For decades now, Stanford has served as a beacon for college athletics.
Other departments envy the success, the academic prowess and that endowment ($36 billion).
Cardinal athletic programs have won 134 NCAA championships, the most of any school, and it has claimed the NACDA Directors’ Cup as the nation’s most successful college athletic department in 26 of 29 years.
Not to be outdone, the university, academically, ranks No. 3 in America.
And yet, despite those lofty accomplishments and dazzling numbers, the school's athletic department is homeless — a rudderless ship adrift in the ocean of change that is college athletics, the victim of a money-grabbing exodus from its neighbors.
“How does Stanford get left out?” asks one college administrator. “Stanford?!”
Such is the current terrain of the industry’s landscape, where one singular sport — football — is the motivation for seismic shifts. Despite fielding the most successful group of 38 varsity athletic teams in the country, Stanford has transformed from Olympic sports king to a walking wanderer. The school has been sent begging to the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten, where it has offered to enter for an incredibly reduced rate.
A week after the Pac-12 lost five teams to the Big Ten and Big 12, the conference’s future — if there is any — may be in the hands of the Cardinal. The other remaining Pac-12 teams — Cal, Oregon State and Washington State — twist in the wind, their futures potentially contingent on a decision from a 132-year-old university.
While an array of options have been discussed during gatherings with leaders of the Pac-12's remaining members — most of them without commissioner George Kliavkoff present — Stanford’s decision is at the center of answering a vexing question: Where do the four schools go from here?
Rebuilding the Pac-12
The presidents of the Pac-12 four have held several calls over the last week, one as recently as Thursday. Thursday’s call came hours after ACC presidents, in a straw poll Wednesday night, voted against expanding to add Stanford, Cal and SMU.
As of Friday morning, ACC presidents had not officially ended expansion discussions over adding two or three of the schools, but the measure is receiving pushback from at least four schools and perhaps more. The league needs 12 of 15 votes to expand (Notre Dame receives a vote and is in support of the matter).
The decision — or no-decision — from the ACC provides some clarity and moves forward a potential decision from the biggest brand of the remaining four Pac-12 schools. If the Pac-12 is to rebuild itself — which some believe is a longshot — it needs Stanford’s support.
Is the Cardinal in (rebuilding the Pac-12) or is it out (becoming an independent)?
If it’s in, restructuring the Pac-12 begins in earnest. Time is precious. The four schools have scheduled six games next football season: three non-conference games and three against themselves.
Reforming the Pac-12, while difficult, is not impossible.
“It’s premature to say the conference is dead,” says one person with firsthand knowledge of the situation.
The NCAA requires eight members to be recognized as an FBS conference, though there is a grace period of two years. According to NCAA bylaw 20.02.9.2, a conference shall continue to be considered an FBS league for two years after it drops below the eight-team threshold.
The quickest and maybe easiest route in reforming is to acquire the most western schools in the American Athletic Conference, such as SMU, UTSA, North Texas, Rice, Tulane and potentially the Sun Belt’s Texas State. To leave, these schools would owe an exit fee as they are well past the 27-month notice that the AAC requires.
While the exit fee is negotiable with conference leaders, schools have previously left for $10-17 million. But the cost could be significantly higher since schools would be giving notice inside of a year.
The Mountain West’s exit fee ($34 million) is what is preventing the four Pac-12 teams from prying its members from the league — at least in time for 2024. Adding any MWC school for the 2025 season costs $17 million.
Rebuilding the Pac-12 is fraught with problems, most notably is the attractiveness of joining four schools that:
• do not have a television rights deal.
• have a commissioner who is unlikely to continue in the long term.
• are saddled with legal and other challenges, including the National Labor Relations Board employment claim; lawsuits from the Holiday Bowl and two former employees; more than $50 million owed to Comcast for an accounting error.
• will almost certainly lose two designations, one from the NCAA and one from the CFP: (1) the Autonomous Five governance status that grants them more authoritative powers in rule-making; and (2) the Power Five status with the CFP that grants those leagues more revenue in the playoff distribution model.
“If you add four schools, you would have an argument to keep the CFP A5,” says one Pac-12 source, “but it would be an uphill battle.”
Seem like a lot of negatives? It is.
Take these two comments from two different administrators at AAC schools, where programs earn around $8-9 million in distribution a year.
“The fear is that Stanford or/and Cal will eventually go to the Big Ten and they’d leave us behind,” says one.
“Why is their deal better than what we have now?” asks another.
There are some positives for those willing to join and restart the Pac-12. You are joining a conference with one of the most storied brands in college sports (Stanford). But the most notable plus is that the league, if preserved, has millions coming to it in NCAA men's basketball tournament cash.
Each conference receives NCAA tournament monetary units based on how many games a team from that league advanced in the event. It is a rolling six-year system, meaning that the Pac-12 has units of pay coming from teams, even those leaving, that played in the last six NCAA tournaments. A source with knowledge estimated the total amount for the conference to be roughly $10-15 million per year.
Joining or merging with the Mountain West
Mountain West presidents met on Monday night to explore their options. The league has granted commissioner Gloria Nevarez permission to communicate with the Pac-12 four as well as enter discussion with the MWC’s TV partners (CBS and Fox) about potential expansion.
The more simple option is for the four (or three) to join the Mountain West. Oregon State and Washington State were two of the lowest-resourced Power Five teams anyhow. From a resource and geographic and cultural perspective, they’d fit well in the conference. Cal, too, maybe.
However, Stanford, again, is different. Would the school join as a full-time member? Many believe it would not. But desperate times call for desperate measures. However, some in the MWC would be receptive to offering the school a home for its Olympic sports if it chooses football independence.
Another option being discussed among MWC leaders is a possible merger with the Pac-12 four in an effort to retain the Pac-12’s historic brand. Can the 15 schools participate under the Pac-12 umbrella?
This too is fraught with problems. Would the schools take on the Pac-12’s legal issues and debt and who is the commissioner?
Among some MWC administrators there is disagreement on a merger vs. an acquisition.
Joining the AAC
The AAC has been in contact, like the Mountain West, with the Pac-12 four. Communication, while in the early stages, is ongoing.
While geographically and culturally such a move makes little sense, nothing makes sense in the world of conference realignment. Oregon will soon play a conference game at Rutgers. Arizona will soon play a conference game at UCF.
Why can’t Washington State play at Florida Atlantic? The mileage between those two is 3,000, by the way.
The AAC’s interest in the pacific teams is curious, and it’s unclear if there is agreement from all of the league’s schools in such an endeavor. But it does make sense in this competitive environment.
The addition of the four, or three of the four, or even two of the four, gives the conference a greater chance to land a CFP berth in the expanded playoff, where the top Group of Five champion gets an automatic berth. The acquisition does something else: It keeps the four from joining a rival G5 league.
The AAC and Mountain West appear to be locked in a race to capture the ex-Power Five, homeless teams. So which league is the better option?
The AAC offers more money but would require spending much more on travel cost. The league distributes around $8-9 million annually to each member as part of the TV deal, NCAA tournament payout, CFP and more. The primary broadcaster is ESPN.
“With the AAC, you get more money and exposure,” says one Group of Five administrator. “It has a better TV deal and windows.”
The AAC also has a stronger academic brand as well and is the only Group of Five league to have a team advance to the CFP (Cincinnati in 2021).
The Mountain West’s annual payout is more like $6 million, though that’s a number that could soon change. The league will soon enter negotiations for a TV deal that expires in 2026. The additions of former Power Five teams could immediately or at least eventually enhance the payout.
The biggest advantage to the Mountain West is its schools’ locations.
“From a geographic and cultural standpoint, it makes the most sense,” says the administrator.
And so, as the realignment clock ticks, all eyes are focused on the Pac-12’s remaining schools, which, as sad as it is, includes the most successful athletic department in the history of college sports.