading into the weekend, the AP poll had Washington at 7, Oregon at 8, USC at 10, Oregon State at 15, Utah at 16, UCLA at 18, and Washington State at 19.

That would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.

But since it is sad, certainly for traditionalists still reeling from the century-old Conference of Champions disassembling into the Conference of a Couple — And then there were two — there are opposing options of thought and action and intention to select and settle on in the aftermath. One is to point blame at those responsible for the Pac’s demise, the other is to learn from it. There’s plenty to be had at each end of the spectrum.

There’s also one commonality found in either direction: How dumb it is that it happened the way it did.

At Kliavkoff’s introduction, he was hailed by the head of the conference’s search committee, Mike Schill, as a “forward thinker,” as a leader who could deftly “adapt to the future,” as a visionary who has the “ability to see where the hockey puck is going to go. He will lead the Conference of Champions to a great future.”

Hmm. The puck was flying as much directly to the side of Kliavkoff’s forehead as it was the net.

This is where the finger pointing begins.

Some believed when Larry Scott was given the heave-ho, the Pac-12 couldn’t do any worse. To be fair, maybe Kliavkoff wasn’t worse, but he made some decisions that rivaled his predecessor in ineptitude. And he had company on that slow erroneous ride.

What triggered the conference’s collapse was its failure to secure a favorable media-rights deal and by favorable, we mean decent.

The run-up to that failure included, as follows: USC and UCLA bolting for the Big Ten; the Big Ten grossly inflating the payout numbers each of its schools was getting in that deal, clear up to $70 to $100 million each; the Big 12 leaping ahead of the Pac-12 in its media-rights negotiations; ESPN offering the remaining Pac schools $30 million each for a deal; Pac-12 presidents and chancellors, reportedly at the urging of Utah President Taylor Randall, rejecting that offer, but extending a counter proposal of $50 million per school.

And with that, down came the guillotine, or, if you prefer a picture a bit less graphic, the curtain on what remained of the Pac-12.

According to columnist John Canzano, as capable a reporter as there is in coverage of the Pac-12, before the curtain fell, Kliavkoff winnowed the league’s media-rights negotiation team to a select few, or not so select, including an outfit headed by one of his old college buddies. They could not get a deal done.

After it became known via a Canzano source that Randall was one of the forces behind the Pac-12 dismissing ESPN’s original offer, the Utah prez issued this statement:

“The Pac-12 Presidents and Chancellors worked collectively in pursuit of a new media rights agreement. Though an offer was made by one of our media partners, we elected to take the rights to market to get the best deal. Throughout the process, many of the CEOs — including myself — pushed to ensure that the conference was aggressive to secure the very best agreement we could. Several conference schools retained their own consultants to value the league, which resulted in a range of estimations. It is my understanding that any mention of $50 million, which was higher than any valuation, was only as a potential starting point in negotiations to help get us to the estimated true value.”

So Randall, apparently, wasn’t some wild-eyed rogue president looking to lead an ill-fated revolution, rather he sought an evolution toward a suitable compromise. He’s taken more of the blame than he deserves. That blame should be divided up between and dealt out to all the Pac-12 leaders, those authentically eager to keep the league together and those who didn’t care all that much. As it turned out, specific to Randall, for his part, he shouldn’t have been so eager to take the matter to market. And/or he should have read the market better. He and other school presidents had independent studies done on what the remaining Pac-12 universities were really worth, what some eggheads guessed they were worth.

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff speaks at the NCAA college football Pac-12 media day Friday, July 21, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Lucas Peltier)

Canzano reported that one league president told him that Kliavkoff and company “completely misplayed the $50 million counteroffer: ‘The instructions were to negotiate. This wasn’t supposed to be a ‘take your ball and go home scenario.’”

He reported further that, according to those on the inside but not quite inside enough, one of Kliavkoff’s shortfalls was limiting the number of individuals involved in the negotiations and that subsequent reports coming from the few were that everything was much rosier than it actually was.

That had a temporary unifying effect on at least some of the top administrators, who, in retrospect, should have insisted on having more involvement or certainly more information about what was actually happening. At one point, Randall, an individual with a reputation as a business expert, suggested that he jump in on the negotiations, a suggestion that was reportedly denied by Kliavkoff. Pity Randall didn’t press forward on that.

For all the details of Canzano’s excellent report, go to johncanzano.com.

One thing is clear: Utah wanted to preserve and remain in the Pac-Whatever. The conference had been good for the Utes, for their athletic department and for their school. Life was good for the two-time defending football champs, and coming from where the school had been a decade and a few years change ago, bumps in the road were both tolerable and manageable.

Until they weren’t. Until there was little left to be unified with. Staying put with the leftovers, particularly when Colorado, Oregon and Washington were leaving the building, it was neither competitively or financially satisfying or sensible to hold its position aboard a Good Ship Lollipop that was now not just badly listing, not a ship that wasn’t so good anymore, it was a ship that had been engulfed by the Kraken.

When Randall and athletic director Mark Harlan met with reporters thereafter, the president said: “We expended every energy to figure out how this [media-rights] deal could move forward. … Each university was plugging in the numbers and kind of making their own decision. The outcome is where we are today.”

In the Big 12, with the Pac-12 gone.

“Every president, including Washington and Oregon,” said Randall, “was trying to hold this thing together.”

The cold, hard truth is that they didn’t try hard enough, they didn’t try savvy enough, they didn’t try smart enough, which is condemnation for a group of academicians at the top of their realms.

Kliavkoff — and by extension the school presidents he represented — was on point enough to recognize that the Pac-12 needed to fix football, and he — they — did that much, but they fell flat, not just when USC and UCLA walked away, but when they could not grasp what that loss really meant for the rest of the schools.

Kliavkoff could not see where the hockey puck was going.

And some of the other school leaders either couldn’t see where it was going or they plain didn’t care enough, were too cool and casual to get a stick on it. What was good for the L.A. schools was good for Oregon and Washington, and of that they were fully aware or fairly certain. Colorado already wanted out. Why? Because they, all of them, were looking out for their own interests. If football players played that way, their team would lose every game.

What is the lesson in the Pac-12′s demise? What is to be learned from all of this?

It’s not a pretty bit of truth, but its unattractiveness makes it no less true.

Be careful who you trust. Today’s friend may be tomorrow’s foe.

Not every time, but sometimes.

The one(s) shaking your hand and smiling at you now might be the one(s) abandoning you for something better later. And they’ll dress up their actions as the responsible thing to do, what they owe to themselves or their organization to do. You are useful as long as you are useful to them. Be cautious even with those entrusted to do your best bidding because, at times, they don’t.

Man, bummer.

That’s the Pac-12′s legacy, its warning, one as dirty and nasty, as harmful, as smoking a carton of Newports or Marlboros.