Last June, less than a month before his first official day as Pac-12 commissioner, George Kliavkoff was shadowing outgoing commissioner Larry Scott at the Big Ten offices in Chicago during one of the most significant discussions about expanding the College Football Playoff.
The former media guru with no prior collegiate experience posed for a photo with the 10 acting FBS commissioners — what he later called the #CFPClassPhoto. Scott was the only person in the picture he had met before. Optimism ran high.
“Over the next month,” Kliavkoff told ESPN this week, “I think there was a general assumption that everything would be approved as recommended.”
It would be his first real exposure to the inner workings of the sport.
“It seemed extremely collegial,” he said, “but of course I had not yet become aware of all of the machinations about how the CFP works.”
One year and over a dozen CFP meetings later, playoff expansion remains on hold, leaving the Pac-12 in an all-too-familiar place as it braces for four more years in a four-team field. But under Kliavkoff’s leadership, decision-makers throughout the Pac-12 are bullish about the future of their conference. A new and improved television deal looms, a critical component as the Big Ten and SEC take steps that are sure to separate them as the wealthiest in all of college athletics.
Earning more CFP berths and attracting the most lucrative television contract possible are the long-term goals, but Kliavkoff’s first year has been focused on how the conference office can better position its teams more immediately. The Pac-12 is scrapping divisions and building new scheduling models that reinforce traditional rivalries and ensure all players face every team in the league — home and away — with more frequency.
Kliavkoff has also made a public and private push for university presidents to invest in their football programs — as USC did when it ponied up to hire Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma in late November. And behind the scenes, Kliavkoff is working to find more ways beyond the media rights deal to generate revenue while also trimming millions in expenses at league headquarters.
And of course, there’s the matter of making the CFP. The Pac-12 champion has been excluded from the playoff six times in eight seasons, posting a 1-2 record and no national titles.
“We’re trying to pull all the levers we can to optimize CFP invitations in the four years that we’re going to be stuck at four teams in the CFP,” Kliavkoff said, “and then we’ll reevaluate all of those decisions once the CFP expands.”
Kliavkoff, a longtime media executive who had no college sports experience when he was hired, inherited a mediocre league as college athletics faced unprecedented change. His approach is often blunt, and his business savvy stands in stark contrast to Scott, who was criticized not just for the underwhelming performance of the Pac-12 Network, but also for his exorbitant salary and corporate expenses as the competitive gap between the Pac-12 and the college football elite grew.
“I think George has done an outstanding job in the first year,” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said. “When you step back and look at all the things we’re talking about — a unique time in college athletics with all that’s going on — and he stepped into it right as it was all beginning.”
Ultimately, Kliavkoff will be judged on how lucrative a television deal he can secure and if he can keep the Pac-12 with a respectable range to the Big Ten and SEC. As he approaches his first anniversary as commissioner on July 1, ESPN spoke to university presidents, athletic directors and coaches about the past year and the most critical goals remaining for the Pac-12 — including, quite simply, increasing winning.