USC athletic director Mike Bohn has a history of punching first in realignment fights

It was perhaps the most unsafe stretch in collegiate athletics history. Chaos reigned amid rumors of a realignment. A blue-blooded program threatened to cancel its conference over TV money. Another conference commissioner openly courted this blue blood with the intention of building a super conference. At any moment it seemed as if a domino could fall and irreparably change the landscape.

The riots put Mike Bohn in a precarious position. As Colorado’s athletic director in June 2010, at the height of the conference realignment drama, Bohn was wary of where the Big 12 was headed. Texas, determined to start its own network, toyed with the possibility of heading to the Pac-12. The Pac-12 flirted back. Rumors circulated of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas Tech storming alongside the Longhorns, a move that would surely mark the end of the conference.

“If the Big 12 had fallen apart, Colorado would have been screwed,” says Chuck Neinas, Bohn’s mentor and former interim commissioner of the Big 12. “They would have been in Mountain West.”

Bohn didn’t want to risk Colorado falling behind. So he took the first step and led Colorado’s effort to join what would soon become the Pac-12. One of his contingencies? That conference assured Colorado was in the same division as USC and UCLA, which Bohn knew had serious reach in his state.

At the time, then-Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott thanked Colorado for his “courage” in taking the first step in what appeared to be a protracted realignment saga. But Texas eventually decided to stay pat, and the conference only added Colorado and Utah.

Twelve years later, with the conference still reeling from Scott’s inability to land Texas, Bohn again took a bold first step, this time helping to co-manage USC with UCLA out the Pac-12, where they’ve been flagship members for more than a century; and the Big Ten, where a godsend in new media rights revenue awaits.

Except this time, the move as USC’s athletic director could have a big impact on collegiate sports as a whole. These existential concerns begin with the potential demise of the Pac-12 as a Power Five conference as the Big Ten and SEC become a formidable “Power Two.”

USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn on November 13, 2020 at the Coliseum.

USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn on November 13, 2020 at the Coliseum.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Not that the Pac-12 was in an ideal spot before USC and UCLA retired.

“They were concerned about Pac-12, the television market,” Neinas said. “It can’t be compared to what they’re going to get if they go to the Big Ten. It’s one thing if it was a few dollars more, but two, three times more, you can’t pass up that.”

The prospect of adding the country’s second largest market to the Big Ten certainly caught the attention of TV networks.

“I think Fox was probably the matchmaker,” Neinas said of the TV network. “This is obviously to enhance their investment, so to speak, as USC and UCLA and the Los Angeles market add a lot of value to the Big Ten package. I know it’s difficult for both institutions to step away from their long history in the Pac-12, but let’s face it, unfortunately, television dictates what happens in collegiate athletics.”

Bohn assured the move was “about much more than resources,” but he saw the handwriting on the wall last summer when Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 — for real this time — for the Southeastern Conference would.

“I don’t think there’s a college administrator in the country that doesn’t realize that there were clearly two conferences that broke away from all the others,” Bohn told the Times. “This particular step underlined that once again.”

USC leaders worked to secure a seat at the table where they could help dictate where the realignment goes from here.

At past stations, Bohn didn’t always have that luxury.

When Bohn was athletic director in Idaho and the Big West stopped playing football in 2000, he hoped to induct his school into the Western Athletic Conference. But the Vandals were overtaken and left to join the far-flung Sunbelt. A few years later, Bohn left the company.

In Cincinnati, Bohn was also turned down once in realignment talks. The Bearcats were considered the front runner to join the Big 12 in 2016 until the conference voted not to expand.

Rejected by the conference he once left, Bohn and his chief of staff Brandon Sosna shelved their plans for about six years when they believed a major realignment was inevitable amid an influx of new media rights deals.

Cincinnati would ultimately beat that schedule, accepting an invite to the Big 12 this past September.

By then, Bohn was on his way to USC, where he would help lead a school from one conference to the next for the fourth time. USC athletic director Mike Bohn has a history of punching first in realignment fights

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