Mack Rhoades was pacing in his vacation home in New Mexico, starting to seriously fear the deal was falling apart. Brett Yormark was back home in New York on an endless run of phone calls. It wasn’t looking good.
Arizona was supposed to be across the finish line. The school had already requested and was approved for Big 12 membership. Yormark, the Big 12 commissioner, awaited final verbal confirmation late on the night of Aug. 3. Arizona president Bobby Robbins went into a Board of Regents meeting to get their blessing, anticipating the board would urge Arizona State to make a move. But Arizona State president Michael Crow, in a fervent effort to preserve the Pac-12, put up a good fight. Now Arizona’s plans were in doubt.
Meanwhile, what was going on with Oregon and Washington? The latest rumor was, contrary to reports, Oregon had turned down a Big Ten offer.
“We’re like, ‘You’ve got to be freaking kidding me,’” said Rhoades, the Baylor athletic director. “‘This thing ain’t gonna happen.’”
Yormark couldn’t sleep that night. He kept playing it all out in his head, pondering all the possible scenarios and what it would take to bring the deal back to life.
The Pac-12 meeting to decide on a media rights deal with Apple was scheduled for 7 a.m. PT. In the last half-hour before the call, everything changed.
Rhoades learned the Big Ten reached an agreement with Oregon and Washington overnight. They were going. Then he got a call from his contact at Utah. Their leadership wanted to set up a meeting. While they were still on the line, Arizona called. Suddenly, they were ready to commit. He dialed up Yormark.
“At that point I knew, OK, we’re definitely back in the game,” Yormark said.
The dream scenario came true. The Big 12 was landing Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah. The Buffaloes were already on board, but the defection of the rest of the so-called Four Corners schools went from improbable to inevitable when Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff couldn’t secure an acceptable TV deal and the Big Ten made its move.
This yearlong pursuit began as soon as Yormark took over the conference last summer. There were countless twists and turns throughout the courtships, but the assertive new commissioner was never shy about his objective: Boost the Big 12 by any means necessary. The Athletic spoke with more than a dozen presidents, athletic directors and industry experts for the inside story of how he pulled it off.
“Listen, in life, you’ve got to get lucky,” Yormark said. “But in some respects, you create your own luck.”
‘All hell broke loose’: The chaotic final days that shook the Pac-12 and college football to their core
When the Big 12 neared the end of its commissioner search in the summer of 2022, finalists were asked to bring something to their in-person interview: a big idea. Something original, innovative, achievable.
“Brett couldn’t just bring one idea,” Baylor president Linda Livingstone said. “He had 10.”
Livingstone remembers talking through a list of more than 20 candidates with TurnkeyZRG’s Len Perna early in the search. When Perna brought up Yormark, he acknowledged the 55-year-old Roc Nation COO was an outside-the-box option but impressive enough to merit a long look. Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec, who led the three-person search committee with Livingstone and Kansas chancellor Douglas Girod, said the Big 12 board labeled Yormark as the “high risk, high reward” finalist. But that’s what they needed.
After losing Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC and enduring a brutal existential crisis in 2021, the leaders of the remaining Big 12 schools faced an adapt-or-die future. They sought a dealmaker to evolve their business. Yormark’s minimal experience in college athletics meant he wasn’t devoted to preserving the status quo. He says he was looking for a new challenge where a “transformative moment” was possible.
One day after Yormark landed the job in late June 2022, USC and UCLA bolted the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. Here was his chance to disrupt. His aggressive, transparent approach challenged Big 12 colleagues right away. Everyone needed to start thinking more ambitiously.
Yormark’s first official day on the job as successor to longtime commissioner Bob Bowlsby was Aug. 1. He couldn’t wait that long. When he declared the Big 12 was “open for business” at his media day debut, the recruitment of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah was already in the works.
“When we started talking about membership,” Rhoades said, “it was always those four.”
Yormark and his presidents and ADs pushed them to consider departing their destabilized league. They weren’t ready. The Pac-12 had just begun talking with ESPN and Fox about its next media rights deal. Kliavkoff fought back at Pac-12 media day, accusing the Big 12 of lobbing “grenades” to destroy his league. The night before, Yormark had texted Kliavkoff and reminded him: It’s not personal, it’s business.
“You look at the metrics, you look at the numbers, and any way you cut and slice and dice the numbers, you come to the conclusion that no Pac-12 school is going to the Big 12,” Kliavkoff said.
While Kliavkoff was taking shots in Las Vegas, Yormark was already thinking ahead on his next move: jumping the Pac-12 in line for a new TV deal.
“If you’re ESPN and Fox, does it hurt you to open up with the Big 12 right now and see side-by-side what’s the better long-term commitment?” Yormark told The Athletic that day.
Yormark got his wish. He began negotiating with ESPN and Fox in September and secured an extension with both partners through 2030-31 that pays Big 12 members $31.7 million annually, includes a pro rata clause for expansion and gets the conference back on the market before the SEC and ACC. Perhaps they were leaving money on the table with new bidders like Apple and Amazon emerging, but the conference needed financial security, stability and exposure. The board was OK with accepting a deal that was good enough. Yormark got it done by Halloween.
The reaction on the Pac-12 side: We’ll beat that number. In hindsight, the Big 12 was fortunate to re-up with ESPN and Fox when it did, given the state of today’s media landscape. Locking in a grant of rights and getting a long-form contract executed by the end of June was critical for being taken seriously in its expansion pursuits. The deal was the catalyst for everything the Big 12 has done since.
“When you look back on it now,” Yormark said, “it obviously was one of the most critical moments ever in the history of the conference.”
Yormark rolled out a variety of new initiatives, including a Big 12 pro day, Rucker Park camps, international games in Mexico, enhanced championship events and business summits. He was eager to demonstrate how the Big 12 was thinking differently. He was giving the Pac-12 schools a reason to come.
In the spring, the Pac-12 schools started calling. The conference put out a unity statement on Feb. 13, but there was no media rights deal in sight. Colorado athletic director Rick George was interested in the Big 12. For the Buffaloes, a potential return to their former conference wasn’t just about a TV contract. It was a legacy move focused on where they’re best served in the future. One aspect of a partnership that excited Yormark: He could tell Deion Sanders wanted to play and recruit in the Big 12.
But Yormark wasn’t going to beg. He needed schools that wanted to be aligned with the Big 12 and weren’t just settling if the Pac-12 got a bad deal. “I want someone to run to us,” Yormark said. He sat down with Robbins at the men’s Final Four in Houston and told him frankly, “I’m not going to be your life preserver.”
By early April, Yormark believed he could get Colorado. The Pac-12 pushed back its deal timeline to late spring or early summer. The Big 12 commissioner leaned on intel from his deep Rolodex of TV contacts. They were all telling him Kliavkoff had misplayed his hand. He knew the Pac-12 was in trouble.
At the end of May, Big 12 presidents, chancellors and athletic directors flew to West Virginia for three days of meetings at The Greenbrier. Their retreat at the historic luxury resort was the first time leadership from every Big 12 school — including incoming members BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF — gathered for an in-person board meeting. Together, they devised an expansion game plan.
Colorado remained the consensus priority. Yormark had already met again with Colorado’s leaders in Chicago and told the board he was having productive talks. The timeline on when they might jump was unclear, but Yormark believed they were becoming fed up with the Pac-12 and might not wait for a TV deal.
“We talked a lot about being patient,” said Livingstone, the Big 12’s board chair. “Brett is not a naturally patient person. He knew, in this case, that strategically the best thing to do was be patient and see how things play out.”
The when was largely out of their hands. The Pac-12’s media rights negotiations dragged on with few leaks and no known deadline. At that point, Schovanec admits, flipping all four schools looked challenging. “We were thinking maybe two,” he said. They briefly discussed Memphis, San Diego State and other expansion candidates. San Diego State strongly preferred joining the Pac-12 and viewed the Big 12 as a backup plan. Yormark didn’t appreciate that. He did meet with Gonzaga, but those talks never got serious.
UConn was different. It was no secret Yormark was most interested in inviting the Huskies to the Big 12 if the Pac-12 schools stuck together.
How far did it get with UConn? Yormark traveled to Storrs for a campus visit after the Huskies’ men’s basketball national title and later had a second meeting with their leadership in New York. The commissioner saw something his peers did not: a proven brand in men’s and women’s basketball that gets the league into New York City and the East Coast. He believed Jim Mora has the football program (currently 0-4 this season) heading in the right direction. He trusted that, over time, UConn would add value.
“I’m all about scenario management and think that’s critically important,” Yormark said. “We vetted them all out time and time again and tried to go down parallel paths with respect to how to work them.”
Still, it was always going to be tough to build support for that addition. ESPN and Fox were willing to pay full price for Pac-12 additions. The Big 12 board wanted Power 5 schools. It meant more to them.
There were moments when the Big 12 and Pac-12 could’ve worked together. Bowlsby flew to Montana in 2021 to visit Kliavkoff and discuss a partnership. Similar conversations between Yormark and Kliavkoff last summer didn’t go far, and both sides disagree on who initiated them. But expansion moves made by the SEC and Big Ten and the growing revenue gap between them and every other conference put these two in an uncomfortable position: Eat or be eaten.
“I kind of looked at it and framed it as, man, we have no choice,” Rhoades said. “Right now, if you’re not trying to be aggressive, you get left behind.”
Yormark was still feeling bullish about Colorado at Big 12 media days in July. But privately, he was starting to concede the Four Corners scenario might not happen. Maybe he’d dreamt a little too big early in his tenure.
At Pac-12 media day on July 21, Kliavkoff declared he wasn’t concerned about losing members and vowed his CEO Group’s patience would soon pay off. “The longer we wait for the media deal, the better our options get,” he said. But the signs were hard to miss. Sanders did not travel to Las Vegas. Rick George ducked reporters to catch a flight. Five days later, Colorado regents met to discuss Big 12 membership. They approved a move the following day.
“Rick is a straight shooter, which I like,” Yormark said. “He did his due diligence and I just respect the fact he made a very bold decision. And the decision was he wasn’t going to wait. He saw something he liked and wanted to be a part of it. I really, really respect that.”
In August, Yormark finally visited campus and instantly hit it off with Coach Prime over lunch. What the new head coach is doing for Colorado is precisely what Yormark envisions for the Big 12: modernizing the brand to make it younger, more creative, more culturally relevant.
Next up for the Big 12? Arizona. On the afternoon Colorado’s board met to set their departure in motion, Robbins was about to board a flight. He was traveling to London for an event for NASA’s UArizona-led OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to collect a sample from an asteroid.
When he learned the Buffaloes were on their way out, Robbins replied, “No kidding? Wow. Well … that’s news.”
One week later, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt was sitting in the Admirals Club at DFW International Airport on a Thursday afternoon. He and his wife were heading to Canton, Ohio, for Zach Thomas’ induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But first, he joined another emergency Big 12 meeting.
“At one point, my wife looked at me and said, ‘You better not say too much. You know there are people around you who could be listening,’” Hocutt said.
Yormark invited ADs and board members on the call to share good news: Arizona requested Big 12 membership. It was time for a vote. The lingering question was whether the Big 12 would go to 14 members or try for 16. One AD reminded the group of a hard truth: The Pac-12 had an opportunity to put the Big 12 out of business two years ago. Because they didn’t, they were now incredibly vulnerable. Years from now, will the Big 12 be similarly vulnerable and regretting a squandered opportunity?
In the summer of 2021, the Pac-12 could’ve easily swiped four Big 12 schools. Its expansion committee looked into Baylor, Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas Tech. At the time, had the Pac-12 made an offer, sources at those schools say they absolutely would’ve accepted that lifeline.
But it never came close to happening. The Pac-12 CEO Group passed on expansion, preferring an alliance with the ACC and Big Ten. Robbins wishes they’d taken all eight remaining Big 12 schools and formed the Pac-20, but he found few supporters for that concept. He even suggested the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 all merge together.
“It was very clear the majority of the people in that room weren’t even going to entertain it,” Robbins said. “Never got to a vote or anything. I think that’s sad.”
Interestingly, though, the efforts by Big 12 presidents, chancellors and athletic directors to try to earn an invite helped establish contact and relationships with their Pac-12 counterparts. Now that the tables had turned, Yormark’s board and ADs were invaluable in these recruitments. These deals aren’t easy to pull off. There are several stakeholders to win over on each campus and lots of steps and protocols. But Yormark was determined to finish the job.
“When you’re in these roles, it’s an obsession,” Schovanec said. “Brett, I think, sometimes is almost intoxicated by the prospect of the deal. He loves it. He loves playing in that arena. That’s just who he is.”
“I want to win,” Yormark said. “That’s why we all wake up every morning, right?”
Nobody wanted to be the straw that broke the Pac-12’s back. Colorado leaving was damaging but did not guarantee extinction. The Big Ten did not want to be out in front of this. Yormark knew this was weighing heavily on Robbins, too. Arizona was most likely to defect, but would it be bold enough to act alone? Some inside the Big 12 believed the Wildcats needed Arizona State or Utah to go with them. On the Thursday call, Yormark suggested giving the other two schools a deadline. No more waiting around.
Colorado’s exit had sped up the timeline. Kliavkoff presented the much-anticipated Apple offer, a five-year deal with an annual base rate of $23 million per school, in an Aug. 1 meeting. Robbins was concerned when he learned the terms and did the math. If the Pac-12 has 1.8 million living alumni, as he calculated, then how achievable is 3-5 million subscribers paying $100 a year? “I think it would’ve been difficult, certainly in the early years,” Robbins said. He’d always expected more than one offer to be presented, but a second one fell through late.
“Most of us were somewhat disappointed,” Robbins said.
Soon after the meeting, Robbins made overtures about Big 12 membership to keep that door open. By the end of the Thursday night board meeting with Crow, Arizona and Arizona State were going to stick together.
“We are sisters, rivals with each other, jealous from time to time of each other. We have all of the things that go on in real families,” Crow said in a podcast interview. “This is like a real family. You love each other, you argue with each other, you stomp out sometimes, but we had decided as a family that we were not separating.”
Robbins went into Friday ready to accept the Apple deal despite his reservations. Yormark didn’t get a call about how the board meeting went, which wasn’t a good sign. “I thought, ‘OK, we might be losing this,’” he said. Big 12 leadership would see how the Pac-12 meeting played out, knowing they might need to regroup and restart the UConn discussion.
At around 6:55 a.m. PT, Robbins said, he received a call from Oregon president John Karl Scholz. The Ducks were Big Ten-bound.
“It was pretty much over,” Robbins said.
In an instant, the three schools had to change their tune. Robbins had been in constant conversation with Crow and Utah president Taylor Randall leading up to that morning. Now they needed to hustle to secure their new home.
Utah AD Mark Harlan had said all the right things publicly about staying in the Pac-12, including at the July media day. “Every president in the Pac-12, including Washington and Oregon, was trying to hold this whole thing together,” Randall said. Once the Apple offer was known, though, Utes coaches were uneasy. They questioned what games on Apple would do for their visibility, relevance and recruiting.
Everyone in the Pac-12 had to get to a certain comfort level with the deal, Randall said, and they couldn’t get the whole group there. Now that the conference was crumbling, he and Harlan quickly got on a call with Yormark and the Big 12 executive committee and agreed to join.
Arizona State had always been the least engaged of the four. Crow and AD Ray Anderson were adamant about staying in the Pac-12 and did not express interest in the months leading up to Friday morning. Crow genuinely liked the Apple offer. After doing all he could to preserve his league, he now needed to smooth things over with Yormark. He and the commissioner had a 10:30 a.m. PT Zoom meeting that convinced Yormark they could move forward together.
“He told me, ‘Brett, you can’t penalize me for being loyal to the Pac-12. Because as loyal as I was to the Pac-12, I’m gonna be that loyal to you,’” Yormark said. “That really resonated with me. It was heartfelt.”
Yormark held one more board meeting to officially accept three new members. The addition of Colorado had been feted with a Michael Jordan-inspired “They’re back” press release. But this fateful Friday had brought seismic change to college athletics. This time, a standard announcement was the right move.
“It wasn’t a spike-the-ball-in-the-end-zone moment,” Rhoades said.
For Kansas State’s Gene Taylor, the realization hit when he walked in the room.
The athletic directors of the new Big 12 met for the first time in Dallas on Aug. 17. Despite dedicating an entire year to pursuing this possibility, it still felt jarring to witness all 16 of these leaders getting together.
“I said to myself, ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat,’” Taylor said. “You know these guys and you’re sitting in a room with them talking about the conference and you’re kinda shaking your head like, ‘Is this real? Is this really happening?’”
More importantly, can all these ADs, presidents and chancellors get along and make this work? The Big 12’s expansion move was a team effort from start to finish, supported by tight-knit and likeminded stakeholders. They aimed to grow the conference without messing up that alignment. For Yormark, everything felt right in the first AD meeting.
“It was very natural,” Yormark said. “It was almost like it was meant to be. It was a wonderful moment, I think, for everyone in the room to exhale and feel good about what we had done.”
‘All hell broke loose’: The chaotic final days that shook the Pac-12 and college football to their core
This much is also clear: Nobody in the Big 12 feels good about the demise of the Pac-12. Livingstone, the Big 12 board chair, said she feels a sense of sorrow about how this all unfolded. “I think we all anticipated that the Pac-12 would reach some kind of a media agreement,” she said. So, no, she never expected the present-day outcome of a Pac-2.
Robbins absolutely loved the Conference of Champions. It’s heartbreaking to him to think about this iconic league, with more than 100 years of history, possibly going away — especially as he watches a potentially all-time great Pac-12 football season play out this fall.
“We saved our best for last,” Robbins said. “We’ve just got to make the best of what is a sad situation. It’s like the Semisonic song says: Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
Taylor couldn’t be more sympathetic to Oregon State and Washington State. He could’ve been the one left behind in 2021. When everyone was talking about the Big 12 falling apart that summer, he points out, Kansas State and Iowa State were talked about the least. There was nothing he could do.
“It’s a horrible, horrible feeling,” Taylor said. “I hope they get every dollar they can possibly get that remains in the Pac-12.”
He and his peers praise Bowlsby for pulling them out of the tailspin. Once the eight remaining schools agreed to stick together, Bowlsby convinced them to quickly add the four best available expansion candidates in BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. They needed to change the narrative. They didn’t want people talking about the Big 12 like a damaged product on the brink of disaster throughout that 2021 season. They stabilized and survived.
Now they’re trying to thrive. Yormark has declared that, among Power 5 leagues, the Big 12 is now “cemented at No. 3 and moving up.” The best basketball conference in America is about to get better. TCU broke through as the first Big 12 team to reach the College Football Playoff national title game. But the commissioner describes the opportunity ahead in different terms. His conference is now in four time zones and 10 states. There are 90 million people in its footprint.
“Our profile and our reach has dramatically changed in a very short period of time,” Yormark said. “But I think we’re ready for it.”
The commissioner has been on the road every weekend this fall to get a good look at these new showdowns: Colorado-TCU, Utah-Baylor, TCU-Houston. Taylor joked that Yormark might start to get bored if they don’t continue to expand, but 16 is plenty for now.
“He’s just getting started,” Hocutt said. “The ideas that Brett continues to bring to our conversations and our attention are just incredible. No other commissioner is thinking as proactively as he is.”
Closing the deal with the four Pac-12 schools they’d long coveted came down to strategy, persistence, relationships, timing and lots of luck. It was a milestone moment for the Big 12, hardly a sure thing but ultimately hard-earned.
“Now the fun part starts,” Yormark said.
(Top illustration: John Bradford for The Athletic; Photos: Alex Goodlett, Stephen Lam / Getty Images)