LOS ANGELES — It’s been about a month since the news that USC and UCLA are bolting for the Big Ten, and the disappointment and anger toward the two L.A. schools from inside the Pac-12 haven’t eased up much — if at all.
“It’s clear that UCLA and USC made a decision for short-term financial gain at the expense of their student-athletes,” Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told The Athletic on Friday. “It’s 100 percent clear to me. It’s really unfortunate, and I think they are already regretting it, given the pushback that they’ve gotten from almost every corner of their communities. I think they will regret it more as time goes on.”
Kliavkoff was at the start of his first vacation since taking the commissioner job a year ago when the news broke. He was in Montana, driving to Idaho, in an area without much cellular reception when he received multiple texts from his deputy commissioner.
“The surprising part, to me, is the Pac-12 has a mission that is related to the health and well-being of its student-athletes, and this is a decision that, in my opinion, goes directly against the health and well-being of student-athletes. That’s the surprise for me.”
One Pac-12 athletic director told The Athletic on Friday that the most surprising aspect of the move was on the UCLA side, since it’s a public school connected to California-Berkeley, and the Bruins’ move has been ripped by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The University of California Board of Regents has ordered a review of how the decision unfolded.
“I wasn’t shocked because I’ve been in this business long enough, but I was surprised because I had accepted the notion that UCLA could not uncouple from Cal because of the whole regent thing,” another Pac-12 AD told The Athletic. “They’re governed by the same group, and it makes no logical sense that the same oversight board would vault one at the detriment, the expense, of the other. That is counter to their responsibility. That’s really where the surprise came in.
“Look at all the work Oklahoma and Texas had to do when, 12 years ago, the Pac-12 tried to raid them. But it was always Oklahoma State and Texas Tech coupling them, and that stopped it. So, obviously they’d learned their lessons, and whatever work they needed to get done behind the scenes to fix it, they did. UCLA obviously did no work because this should not be a political issue at this point. It’ll be interesting to see what happens at that hearing.”
Kliavkoff also did not hold back his feelings for Big 12 leadership in the wake of what he said have been numerous overtures to try to poach Pac-12 programs that, he says, have been forwarded to him from administrators in his league.
“I’ve been trying to focus on stuff that moves the conference forward, and I’ve been trying to spend as little time as possible responding to the fake news and nonsense that has come out of other conferences in an effort to destabilize us,” he said.
Asked about his relationship with Brett Yormark, Kliavkoff said he and the new Big 12 commissioner have talked a couple of times in the past month. “I told him I believe that college athletics is healthier when we have a healthy and vibrant Big 12 and a healthy and vibrant Pac-12. Having those votes in the CFP (College Football Playoff) room is valuable. We have those conversations, and then folks in his conference go out of their way to try and destabilize their conference. I keep reminding him of that, and it’s a repeating pattern.”
Kliavkoff declined to go into the specifics of how Yormark responded to that, other than adding, “It’d be in the best interest of college athletics if both conferences are strong. I know for a fact that we’re going to be strong, and I think if he does the right things, they’ll be fine.”
Around the league
Cameron Ward could be the guy: There are a lot of promising transfer quarterbacks in the Pac-12 this year, but by far the player with the biggest hype is USC’s Caleb Williams, the Oklahoma transfer. But new Washington State offensive coordinator Eric Morris said he thinks his guy, Cameron Ward, can be the best quarterback in the league.
“They’ll see soon enough,” Morris said of people who might be overlooking the Incarnate Word transfer. “This kid has some special stuff. I’ve been around some great ones. I know what that looks like. It’s gonna be fun for the world to see this kid come alive.”
Ward said Friday that hearing that makes him feel great.
“A guy like Coach Morris taking a shot on a zero-star kid from a small town in Texas and bringing me all the way up to Pullman, Washington, is crazy,” he said. “Just having him in my corner, knowing he trusts me and believes in me to operate that system is something I live for every day, and I’m just ready to go prove myself.”
He chose Washington State over Ole Miss, Indiana and West Virginia. Ward, who threw for an FCS-best 47 touchdowns and almost 4,700 yards at Incarnate Word, said he takes special pride in once being a zero-star prospect. “I do because I knew in my mind that I was always a five-star. I felt like I could always compete with those guys, but the situation that I was in, in high school, playing in a Wing-T run-heavy offense — probably threw the ball on a normal Friday night seven or eight times. Not really a lot of film on there. … But everything happens for a reason.”
Utah has plenty of reason for optimism: Cameron Rising made first-team All-Pac-12 last season, posting a 20-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and running for 499 yards and six touchdowns for the conference champions, who are predicted by the league media to repeat.
Rising told The Athletic that he didn’t have all of his arm strength last season, coming off major shoulder surgery, but now has that “extra oomph” delivering the ball. He said he was probably around 80 percent last year. “I didn’t really feel comfortable throwing a deep ball at times. I felt like I really had to muscle up to make those throws, but now I feel like I have the confidence to just let it rip.”
The player primed for a breakout: Stanford’s E.J. Smith, son of the legendary Emmitt Smith, ran for only 133 yards last season, but the 6-foot, 213-pound junior was the player Kyu Blu Kelly and Tanner McKee named as the Stanford player most primed for a breakout season.
“He’s going to have an amazing year,” McKee predicted. “He’s so versatile. Can run routes, great pass pro guy, is really patient, great vision, really hits the hole, can make people miss in the space. He’s the total package. We’re so excited for him.”
Stanford could use the boost. Last season the Cardinal ranked last in the Pac-12 in rushing, with fewer than 87 yards on the ground per game. It was the third time in the past four seasons that Stanford, once the most physical team in the league, finished in the bottom two in rushing.
Look out for the Beavers’ running backs: Jonathan Smith has had a couple of gifted running backs in his four seasons coaching at Oregon State. Two seasons ago, Jermar Jefferson led the Pac-12 in rushing. Last season, B.J. Baylor did. Deshaun Fenwick, who ran for 127 yards against Washington State last season, returns. But keep an eye on freshman Damien Martinez, a 5-foot-11, 228-pound three-star recruit from Texas. Smith isn’t one to gush, but he is excited about Martinez’s physicality and how quickly he picked things up during the spring.
Is that you, ASU?: Arizona State, coming off an offseason with significant staff changes stemming from a recruiting scandal that has prompted an ongoing NCAA investigation, has had as much roster turnover as perhaps any team in the country. Embattled head coach Herm Edwards noted that the Sun Devils have 43 new players. It’s worth noting that last season Utah State had 44 newcomers and springboarded from a one-win season to a Mountain West title. Edwards said he has a target date for when he’ll have a better feel for just what kind of team he has.
(Photo of George Kliavkoff, left, Pac-12 senior associate commissioner Merton Hanks, center, and Stanford AD Bernard Muir: Kirby Lee / USA Today)