On July 21, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff took the stage for media day at a critical time for his conference. USC and UCLA were already on their way out, and Colorado was rumored to be next as the league struggled to complete a TV deal.
Kliavkoff told a room full of media members and anyone watching that "our schools are committed to each other and the Pac-12."
While Kliavkoff spoke, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark was wrapping up a regularly scheduled Zoom call with his athletic directors. As he completed an otherwise mundane meeting, he foreshadowed the big news to come without mentioning any school by name or any details.
"He said, 'Guys, I'm not going to tell you anything,'" a source on the call said. "'I'm just feeling really good about it. If it doesn't happen next week, then it's probably not going to happen for a while. But you'll find out five minutes before it happens.' And that's basically what happened."
The near simultaneous unfolding of two vastly different messages from two of the most powerful people in college athletics on a sweltering Friday in July was uncanny. Five days later, the Big 12 presidents and chancellors held a private call during which they voted unanimously to accept Colorado as a member. The next day, on July 27, the Colorado board of regents voted in favor of the move in a public videoconference -- a swift formality that lasted less than 16 minutes and put an end to months of speculation about the future home of the Buffaloes.
For the third straight summer, conference realignment has been one of the biggest stories in college athletics -- and for the second straight year, the Pac-12 is the league scrambling to pick up the pieces. In 2021, Big 12 co-founders Oklahoma and Texas announced their intent to join the SEC. In 2022, USC and UCLA decided to join the Big Ten, arguably an even more shocking move, given the geographical mismatch with the Big Ten and the history of the Pac-12's flagship schools. All of those sweeping changes combined with new leadership and media rights deals contributed to where the Power 5 pecking order sits today -- with Colorado leaving the Pac-12 in a precarious position.
Colorado's flirtation with the Big 12 was one of the worst-kept secrets of the offseason.
"Do I think I caught my peers off guard?" Colorado athletic director Rick George said. "I don't believe so, but that's a question you have to ask them."
"There was smoke," one Pac-12 source said. "Smoke was being shown everywhere on this deal. So I don't think it's surprising. It was pretty clear and obvious for several months that Colorado was considering this move."
It wasn't necessarily the decision to leave that stunned the Pac-12 -- it was the timing of it. Multiple sources told ESPN that on June 30, the Pac-12's presidents and chancellors voted unanimously -- including Colorado -- to authorize Kliavkoff to set July 31 as the deadline for all of the league's bidders on its new media rights deal. Those on the Zoom moved forward -- and Kliavkoff walked onto the stage in Las Vegas believing the league would stay intact at least until all the bids were in.
"Pissed off is the wrong word," a Pac-12 source with knowledge of the vote said. "[Pac-12 presidents and chancellors] were livid. Can't overstate the betrayal."
The Big 12 has been burned before too.
"We were on the other end of that barely two years ago," a Big 12 athletic director said. "What we're trying to do is just change our position. You're either growing and you're moving to try to best position yourself, or you're vulnerable. For the first time, the Big 12 is moving in the other direction. If I had to choose which side of that I'd rather be on, I'd rather be on this one, for sure."
KLIAVKOFF'S CONFIDENCE IN his conference membership at media day was strikingly similar to the comments made by then-Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who in July 2021 also stood before members of the media, saying, "a lot of the motivation for realignment is no longer there." A week later, there was a bombshell report that the Big 12's biggest brands wanted out.
"If you think back when we lost Oklahoma and Texas, the Pac-12 could have been as aggressive as we were," a Big 12 source said. "Texas Tech would have gone to the Pac-12 in 10 seconds if they would have given them a call, and they never did. They had chances long before this to take control, and they didn't."
In August 2021, Kliavkoff and Bowlsby met at an undisclosed location to discuss the possibility of a merger, or some sort of partnership, but it never materialized.
"They were in the driver's seat," said Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt. "There was a lot of speculation about the future of the Big 12. They were not in a growth mindset. Insert Brett Yormark. It's full-tilt forward." When Yormark was hired after Bowlsby stepped down in 2022, his message rang loud and clear.
"The Big 12 is open for business," Yormark said in his introductory news conference at Big 12 media days last year.
"We all chuckled and laughed about that," Hocutt said, "but there's more behind that statement than people understood. It hasn't changed from the day he was announced as our commissioner."
Yormark wasn't just referring to conference realignment. His first priority was getting the league's TV deal done. Yormark landed a six-year, $2.2 billion television deal with ESPN and Fox that runs through 2031. The Big 12 opened its negotiations early and completed its agreement before the Pac-12, even though the Pac-12's current television deal ends a year earlier. Although it's impossible to untangle previous realignment from what Colorado ultimately chose to do, the Pac-12's slow process in negotiating its own media rights deal undoubtedly weighed heavily into the process. "It's not like Brett's been quiet about hinting and taking a Pac-12 school," a source said. "He's put some stuff out there on purpose."
Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades told ESPN the Big 12 was able to flip its position in the national landscape because two things happened: The conference announced in September 2021 that it would add Houston, UCF, Cincinnati and BYU, which helped change the narrative that the league was falling apart, and Yormark was able to negotiate a win-win media rights deal for the league and its media partners before going to market -- and before the Pac-12.
"We had no leverage because we couldn't go to the open market," Rhoades said. "The fact we were able to get that done ... for us, goal No. 1 was stability. Goal No. 2 was finances. Make no mistake, that was the order of priority. If we don't get that done, this is a completely different story."
With the television deal done, and an early exit plan for OU and Texas in place -- plus the assurances of four new schools joining the league this summer -- the Big 12 decision-makers began a deeper dive into the possibility of adding more teams. They discussed UConn, Pac-12 schools, and even the scenario of adding Gonzaga for basketball only.
At the spring Fiesta Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona, where multiple conferences gather annually for league meetings, representatives from Endeavor presented Big 12 decision-makers with slides of various schools, including Arizona and Arizona State, and valuations of various television scenarios.
School officials from Colorado met with Big 12 officials at a neutral site in early May, a source told ESPN's Pete Thamel. Colorado had expressed interest and emerged as a legitimate candidate so much so that athletic directors and administrators at the Fiesta Summit joked about it over beers at the resort pool after days during which the Big 12 and Pac-12 held meetings across the hall from each other.
"Colorado was the one that was consistent," another Big 12 source said. "It was directly between Brett and Rick George the majority of it throughout the process."
Meanwhile, the Pac-12 media deal remained slow to materialize.
"I think in May was when [it became], 'OK, Colorado's really nervous and probably the most interesting,'" a source said.
When asked to describe Yormark's approach behind the scenes, one Big 12 source said, "aggressive, and I'm not apologizing for it."
On June 2, after Big 12 spring meetings in West Virginia, Yormark publicly touted the conference as having "a plan" when it comes to expansion. The athletic directors told Yormark at that meeting that if the league was going to add another school, their priority was a Power 5 program. The Big 12's presidents and chancellors met after the athletic directors and gave Yormark the approval "that if Brett could make Colorado happen, he had the permission from the presidents to do it."
"Since then," another league source said, "that's what he's been working on."
ACCORDING TO BIG 12 sources, there was "a very close circle" that knew Colorado's intentions about three weeks before it happened and discussions turned to action about 10 days before the move became official.
On July 19, just two days before Kliavkoff would speak at media day, Colorado chancellor Phil DiStefano told The Denver Post he had not had any direct negotiations with Yormark or the Big 12. He said the school's goal "is to stay within the Pac-12 and have a media deal coming up shortly. That's our goal. And I believe the presidents and chancellors of the Pac-12 are together on that."
On the eve of the Pac-12's media day, Kliavkoff met with the league's athletic directors for what was a lengthy, substantive update, according to sources with knowledge of the discussion. Multiple sources said the Pac-12 presidents respect Kliavkoff, and the athletic directors haven't been involved much in the expansion discussion. In Las Vegas, they were told the same timeline the university presidents and chancellors had unanimously agreed on in June.
"Yes, there were warnings," one Pac-12 source said. "Yes, everybody in America knew they were considering this. But I also believe the decision-makers truly believed the word coming out of [Colorado] that they had until the end of [July] to make that decision, and [Colorado] did it earlier than what they said they were going to do."
In an exclusive interview with ESPN immediately after his remarks at media day, Kliavkoff pointed to DiStefano's comments in the Post as the source of his confidence. Kliavkoff declined further comment for this article. What Kliavkoff didn't address was DiStefano's comments about expecting an update on the media rights deal on the eve of media day. "You could tell he was putting them on a different timeline publicly," a Pac-12 source said. "As soon as he did that, I was like, 'Oh they're gone.'"
Through a university spokesman, DiStefano issued the following statement on Aug. 3: "We disagree with the assertions that have been stated. The main reason we made the decision when we did was because it's in the best interest of the university, CU athletics, and most importantly, our student athletes. We look forward to starting our final season in the Pac-12 and are excited about our future in the Big 12 beginning in 2024."
At the conference's media leading into what would be their final season, Colorado AD George bolted early without comment, further fueling the speculation that the university would soon follow him out the door.
A week later, DiStefano appeared on camera in the board of regents' videoconference, sitting next to the school's athletic director as it was made public that the Big 12 "has offered admittance to the University of Colorado Boulder as part of conference expansion."
"I think there's a misconception at least from some schools that Brett is ruthless in his pursuit, and I just don't think it's that way at all," said TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati. "Brett's set a vision and a platform for our conference that's incredibly attractive, candidly, and I think that's ultimately why Colorado decided to come back to the Big 12."
OF ALL THE schools engulfed in all of the speculation, Colorado always made the most sense because of its previous ties to the Big 12, where it was a member from 1996 to 2010, and in the Big Eight for 47 years before that. The idea gained further traction with the hire of coach Deion Sanders, who has yet to coach his first game with the Buffaloes but has already reignited interest in a program that has had no bowl wins and just two winning football seasons since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
"Quite frankly, Deion was pushing for it," one Big 12 head coach said.
George said he spoke with all of his head coaches about the potential move, but also acknowledged that playing in the Big 12 will align with how Sanders is recruiting.
"I will tell you there's tremendous benefits for being in the Big 12 for the direction that Coach Prime is going as it relates to recruiting," George said. "Being able to play in Orlando against UCF, where he's recruited very heavily. The state of Texas has always been a priority for us, and now playing four teams in that area. ... I tried to include all of our coaches in this, and Coach Prime certainly and I had conversations about this, as well as I did with other coaches."
George, who declined to comment for this story beyond his public remarks from a July 27 news conference on campus, insisted that Colorado's decision "wasn't about" any failures by Kliavkoff or frustrations with a lack of a media rights deal.
"George Kliavkoff is doing as good a job as he can do, and he works his ass off and works tirelessly for the members of the Pac-12," George said. "But this decision wasn't about that. It was about this, and that's the Big 12 Conference and what's best for CU and CU athletics and our student-athletes, and that's what we made this decision based on."
Colorado's departure will coincide with the end of the Pac-12's television deal, which expires after the 2023-24 season, meaning Colorado won't have to pay an exit fee. Colorado is expected to join the Big 12 at a pro rata basis, which is an average of $31.7 million in television revenue per year over the course of the league's new deal starting in 2025.
"Was money a part of it? Absolutely," one Big 12 athletic director said. "But [George] saw a better direction with the Big 12 than what was happening in the Pac-12. It was more than just the money."
George agreed the move was "not just based on money or finances."
"Certainly, revenue and expenses are part of the equation," George said. "We have looked at the cost that we will be incurring from team travel in the Big 12, as well as the initial rebranding. And when we consider the Big 12 revenue, we believe it's a great win for the University of Colorado. The revenue was not just from the media deal -- and there's a lot of talk about that -- but from other revenue streams, and we believe that's positive.
"We believe the benefits far outweigh the costs for the move into the Big 12 Conference," he added. "Because college sports evolve, so do conferences. It's our responsibility to put CU in a position of strength for the future. And as an AD, conference realignment is always something that we're looking at. I feel strongly that today's decision positions the University of Colorado for years to come."
The question remains, though, how the move will position everyone else.