Meet the man holding the keys to the next wave of conference realignment

The most powerful person in college athletics at the moment is a cardiac surgeon turned hospital administrator turned president of the University of Arizona.

Dr. Robert Robbins is his name and in the conference realignment game his opinion on the future for Wildcat athletics will shape the look of college sports in the future.

Last week, Colorado announced it was bolting the Pac-12 for the Big 12 starting in the fall of 2024. That left the Pac-12 with just nine future schools — USC and UCLA are leaving for the Big Ten as well after the upcoming year.

CU hitting the transfer portal can prove to be little more than a blip. The Buffaloes athletic teams have been mediocre at best for decades. The arrival of football coach Deion Sanders has created a lot of attention and some promise, but he inherits a deep hole.

The Pac-12 can live without CU. It can easily add another school — San Diego State was eager to come but is now stuck in the Mountain West for at least another season unless it can afford a massive buyout. It could bring in three more schools to get back to a dozen members — SMU, UNLV, Boise State, Fresno State, Colorado State and so on would jump at the chance.

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Or Robbins can view Colorado as a rat jumping off a sinking ship, lose patience with Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff’s oft-delayed (and perhaps cash-poor) media rights deal and follow the Buffs to the Big 12.

To do so, UA would either have to navigate its partnership with Arizona State or bring the Sun Devils along with them (the two schools share a board of regents). If so, Utah would likely follow.

And just like that the once-proud Pac-12, the so-called Conference of Champions, would look like a crumbled Jenga Tower – Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State trying to piece together a future while individually seeking any better option available.

If the Pac-12 holds together, though, then the Big 12 could swing its attention east, with Connecticut as a top choice while Memphis and others try to find a way in.

With Colorado on its way out, the Pac-12 has reached a critical point in its quest to keep the remaining nine schools together. (Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
With Colorado on its way out, the Pac-12 has reached a critical point in its quest to keep the remaining nine schools together. (Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While any school could choose to leave the Pac-12 and set things off, it’s Arizona that has emerged as the linchpin, and not just because its powerhouse basketball program would certainly fit well in the hoops-rich Big 12.

The Big 12 is pushing hard, per sources, claiming it just wants one more addition in the hope of triggering urgency.

That’s how tenuous it all is.

That’s how tenuous this week may prove to be.

Cardiac surgeons aren’t generally prone to emotional decisions and that has to help the nerves of college sports fans worried about the future. Realignment is rarely a net positive, especially for college football in general. Rivalries get wrecked. Traditions get discarded. Fewer and fewer schools are considered “big time.”

College athletics is better with a healthy Pac-12 the same way it is with a healthy Big 12 … or as many healthy leagues as possible.

While college sports leaders obsess over what name, image and likeness and some players hitting the transfer portal does for the sport, they spin around and use financial inducements to tamper with the future of entire institutions and conferences.

“All I keep saying is, ‘You know, we’re just waiting to get a deal,’” Robbins told The Athletic last week. “And then everybody has to evaluate the deal on its merits. I’ve been pretty steadfast in that stance.”

The Big 12 is offering $31.7 million per school in media rights. It also will have games on both ESPN and Fox. It’s not equal to the $50 million-plus that the Big Ten and SEC will give its schools, but it’s enough to remain competitive.

The question that has hovered over college athletics for the last year is whether the Pac-12 can match it with whatever new deal Kliavkoff can negotiate.

If it’s close — both in terms of money and exposure — then maybe no one else leaves. If not, look out.

Kliavkoff meanwhile has continued to push back the timeframe for an agreement. Since this is the last year of the current Pac-12 media rights contract, the clock is ticking. Who is showing the games in 2024? And for how much? It’s now more than reasonable for schools to demand an answer.

Generally speaking, the longer the delay, the worse the deal. You’d have to believe there is some secret suitor that is just waiting to ride in and hand over a pile of cash for the Pac-12 to think the procrastination is a positive sign.

It’s more likely that the Pac-12 is trying to polish up what it has and hope it's enough.

Perhaps more than anyone, it’s Robert Robbins who will make that determination. Perhaps soon, because soon is about all the time left to keep college athletics from another seismic change.