The ground beneath college sports, convulsing since last July when the SEC poached Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12, took its most disfiguring shake to date Thursday as Southern California and UCLA announced they are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.
The news came 11 months after the Oklahoma-Texas jolt made the SEC the first 16-team behemoth, set to happen no later than 2025, and 10 months after three other conferences responded to that by forming an alliance, the better to compete in the capitalism. Those three were the ACC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, which has included Southern California for 100 years and UCLA for 94.
“Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports,” USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn said in a statement. “We are excited that our values align with the league’s member institutions. We also will benefit from the stability and strength of the conference; the athletic caliber of Big Ten institutions; the increased visibility, exposure, and resources the conference will bring our student-athletes and programs; and the ability to expand engagement with our passionate alumni nationwide.”
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and Director of Athletics Martin Jarmond echoed that sentiment in a joint statement, adding that “seismic changes in collegiate athletics have made us evaluate how best to support our student-athletes as we move forward.”
Later Thursday, the Pac-12 issued a statement of its own, saying it was “extremely surprised and disappointed” by the defections of USC and UCLA. “We have a long and storied history in athletics, academics and leadership in supporting student-athletes that we’re confident will continue to thrive and grow into the future,” it read.
The Big Ten also released a statement, welcoming its new members after its council of presidents and chancellors voted unanimously to admit USC and UCLA.
In a video news conference last August, ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips told of a “groundbreaking alliance” while Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren found “a proud moment” and Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff saw “once-in-a-generation opportunities” as the leagues strove to reap fresh coast-to-coast matchups to counterbalance the SEC might.
Now two of the biggest names from one of those conferences will go to one of those other conferences, which will scuttle an alliance built upon a word used last August: “trust.”
Just as the moves of Oklahoma and Texas put deep dents in the Big 12, which in September replenished itself by adding four extra schools — BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF — the moves of the two widely familiar Los Angeles schools will bludgeon a Pac-12 already limping into the 2020s. It has had a TV contract long seen as insufficient next to other conferences such as the Big Ten, which already had begun negotiating new media rights projected to garner more than $1 billion even before adding two big doses of Los Angeles.
The Pac-12 perfected its storm through parity and fate by reaching none of the past five College Football Playoffs while appearing in just two of the first eight in the four-team playoff concept. In 2021, the conference brought in Kliavkoff and his considerable experience in the workings of television to try to raise its profile, especially in football, and brought in former NFL player Merton Hanks as a special coordinator of the football-upgrade effort.
Now, at least before any further poaching, the Pac-12 will have 10 programs left: Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, California, Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado. With marginalization already a threat last summer even before the Oklahoma-Texas move, Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan said, “I’m bullish, but we have to continually be focused on [football], and it has to be our main thing going forward, if we’re going to have a chance.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that Southern California and UCLA will remain in the Pac-12 in beach volleyball, men’s volleyball and water polo.
In their appeal football-wise, Southern California and UCLA resemble Texas, with their limited recent competitive relevance in national football offset by their large alumni bases and visibility. Southern California has had an upswing of energy since December after it snared football coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, meaning Riley has gone from a Big 12 school planning to play in the SEC to a Pac-12 school planning to play in the Big Ten.
It all makes a reality unforeseen last August when Phillips of the ACC, Warren of the Big Ten and Kliavkoff of the Pac-12 appeared in front of logos of all three conferences.
“In the history of college athletics,” Phillips said at the time, “one expansion of a conference has usually led to another and another and another. We’re better together than we are separate.”
“There’s no signed contract,” Kliavkoff said. “There’s an agreement among three gentlemen. There’s a commitment from 41 presidents and 41 chancellors and athletic directors to do what we say we’re going to do.”
“It’s about trust,” Phillips said. “It’s about we’ve looked each other in the eye.”
Warren offered that one of his law professors at Notre Dame used to say, “If you have to go back and look at a contract that you signed, you’re probably dealing with the wrong party,” and said, “I wouldn’t say this is a reaction to Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC, but to be totally candid, you have to evaluate what’s going on in the landscape of college athletics.”
He spoke of “doing something that is right [in college athletics], for once.”
Earlier in June, Kliavkoff told the Oregonian he had no fear of losing programs and no interest in gaining programs.
The three leagues of the alliance also bonded in their misgivings about College Football Playoff expansion, just when the playoff seemed primed to expand after a four-man panel recommended a 12-team playoff in June 2021. The three conferences, standing with the SEC d Big 12 among a long-familiar “Power Five,” a phrase tilting toward obsolescence, ultimately blocked the expansion, which may yet happen once the 12-year playoff TV contract expires in 2026.
The Pac-12’s concerns included the preservation of the stature of the Rose Bowl.
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