It is a new day with new leadership at the top of the Pac-12 conference, a new coach in the South, new NIL issues, and now the looming topic of schools across the country looking at opportunities in other conferences. It was in the framework that we had 2021 Pac-12 Media Day at the W Hotel in Hollywood.
Starting At The Top
New commissioner George Kliavkoff had his first official meeting with media in his new role. There is a lot on the plate as anyone would guess when you have to clean up the mess left behind by predecessor Larry Scott.
In terms of the most current news impacting college sports at large, college and conference shifting, Kliavkoff said there is no urgency with the Pac-12 to add new programs. There is a lot of talk of the Big XII disbanding after Texas and Oklahoma leave in a couple of years. The assumption is the Pac-12 would scoop up some of the leftover schools, even though they hold limited value to the current makeup of the conference. Kliavkoff said he does not think expansion is necessary although if there are schools that are interested, obviously the conference office would listen. “We don’t think there is any risk to staying at 12 teams, Kliavkoff said.
With Texas and Oklahoma sending their official request to the SEC on Tuesday, the calendar is now in motion for them and their new conference. Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 would handle its requests in a timely manner.
Many Other Issues
He also has a plan to try to financially salvage the Pac-12 Network. Last Summer the network was gutted of much of its operating staff, amid a financial morass. The network still has no distribution via AT&T or DirecTV, two of the biggest service providers in the West. “The distribution is not where I would like it to be,” Kliavkoff said Tuesday. He acknowledged there is no fix under the current model, until 2024.
In the interim, Kliavkoff says the conference and the network will launch a new licensing agreement that will work in conjunction with NIL. It will monetize the network’s rights and video ownership of highlights for all the players, which can now be sold to go along with the athletes’ NIL sponsors.
With Covid still being a front burner topic across the country, Kliavkoff pointed out that nine of the conference’s dozen schools have a mandate that all students be vaccinated before returning to campus in the Fall. Most of the football programs are already at 90% or higher.
The Fun Guy
Jedd Fisch is in his first year at Arizona. In fact, he is in his first year as a head coach, period, after assistant coach stints at UCLA, Michigan, and several spots in the NFL.
Fisch conveyed a palpable reality about his excitement. Arizona struggled mightily under Kevin Sumlin. But Fisch wants to ramp up the volume on Wildcats football. Literally. “For us, we’re absolutely going to do the catwalk. We’re excited about that. I’ve always had dreams of being a college head coach one day and getting off that bus with my wife and leading a team. We’re going to do that,” Fisch said.
“And we’re going to incorporate some new songs. We’re going incorporate a little bit more of a party atmosphere. I really believe it should be the best four-hour party. That’s what college football is. If you miss out on that, you’re missing out — we all missed out on it in 2020. We need to find a way to get a party atmosphere back.”
He is also going to continue the open policy practice he began in Spring camp, with the obvious exception of game week prep. “I don’t know why you would ever close them personally. I’ll close them during the season in terms of when it’s true game planning week,” Fisch said. “I’d love for our media to see what we’re doing. It’s a lot better than them guessing. It’s an opportunity for them to see how we interact, how we coach, what we do.”
Stanford’s David Shaw is the coach any media member worth their salt could sit down with for an hour or more, ask any question about any topic, and come away knowing they had a thought-provoking conversation.
On NIL deals, Shaw said his players are not as eager as others to chase the money. He said they are waiting for the deals that are most appropriate for them. “The way that we’ve waded into this NIL world, guys aren’t diving in headfirst, they’re being very conscious of anything that they do. They’re asking a lot of questions,” Shaw said. “There are a lot of these NIL deals that are not good deals. They’re long-term deals that ask too much of our guys. There are agents out there that don’t always have the best intentions. I think any deal that a student-athlete signs should allow them to grow beyond the deal.”
It was noted that Alabama quarterback Bryce Young was reported by Tide head coach Nick Saban to have NIL deals worth nearly seven figures. “First of all, Nick Saban is smarter than any 10 of us in this room combined. There’s no way that was a throw-in. It’s obvious to me Nick wanted to plant that and make sure people knew that. It’s a great way to recruit people to come to you, which the guy hasn’t started a college football game and he’s already signed a whole bunch of deals to make money,” Shaw said.
On Stanford’s approach to the Covid vaccination, Shaw said, “I think it’s better and safer for all of us if everybody is vaccinated. As we all know, being vaccinated doesn’t keep you from ever getting the virus; it keeps it from being as severe as it could be without. But it’s more than just not getting the vaccine. It’s now understanding if you’re not vaccinated, you have a responsibility to be here for your teammates. So how you live away from us, every decision still needs to be about the team.”
Life In The Pacific Northwest
It was a tough year for most college coaches last year. But for someone making his head coaching debut like Jimmy Lake, it was all the more unique. Now, add in NIL, potential conference changes, and vaccination issues. Life at the University of Washington is even more busy as the Huskies get ready to embark on camp next week.
Lake said financial opportunities through NIL can be a distraction in the locker room. He has had a warning for his players. “But really the message to our team is we need to focus on becoming better football players, and we need to go out there and win some football games,” Lake said. “If we do that, all of that stuff is going to take care of itself. If we go out there and don’t play very well, don’t have a good team, there’s not going to be a lot of people who want to pay our players for the name, image, and likeness.”
Going It Alone
Oregon defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux is expected to have a big season. The junior from Los Angeles is on the Nagurski watch list for the best defensive player in the country. As one would imagine, a player with those skills and that much upside, has many NIL opportunities. At Pac-12 Media Day, Thibodeaux described what it was like to sign his first deal, which not-so-coincidentally was with Nike founder Phil Knight. The defensive lineman-turned-linebacker has commissioned artwork, from Nike, focusing on him and football that is available for sale online.
Thibodeaux said when Knight first called him, he didn’t believe who was really on the other end of the line. He said once he became convinced, he blurted out “Uncle Phil?!?”
Thibodeaux, a studious athlete who is also trying to master the game of chess, says he will not be hiring any representation for NIL deals. He intends to do them himself. He said he wants to take ownership of making sure the companies he signs with are in tight allegiance with his personal and business convictions. “It’s not about all the offers. It is about the brand I am trying to present,” Thibodeaux said. “I’ve been doing it on my own, but I have learned from a lot of other people.”
That is a lot to take on in addition to school, football practice, and yes, chess. “I don’t think it has added to my plate,” he said. “For a guy like me, I like to have a big plate anyway. I just created more space for it. Less leisure time, more work time.”
Changes are inevitable across the country and sooner rather than later. The one thing that can be counted on…for all of these schools, within the next seven days they will be in training camp. For all of the news about future chaos, there will still be a 2021 football season.
Main Image: Lobby of W Hotel in Hollywood, CA during Pac-12 Media Day. Photo from Tony Siracusa