DAN BICKLEY

Pac-12 is turning a new leaf under commissioner George Kliavkoff

May 13, 2021, 5:15 PM | Updated: 10:32 pm
In this Aug. 29, 2019, file photo, the Pac-12 logo is displayed on the field at Sun Devil Stadium d...
In this Aug. 29, 2019, file photo, the Pac-12 logo is displayed on the field at Sun Devil Stadium during an NCAA college football game between Arizona State and Kent State in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)
(AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

Somehow, you just knew the Pac-12 would unveil an unconventional choice and an unknown leader to fill the conference’s most important vacancy.

You just didn’t expect the new commissioner to say all the right things. Or make so much sense.

If the conference was a stock, it soared on Thursday morning. George Kliavkoff was lured away from a top job at MGM Resorts in Las Vegas and wasted no time illustrating how different he is from Larry Scott.

Kliavkoff was ready for every question. He displayed perfect clarity on the really big issues.

He announced a dramatic shift in conference philosophy, vowing to focus intently on football and men’s basketball, the sports that generating significant revenue.

He’s proof that you can’t solve a problem until you admit the problem. And that’s a big deal in the Conference of Champions, a wayward league that believed in the quaint notion of athletic equality, a conference that banked on Olympic sports to help fuel their own network.

“We know where our bread is buttered,” Kliavkoff said.

His predecessor would’ve been more concerned with the champagne and caviar.

The Pac-12 gained precious momentum in the recent NCAA Tournament. It has been 24 years since the conference last won a championship in men’s basketball, when Arizona plowed through three No. 1 seeds to bring a title to Tucson. But in 2021, five Pac-12 teams rallied to post a combined 13-5 record; three reached the Elite Eight; while UCLA awakened the ghosts with a Final Four appearance.

The football problem is far more menacing.

The Pac-12 has lost serious status points in recent years. The conference seemed to embrace pandemic football only after the Big Ten reversed course in 2020. They strengthened a serious perceptual problem, a belief that the conference just doesn’t care that much about football, a belief that is echoed by kickoff times; scheduling issues; the lack of zealotry and passion in the stands; and the abysmal reach of the Pac-12 Network.

That’s why recruiters from Clemson and SEC schools are suddenly making inroads in California, luring top athletes to the Deep South. Such a cultural migration was unheard of in the glory years.

For immediate playoff consideration, Kliavkoff knows he must lobby hard for expanded playoffs. But with NIL payments (name, image and likeness) coming to college football, recruiting becomes even more complex. And the more NFL players that Alabama produces, the more 5-star recruits will continue to flock to the SEC, fueling the issue like compound interest.

Kliavkoff said he will spend time touring each member school, visiting with all the key leaders. Developing trust and lines of communication are essential. Scott was more elitist than charismatic, more robotic than relatable. He maxed out the privileges and perks that came with his position. He was anything but a servant leader.

The new guy has a real personality. He’s been described as a consensus builder and problem solver. He showed up to his first media interview impeccably prepared.

For proof, here’s how he described the Pac-12’s most pressing issue:

“The number of years it has been since (the conference) won a football or men’s basketball championship,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can at the conference level to fix that.”

That’s hard truth without obfuscation, evasiveness or $10 words. From a man who knows the Conference of Champions is anything but in the sports that matter most. The ones that keep alumni generous and happy. The ones that foot the bill for the kingdom of college athletics.

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