Judge rules for Washington State, Oregon State; departing Pac-12 schools can’t meet

Sep 12, 2023, 5:36 AM | Updated: 8:23 am

The Washington State Cougars take the field against the Oregon State Beavers at Martin Stadium on O...

The Washington State Cougars take the field against the Oregon State Beavers at Martin Stadium on Oct. 17, 2015 in Pullman, Washington. Washington State defeated Oregon State 52-31. (Photo: William Mancebo, Getty Images)

(Photo: William Mancebo, Getty Images)

A judge granted a request by Washington State University (WSU) and Oregon State University (OSU) for a temporary restraining order on Monday to prevent departing Pac-12 members from meeting until it can be determined who has the right to make up the disintegrating conference’s board of directors.

At a hearing in Whitman County Superior Court in Washington, Judge Gary Libey ruled that a meeting scheduled for later this week with conference commissioner George Kliavkoff and university leaders from 10 departing members cannot take place. Whitman County is in Eastern Washington. Pullman, where WSU is based, is the largest city in Whitman County.

WSU and OSU want full control over decision making for the conference as the only schools committed to the conference beyond the current school year. The schools filed the breach of bylaws complaint Friday.

“Those schools made their decision to leave the Pac-12 prioritizing their financial interest, and they’re not allowed to have their cake and eat it too by now controlling the fate of the Pac-12,” Eric MacMichael, a lawyer for WSU and OSU, said Monday.

MacMichael and the Pacific Northwest schools contend eight schools — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Stanford and California — forfeited their right to be on the board when they announced their intentions to join other conferences next year. USC and UCLA were stripped of voting rights by the Pac-12 in 2022 when they decided to join the Big Ten.

“We don’t want both of our arms tied behind our backs by having every decision made by 10 members, who no longer have any interest in seeing the conference survive, and instead have a strong financial interest in seeing the conference dissolve,” MacMichael said at the hearing.

The departing schools dispute what constitutes formal notification of departure from the conference.

An attorney for the Pac-12, Mark Lambert, said there is still conference business to attend to for the remainder of this season, including the retention of nearly 200 employees.

Libey did allow for the conference to continue to conduct day-to-day business as usual, and granted Lambert’s request to permit the league office to take actions that are agreed upon by unanimous vote of the 10 members that currently make up the board.

WSU President Kirk Schulz said in a statement posted on social media Monday that he was satisfied with the judge’s decision, noting that he remains “fully committed to exploring all options to protect the interests of our student-athletes, coaches and fans.”

“We are very pleased with the court’s decision today. It has always been our view that the future of the Pac-12 should be determined by the remaining members, not by those schools that are leaving the conference,” Schulz wrote. “This position is consistent with the action the Pac-12 Board of Directors took when the first two schools announced their departure from the conference more than a year ago.”

OSU President Jayathi Murthy said she was “pleased” with the decision and added the two remaining Pac-12 members “must be able to chart a path forward” for the conference.

“We are confident in the merits of our position and look forward to working in a collaborative manner with the conference and departing members on a productive path forward,” Murphy wrote in a statement on social media. “OSU and WSU, along with Pac-12 staff, have important work to do to protect the 2023-2024 seasons for all 12 schools’ student-athletes and plan for our future.”

How we got here

The Pac-12 currently has 12 members, but Southern California, UCLA, Washington (UW) and Oregon are leaving next year for the Big Ten; Stanford and Cal are going to the Atlantic Coast Conference; and Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah are leaving for the Big 12. Each school has cited the desire for more financial stability in abandoning the “Conference of Champions,” and leaving only Oregon State and Washington State.

Last month, after leaving behind more than a century as a tenant to the premier athletic conference on the West Coast, Washington’s leadership said stability was at the forefront of its decision to join the Big Ten Conference.

“It was about having a future that we could count on and build toward,” Washington President Ana Mari Cauce said at the time.

Seattle Sports morning host Brock Huard, a former UW quarterback who now is a color commentator on FOX broadcasts during the college football season, said last month the college towns where WSU and OSU reside are vital to the college football landscape.

“Those folks in Pullman and Corvallis are in markets that the rest of the country scoff at but those of us who are in broadcasting know how special they are, how important they are how the fabric of the market,” Huard said. “They are like Green Bay and Buffalo are to the NFL. You need them just as much as you need New York and (Los Angeles).”

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Officials from both schools have repeatedly said their first choice moving forward would be to preserve the Pac-12 brand and rebuild the conference. The filing said the departing members are incentivized to dissolve the conference, which would allow all the schools to split millions in remaining assets.

The filing refers to an email from earlier this month in which an unidentified representative of a departing school “threatened that the departing members of the conference were poised to take immediate action to seize control of the Pac-12.”

“It seems obvious that any 9 members can declare the fate of the conference at any time,” the representative wrote, according to the filing.

The legal action seeks to protect Oregon State and Washington State from that possibility. A hearing on their request is set for Monday. The two schools are seeking a declarative judgment from the court.

How the Mountain West Conference may factor in

OSU and WSU are likely heading for some type of partnership with schools currently in the Mountain West, but how that will work is a long way from resolved.

“This is a very complex situation as it relates to what our relationship with the Mountain West might look like. And all options are open in terms of what it could look like,” Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes told the AP.

Mountain West Commissioner Gloria Nevarez has spoken cautiously in public about the conference’s next moves.

“The Mountain West is open to exploring all options that make us stronger,” she told the AP recently.

Schools in the Mountain West football conference include Boise State, San Diego State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Colorado State and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV). Fresno State won the Mountain West conference in 2022 and defeated WSU 29-6 in the LA Bowl in Los Angeles on Dec. 17.

The importance of keeping the Pac-12 alive

Image: The field at Sun Devil Stadium bears a Pac-12 logo during a game between Arizona State and Kent State in Tempe, Arizona, on Aug. 29, 2019.

The field at Sun Devil Stadium bears a Pac-12 logo during a game between Arizona State and Kent State in Tempe, Arizona, on Aug. 29, 2019. (Photo: Ralph Freso, AP file)

Barnes said the Pac-12’s financial assets and status as one of five Autonomy Conferences is attractive to potential new conference-mates.

Autonomy status gives the conference certain voting privileges in NCAA governance and could provide two more years of large revenue shares from the College Football Playoff. It remains to be seen whether a rebuilt Pac-12 would retain A5 — or Power Five, as it is typically referred to — status.

“So our desire is to keep the Pac-12 (intellectual property) rights, keep the name, keep the assets, keep the status” he said.

According to the filing, the Pac-12 ended fiscal year 2022 with $42.7 million in total net assets. The conference is estimated to have about $70 million in payments owed to it from NCAA men’s basketball tournament units. Those get paid out over six-year periods.

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The Pac-12 Network reported revenue of $117 million and operating expenses of $77 million in 2021-22, according to the filing. The Pac-12 owes Comcast $50 million due to an overpayment to the Pac-12 Network, though the conference had already agreed to have that debt absorbed by the full membership before the eight most recently announced departures.

Barnes and Chun both said information about the Pac-12’s finances was slow in coming at first, but the process seems to be picking up now.

Securing OSU and WSU’s position as the sole decision-making members of the Pac-12 is an important step toward determining the schools’ future conference affiliation.

Barnes said he hopes a resolution could come in weeks rather than months.

“Options have been narrowed some and that brings some clarity to this,” Barnes said. “This court hearing on Monday will bring further clarity and those items help inform the final decisions we make.”

Contributing: Steve Coogan, Bill Kaczaraba; The Associated Press

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Judge rules for Washington State, Oregon State; departing Pac-12 schools can’t meet