USC president Carol Folt ‘shut down’ Pac-12 expansion plans

Late last summer, opportunity knocked on the Pac-12’s door. Texas and Oklahoma made their way to the Southeastern Conference, leaving the remaining Big 12 schools in the dust as they look west to what seemed an increasingly safe home for the “Power Five” conference.

Sure, the Pac-12’s football product wasn’t available for more than a decade, in large part due to USC’s demise. But the Trojans still represented a blue-blooded flagship program in the nation’s second largest media market. As for Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12, USC’s entrenched presence has been synonymous with stability. And in the formation of college sports conferences, such a tide can lift all boats.

First-year Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff was taking calls from desperate Big-12 schools and had focused on a few that he felt offered enough value to seriously consider expanding Pac-12’s presence in Americas Great Plains to consider.

Kliavkoff assembled a committee of three presidents and three athletic directors to decide whether or not to recommend expansion to the larger group. The group met on a Zoom call to go through a deck of 20 slides. But the Pac-12 was only about 15 minutes into its hour-long presentation when USC President Carol Folt spoke.

Folt told the group she didn’t understand why the Pac-12 would expand and expressed surprise they even spoke about it, according to multiple sources familiar with the call but not authorized due to the sensitivity of the issue, to speak publicly.

“Carol shut it down,” a source said.

“She chilled the whole process,” said another source.

In late August, the Pac-12 announced it would not be expanding.

Ten months later, on June 30, USC and UCLA announced they would be leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten beginning in August 2024, continuing college football’s movement toward two superpower conferences, the Texas, Oklahoma and the SEC started last summer.

Now, with USC and UCLA heading towards the Chicago-based Big Ten, reports have come that Stanford, Washington and Oregon are among the Big Ten’s next destinations after Notre Dame, putting the Pac-12 in further jeopardy.

Meanwhile, the Big 12, which banded together when the remaining eight schools added four new members, appear poised to poach any Pac-12 schools with a wandering eye.

The Pac-12 could have added the top Big 12 schools last summer and positioned itself as a top four conference regardless of LA schools’ long-term intentions. Instead, USC’s negative reaction to its escape to the Big Ten a year later left the Pac-12 in a precarious position.

“We will not respond to anonymous comments or hearsay,” Folt said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.

USC President Carol Folt addresses graduates May 13 during a graduation ceremony at USC.

USC President Carol Folt addresses graduates May 13 during a graduation ceremony at USC.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

At the time, there were clear reasons why USC didn’t want to expand. Within the Pac-12, USC leaders were not alone in voicing such reservations. Adding members would mean splitting the Pac-12’s already frustratingly small revenue pot across more hands. And considering USC had yet to be invited to the College Football Playoffs, adding more competition within its own conference would only make that elusive goal harder to achieve.

At Friday’s Pac-12 media day, Kliavkoff recalled that he was vacationing with his family in Montana on that surreal Thursday morning when he received an urgent text message from a Pac-12 officer. Driving in Idaho, he found a place with cell phone signal and stopped. He turned the car quickly, feeling stunned by the news that his Los Angeles hubs had betrayed their nearly century-old relationship with the league and its peers.

Not even a year into his tenure as Pac-12 commissioner, Kliavkoff hasn’t had much time to make his premier program happier. He was certainly going to try. Removing the division tie to the league’s championship game would definitely help USC. But now the Trojans were gone without warning, as Kliavkoff received no hints of the Trojans’ wanderlust.

USC coach Lincoln Riley said Friday the school’s openness to evaluating their future conference affiliation was discussed with him before he took the job in late November.

“I had a bit of a premonition about it,” Riley said. “When I took the job, we had conversations, not specifically about the Big Ten, not about an impending move, but we knew we had to keep an eye on the landscape of what was going on. You have to be at the forefront, so I’m glad our people were progressive enough to take what I thought was a great opportunity. I understand the reasons for this and fully support them.”

USC coach Lincoln Riley speaks to reporters Friday during Pac-12 media day at LA Live.

USC coach Lincoln Riley speaks to reporters Friday during Pac-12 media day at LA Live.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

A year after the Pac-12 could have seized the moment to extend the lead in its upcoming media rights negotiations — the league could have added Texas Christian, for example, to include the Dallas-Fort Worth media market in its bid — Kliavkoff is now fighting for the future of his league from a much less favorable position.

When asked at his news conference Friday whether USC “misled” him, Kliavkoff said, “I’m not going to talk about that. We will take the main road and not talk about what happened in the past.”

Kliavkoff said the past month has been a “whirlwind”.

“We’ve had two board meetings a week for the past four weeks,” Kliavkoff said. “Looking my colleagues in the eye, understanding their commitment that their first priority is to ensure the Pac-12 survives, thrives and grows and is successful. You are committed to the conference. I think the best thing is to ask her about it.”

The natural continuation given recent events: Why would Kliavkoff – or anyone in collegiate athletics – trust anyone else?

Later Friday morning, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens spoke to a group of reporters about his school’s situation. Oregon is the Pac-12’s top remaining football brand and is believed to be coveting a spot in the Big Ten. But without an invite in hand, the Ducks have no choice but to persevere with the Pac-12 and make the most of it.

“Your first reaction is a personal emotion and what it means for your league and for my school,” Mullens said, “but at the end of the day, what else.” [USC and UCLA] supposed to do? They too are in a difficult position. I try to refrain from that.”

It was a media day like no other in Pac-12 history. Ironically, the event took place at the Novo Theater in downtown LA, and yet USC athletic director Mike Bohn and UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond were absent from their usual appearances supporting their soccer coaches and players just a few miles from their campuses.

Over the next two years, the Pac-12 presidents, athletic directors and coaches will split their meetings into two parts — one that the Trojans and Bruins can be privy to and one that they can’t attend now due to a conflict of interest.

Kliavkoff tried to “take the main road” in his prepared remarks about USC and UCLA on Friday, expressing disappointment but saying, “We value our relationship with their student-athletes, coaches, staff, faculty, alumni and fans.”

But listening to him express his displeasure at the fact that money is prioritizing athlete welfare in collegiate athletics, you didn’t have to wonder where he was pointing the finger.

“We should measure our ability to provide our student-athletes with athletic competition at the highest level without unnecessary travel, time commitments and other competitive pressures interfering with their academic success,” Kliavkoff said.

“We are at a critical juncture and the decisions we make in the near future will determine whether we move towards a world where a small handful of conferences pursue professional sports at the expense of tens of thousands of academic opportunities.” USC president Carol Folt ‘shut down’ Pac-12 expansion plans

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