One of the much-discussed storylines in college sports has been about levels of contact. That can be about coaches contacting high school recruits or players at other schools (sometimes even before they’re in the transfer portal), about schools contacting coaches employed elsewhere, and, on the realignment front, about schools’ discussions with conferences and conferences’ discussions with TV networks. In each of those arenas, some of that contact isn’t actually supposed to be happening, which leads to some interesting divides between reporting and public comments. And the latest there comes on the realignment front, with plenty of recent reporting on talks between Pac-12 schools and the Big 12, but with Arizona State president Michael Crow telling Piper Hansen and Alex Wakefield of The State Press (the ASU student newspaper) ‘There have been no discussions with the Big 12 Conference on moving”:
University President Michael Crow told The State Press media rights negotiations are "in the final stages," and that the school is committed to the Pac-12. https://t.co/GBIcUtWGTB
— State Press Sports (@statepresssport) March 15, 2023
Here’s Crow’s full quote on that front, and also on the Pac-12 media negotiations front, from that piece:
CBS Sports reported last week the Big 12 “renewed contact” with ASU, Arizona, Colorado and Utah and that the four schools’ interest in leaving for the Big 12 has “picked up in recent weeks.”
“There have been no discussions with the Big 12 Conference on moving,” Crow said. “I mean, there’s been discussions between everyone everywhere on all things related to where our conference is going and where stuff’s going to end up and what’s happening. We are committed to the Pac-12.”
…”We’re close to knowing where we’re going to be, and I think we’re close to a deal,” Crow said. “I think that the Pac-12 media rights became more complicated with the departure of USC and UCLA. The media rights became more complicated also, as things always do because markets go like this. They’re up and down, up and down. But, we have fabulous sports teams and the remaining teams, we’re going to get a good offer. We’re in the final stages of that process.”
Meanwhile, here’s the key part of that specific report from CBS (which actually was published on March 3, almost two weeks ago) referenced by Crow. It’s a piece titled “Big 12 in contact with Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah as Pac-12 media rights future remains uncertain,” written by Shehan Jeyarajah and referencing reporting from CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd:
The Big 12 recently renewed contact with four Pac-12 schools — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah — as television contract negotiations for the Pac-12 continue to flounder, sources confirm to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. March will be a pivotal time for the Pac-12 to either deliver a new contract or risk losing key members of its league.
After previously speaking as realignment kicked into gear but going radio silent for an extended period of time, sources say all four schools have more recently had contact with the Big 12, sources tell Dodd. The interest of the “Four Corners” schools leaving for the Big 12 has picked up in recent weeks as Pac-12 media rights negotiations have stalled, moving into a ninth month.
At first glance, Crow’s “no discussions” comments would seem to directly dispute CBS’ reporting. But there is some potential wiggle room there. While many might take Crow’s “no discussions with the Big 12 conference on moving” as a contradiction of “renewed contact,” the “on moving” at the end suggests a potential qualifier where Crow (seen above in February) can say any discussions below the level of detailed and specific talk about a move (which would likely not happen until the long-debated Pac-12 media deal does come in, for good or for ill) don’t count. His immediate caveat of “there’s been discussions between everyone everywhere” also provides some further wiggle room, even if he continues that sentence by talking about “our conference.” And it’s interesting that while Crow cites “no discussions” in response to the State Press, he doesn’t specifically go after CBS, which you might expect if that report was completely and fully inaccurate.
It’s also worth noting that “contact” between a school and a conference does not necessarily directly involve the school president (partly so they can make denials like this!), especially at early stages. The school president’s going to play an important role in if a move actually happens or not, and in the details of it. But initial outreach in sensitive situations like this often comes through less prominent channels.
And that’s perhaps particularly true at public schools like Arizona State where university officials’ communications are often subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. So there are ways where Crow’s “no discussions” comment can coexist with Dodd’s “renewed contact.” And it’s worth remembering that one Big 12 AD, Baylor’s Mack Rhoades, has publicly raised the subject of possibly adding Pac-12 schools, and that Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has regularly sounded off about the “grenades” lobbed in from the Big 12. It’s also worth keeping in comments last month from Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson, where he referenced “other conferences trying to pick off Pac-10 teams“:
“Certainly, we’re all anxious to have something resolved here in the next couple, three weeks, so we can take next steps and get some of this speculation out of the air in regard to what other conferences may be thinking in terms of trying to pick off Pac-10 teams, if you will, and what we may do in terms of adding institutions,” Anderson said. “Getting a media rights deal will clear the air for figuring out some of that other stuff.
“We’ve just been forced like everyone else, unfortunately, to let this thing play out because we’re not directly in the driver’s seat. That being said, we have confidence our commissioners and our presidents and chancellors are going to get to a place where a media rights deal and a grant of rights is done. It may not be the projections originally contemplated but will be a solid enough financial situation to keep this conference together and then (we will) really work hard to move forward positively.”
As with the discussion last year of a FBS AD saying ESPN and Fox were “quietly” driving realignment by relaying schools’ valuations to conferences, there’s an argument to be made for quiet backchannel contacts in the cases of realignment. Realignment is a major decision affecting many facets of a school’s athletics department, and affecting their past and future conferencemates; it shouldn’t be made lightly. And it’s possible to imagine a much more awkward version of this where a school publicly declares interest in a conference and it’s not returned.
But the current setup does lead to potential awkwardness of its own, especially when it comes to realignment-discussion-denying comments. It’s understandable why Crow feels the need to publicly talk about continued Pac-12 involvement, especially with a media deal still pending. And if that deal comes through in impressive fashion (which it may, or may not) and all the schools stay, his comments will stand up fine. If not, though, we have some pine box potential here.
[The State Press; photo from Mark Henle/The Arizona Republic]