Arizona president Robbins: Wildcats left Pac-12 for Big 12 in best interest

Aug 7, 2023, 3:35 PM

University of Arizona president Dr. Robert Robbins...

University of Arizona president Robert C. Robbins watches the action between the Arizona Wildcats and the USC Trojans at Arizona Stadium on October 29, 2022 in Tucson, Arizona. The Trojans beat the Wildcats 45-37. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

The presidents of Arizona State University and the University of Arizona not only made their biggest athletic-related decisions in lockstep but in moving from the Pac-12 to the Big 12 brought the very same talking points as to why.

After ASU president Michael Crow on Saturday called the rivals “stalwarts that were fighting for the Pac-12 to the last ditch,” Arizona’s Dr. Robert Robbins said Monday that the Wildcats and Sun Devils had the reaction triggered by the same move:

Until the Pac-12 clearly crumbled, they went into a Friday meeting with league leaders expecting to sign a formal grant of rights to hold the remaining nine members together.

Then, minutes before that meeting, the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies gave the Arizona schools a courtesy call to inform them they planned to leave for the Big Ten.

One reported narrative disputed by the Wildcats and Sun Devils was that Arizona had its mind set on the Big 12 heading into an Arizona Board of Regents meeting last Thursday. The other was that ASU, despite pressure from the state’s board of regents, was doing everything to stick in the Pac-12.

“I don’t think there was anybody bringing anyone along. The two of us thought it was in the best interest of the state, for both of our universities, for the rivalry, for us to stay together,” Robbins said of the narratives.

“The regents were very supportive and really liked the fact that we were interacting so much.”

Robbins and Wildcats athletic director Dave Heeke said stability and financial guarantees played a huge part in a 2024-25 move to the Big 12.

They downplayed the roles of USC and UCLA leaving for the Big Ten last summer, sparking the Colorado departure in the past month and Oregon and Washington leaving at the last minute Friday.

“I think we were all expecting Friday morning, we were showing up together to sign in blood our grant of rights with the Pac-12 Conference,” Robbins said.

He added that the proposed media deal under the Pac-12 had its flaws despite being compelling from a technology standpoint.

The lack of guaranteed revenues from a $23 million base per school was a concern, he said. Robbins likened the non-linear TV agreement, which reportedly could pay out more money with more subscriptions, to selling candy bars at a little league game.

“Parts of it were very, very compelling and exciting. And it was Apple,” the president said. “But I think the base price, the guaranteed price, the fact that there was no linear and it was subscription-based … you’ve got to convince three to five million people to sign up for $100 a year on a streaming-only app. I think if you’re asking Oregon and Washington, they came to the conclusion that that might not be the best deal. … Again, they made the best decision. I will never fault anybody for doing that.”

Robbins said he only personally spoke with Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark about a potential move once, at the Final Four this past year.

Otherwise, the Arizona president said he only had spoken about the possibility of a move with Big 12 presidents and chancellors he is friends with.

“(Yormarck is) very aggressive. As a heart surgeon, I like that,” Robbins said of the commissioner. “He has a set of goals he wants to achieve. He does it in consultation — as I understand from my friends in the Big 12, with the presidents and chancellors — in consultation with them. Collectively they’ve got a vision of what they want the Big 12 to evolve to.”

As for moving to the Big 12 in 2024-25, Heeke said he isn’t concerned about recruiting without a California school in the conference — that will remain a priority. He was also not worried about smaller sports losing opportunities or dealing with more complex travel arrangements.

Having a guarantee of competitive stability, something the four remaining Pac-12 schools don’t have, has value in itself, he said.

All-in-all, the Wildcats’ leaders didn’t want to label themselves as having their foot out the door on the Pac-12 before Friday.

If there’s blame to be cast elsewhere, they don’t want to think about that either.

The move, they said, was simply acting in their best interests and reacting to the entity of college sports that remains unstable.

“That’s a long, long conversation,” Robbins said when asked if there is blame. “We want to get into the whole media industrial complex here? We want to open that up? To blame? Look, if people want to start blaming people, they’re blaming people to blame. You can make your own narrative, which many people have. No question that the media companies have had a big influence on this. I would love to see the day when the university presidents and chancellors say, ‘Wait a second, we’re pretty smart here. Why don’t we organize ourselves and we’re in control?’

“I’m hoping we’re going to be with the Big 12 for a long time, but we may be a part of Megaconference United next,” Robbins added. “I don’t think there’s blame. I think everybody’s doing what’s in the best interests of their universities and themselves. … Do I like it, no? I’m sad about it.”

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