Modern NCAA Conference Commissioner was Forged in Fiery Destruction of the Pacific Coast Conference
By Mark Schipper
George Kliavkoff, a major operator in digital-television and a sports-entertainment executive at MGM Resorts International, was hired in the late spring of 2021 to replace Larry Scott as commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference.
Kliavkoff formally took over the first day of July but had been meeting with the conference's membership for the last six weeks, attempting to build an allied strategy between schools for approaching a treacherous landscape in college athletics. That was an activity, talking to athletic administrators and seeking a smart consensus, that did not interest his predecessor and was of a piece with a long list of grievances that led to an early end to Scott's eleven-year tenure.
Everywhere Scott came up short, from the critical areas of media rights and television distribution—where the league has fallen far behind its peers in wealth and exposure—to creating a unified plan to let football lead the brand, Kliavkoff has to succeed if the league is to survive. And for the Pac-12, where there has been an obvious absence of savvy leadership, the change at the top is meant to fill the void at a revolutionary moment in the history of college sports.
Conference commissioners are expected to serve as brand ambassadors and promoters, tough representatives of their schools’ interests in the media rights and marketing spaces, and well-connected deal-makers across multiple sport-related industries. The job has grown into a vital post at the same rate college football has transformed from a hybrid academic/athletic endeavor to an almost unalloyed entertainment property worth billions of dollars to those who bankroll the sport.
But these high salaried and relatively glamorous responsibilities were not originally the purview of league commissioners, a position that has changed its essential character more than any role in college athletics over the last eighty-years, since television began broadcasting the sport beyond the stadium walls. Old-school league commissioners generally came from the academy, where they learned about the collegiate business model, or out of the NCAA bureaucracy, where they saw firsthand how the sport was governed, and even from the FBI or military, which allowed them a useful perspective on organizations, to be deputized as combination league overseers and sheriffs within their regional territories.
The original commissioners were tasked foremost with monitoring their membership for compliance with NCAA bylaws. They had responsibility for enforcing the rules while working as an internal-affairs liaison between their leagues and the NCAA. The position was meant to be an open circuit between the far-flung conferences and the NCAA's national headquarters in Chicago and, later, Kansas City.
Walter Byers, the man who engineered the modern NCAA while serving as its first full-time executive director from 1951 through 1988, watched this sea change slowly happen. He described it in his 1995 memoir, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.
“Present-day conference commissioners emphasize compliance programs and rules seminars [as opposed to monitoring and enforcing them]. They negotiate TV contracts, run conference championships, and argue for larger money grants from the NCAA. They serve as diplomats who are expected to negotiate differences with the NCAA. Promoters and diplomats have more fun than prosecutors. They leave tough enforcement matters to the NCAA.”
The fatal flaw in the old style exposed itself as television dollars poured into the sport in the second half of the twentieth century. The accumulation of wealth and the opportunity to pursue more with each new media-rights contract, paired with the new paths of glory created when the game began broadcasting coast to coast, escalated the risks serious programs would take to win the sport's biggest prizes. A monitoring situation that once seemed simple was further fouled by the fact commissioners earned their paychecks from the same institutions they'd been hired to police. It was the worst kind of conflict of interest and the tension, over time, would lead to confrontation.
The bosses—the athletic directors, presidents and chancellors who oversaw the sport at the university level—were under pressure from multiple fronts, both inside and outside the university, to facilitate football excellence at whatever cost. The capital and social returns suggested that every expenditure on football came back in multiples of the original number, and the alumni demanded a winner to associate themselves with. But winning big at major college football has always required certain compromises to the academic side of a university's mission, and frequently an allowance for extra benefits to accrue to top athletes. So if a university president and athletic director were in agreement these limits could be tested, they knew at some point they would have to encounter the man they'd had hired to police their league, and slip past him.
The hallowed tier that head coaches came to occupy in the popular culture added an extra, sooty layer of pollution to the ecosystem. By the middle twentieth century successful coaches were national figures, peace-time leaders of the social order with frenzied bases of support stretching far beyond the reach of any individual school or league. Winning football games, alongside the appearance of molding young men into something a little finer than the common lot, gave coaches a mystique that made them difficult to overrule. Behind the wealth they generated and the millions of fans supporting them, coaches applied all the leverage they had against their schools, adding to the heat administrators felt to meet the competition where it lived, and do whatever it took to match the pace of the sport's ruling outfits.
With head coaches, mass media, fans, and alumni each making separate, heavy demands on the sport, and schools fully addicted to its huge wealth-generating potential, football grew too powerful for the checks and balances meant to corral the game. As the sport blew up and took on an even greater cultural significance, it became not just unpopular, but professionally dangerous, for commissioners to expose and prosecute their bosses for transgressions they may have committed in pursuit of football excellence. Any commissioner that stepped forward to indict a college football program for bending the rules was immediately less popular than a prohibition agent kicking in the door of a brewery and seizing all the beer.
Instead of league failsafes and the embodiments of an ethical law and order, conference commissioners became potential narcs to be boxed out and run around at all costs. Heavy hitters in the country's football leadership began to see self-policing as a form of self-sabotage, and the self-reporting of violations as a kind of Horatio Alger innocence that the other, more committed leagues would exploit for their own gain. The sheriff was about to be run out of town for good.
THE PCC BURNS AND TAKES OUT THE COMMISSIONER'S JOB
While the contemporary role of a commissioner took decades to fully develop, there was a moment when the position emerged, Phoenix like, from the ashes of the Pacific Coast Conference after it burned to the ground in 1959. The PCC is the direct ancestor of the modern Pac-12, but the original model disintegrated in a firestorm of scandal and a plague of distrust shortly after its venerable commissioner, Victor O. Schmidt, was forced by the schools to resign after enforcing the league's bylaws with too much zeal.
This dissolution and reconstitution of the major West Coast league happened at the same time the sport was sloughing off most of what gave it an amateur nature. The crack up, not coincidentally, happened several years after the NCAA's Sanity Code, a set of rules meant to preserve college athletics for serious college students, had been dropped in disgrace. It occurred less than a decade after the NCAA sold the sport to broadcast television for the first time, and in the middle of a transition to the 'full-ride' athletic scholarship, the so-called “pay for play” that marked a fundamental change in collegiate philosophy.
The new scholarship rules were pushed for hardest by southern universities with no moral or ethical compunction about building powerful football teams outside the school's academic mission. Under the new scholarship rules universities were allowed to onboard athletes and pay their way purely for athletic purposes, rendering serious academic qualifications or intentions an endangered metric.
Ironically, that same collection of universities that threatened to leave the NCAA over the Sanity Code because of how it centralized authority and stripped the leagues of their right to Home Rule, begged the NCAA less than five-years later to centralize television rights and eliminate Home Rule when they realized northern universities would earn far more revenue if contracts were left to individual schools and leagues. Like most of the inflection points in collegiate athletics over the years, it is rarely about principles and almost always a case of Real Politik in play.
“The fact is, from the college beer halls where enthusiastic students gather, to the trustee level of university management, almost no one wants to change the structure or the rules of this successful entertainment enterprise,” Byers wrote in his memoir. “Today’s enlarged NCAA rule book and the beleaguered NCAA enforcement program cannot produce the changes and restore the integrity many seek.”
The Pacific Coast Conference was founded in 1915, twenty-years after the Big Ten, its closest ally, had created the modern football conference. The PCC was known from its earliest days as an ultra-strict, faculty-controlled, academically-prestigious league. The PCC was not afraid to suspend flagship schools for entire seasons, or deal out harsh punishments for mid-tier violations of its rulebook. It was the kind of league that would, for the simple joy of grabbing football by the scruff of its neck, float off-season proposals to banish spring practice, or outlaw participation in bowl games because the season, in their opinion, was long enough.
The academics running the PCC wanted law and adherence to law and they did not care how hypocritical or foolish they looked in making it happen. While the southern colleges were playing big-time football and loving it, the West Coast colleges were being ordered to play school. All that would have been fine if they'd declared themselves the West Coast's Ivy League and de-emphasized football, but they wanted it both ways—to play the big-time game without ever swimming in the same water as the rest of the sport.
The league’s first commissioner was Ed Atherton, a Georgetown University product who had been invited over from the FBI to survey the conference from a law and order perspective. After submitting a sophisticated, two-million word report on the integrity of the league's mission for the school's presidents and chancellors, Atherton was immediately hired as commissioner in 1939. Something about a two-million word report full of facts and ways to enact and enforce rules had endeared Atherton to the league's leadership.
Atherton served quietly and effectively as commissioner until 1944 when, at age forty-seven, he suddenly dropped dead. It was a stunning loss to the conference, but Atherton was replaced by the aforementioned Schmidt, who had been his assistant commissioner and protege. Schmidt inherited the post under express orders to keep the conference squeaky clean, following the manner of Atherton, and he was at work doing just that when everything went to pieces fifteen-years later.
The PCC was chartered by just four schools, California-Berkeley, Stanford, Washington, and Oregon, but had expanded over the next fifteen-years to include Oregon State, Washington State, Idaho, Montana, USC and UCLA. Within that volatile mixture of old and new universities, public and private, major population centers and small rural communities, it did not take long for serious class antagonisms and unhealthy rivalries to fester between league members.
Old-money Stanford and Cal, who felt they were the class and moral epicenter of the league, hammered on nouveau riche USC and the city of Los Angeles. The Bay schools attacked USC both for its easy academic standards and its “too-exuberant” embrace of football as a way to build its academic brand. Cal and Stanford came together for the extreme action of severing all athletic relations with USC in the middle 1920s, claiming in grandiose fashion that it was in the best interest of all intercollegiate sport. Despite implying that USC was all but beyond redemption as an institution, the Bay schools agreed to resume relations during a series of secret meetings in San Francisco after the 1925 season ended. But the older California schools never let USC forget their disdain for their university, their city, and the way they did business.
When UCLA, the nine-year-old Southern Branch of the University of California, joined the league in 1928, the two Los Angeles schools at first found rare common ground in a culture war against the Bay Area schools. Both Southern California universities took offense at the openly snobbish and superior attitudes of their northern rivals, and found motivation in striving to dominate them in athletics. While Cal and Stanford publicly looked down on the LA schools for their love of sport and competition, behind the scenes they attempted to match them.
Several decades later this bitter California Split became a California Confederation, allied with the University of Washington in Seattle, as the leagues' power centers turned on the smaller, rural universities of the north. The bigger institutions believed universities like Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, Idaho, and Montana were manipulating the conservative, academic leadership of the PCC into screwing down artificial lids onto their naturally higher ceilings. The big schools felt trapped on a small-time ticket, and they resented it.
In an era when stadium gate receipts were a critical source of funding, the big-market schools took financial hits playing games at small stadiums in Corvallis, Eugene, and Portland, Oregon, Helena, Montana, and Moscow, Idaho. Their national reputations also suffered under the impression they played weaker competition than other major programs. USC and UCLA already were floating the idea of football independence and playing national schedules to showcase their teams widely throughout the fall.
The smaller schools, for their part, suppressed their own malice and contempt for the leagues' big shots, fearing, with a good deal of justification, that if they lost their membership in the PCC their athletic departments might disappear forever from the sport’s biggest stage. Like an unhappy marriage, both sides suffered each other’s presence while dreaming of a better future. But no viable plan for separation ever came together during this period.
A line by the columnist Ed Hughes, published in The Los Angeles Times after USC beat the Oregon Agricultural College (Oregon State) in Portland in 1926, summed up the antagonisms perfectly:
“The Oregon Farmers can now attend to their milking and other chores and forget all about winning the Coast Conference championship and representing the West against the East at Pasadena on New Year’s Day,” wrote Hughes.
In the early days under commissioner Schmidt the PCC maintained its reputation for a strict adherence to rules. The Sanity Code, instituted in 1948, lasted only two years before it proved wildly unpopular with every league except the Big Ten and PCC, who loved it. In 1949, not wanting to miss an opportunity to enforce it before it died, the PCC fined multiple schools between $55,000 and $120,000 for sundry violations. Meanwhile, every other league in the country called it the Insanity Code and operated as if it didn't exist.
That move, fining schools under a set of rules that were about to be defunct forever, sparked a vicious rebuke from The Los Angeles Times. “The dear dull dillies who control the PCC proved themselves once again either so hypocritical or so stupidly ineffective that it verges on the ludicrous to place them in a position of power and authority," the piece read.
Toxic rivalries between the league’s population centers—a feeling that certain school’s athletic departments were battling their own university administrations—and an overarching sense that the conference itself wanted to punish its athletically ambitious members rather than promote them, was the state of mutual disdain and distrust as the league rolled into the 1950s. If these elements could show up on a weather radar the catastrophic storm that broke out to open the decade would not have been a surprise. A super-cell event was about to shred the league and prove once more the college-football marketplace was nearly impossible to regulate below its own preferred level.
The crisis began in 1951 at Oregon, with the Webfoot’s coach Fred Aiken admitting to commissioner Schmidt he'd provided athletes extra benefits to play for him. It was something he'd felt pressured into in order to keep pace with the powerful teams being assembled in the leagues' urban centers. Eugene, Oregon was a small town with a small stadium and a little known football team. They could not give the athlete what he would get in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle, so they did what they had to do to compete with their conference rivals. It is a tale as old as college football.
For five years after the Oregon scandal broke the PCC made a public effort to demonstrate its integrity, investing all of its powers of enforcement in the university presidents and chancellors, whose point man for the crackdown was of course commissioner Schmidt. The PCC did what it could to demonstrate its love of law-and-order remained intact. But in January of 1956, with the mess half cleaned, an even bigger explosion went off.
Players at the University of Washington, unhappy with some allegedly physical discipline meted out by Huskies’ head coach John Cherbourg, mutinied and went to the newspapers with their stories. Multiple players not only trashed the head coach but revealed the existence of a slush fund full of donor dollars hiding in plain sight, a cash account operated by an already-infamous booster known as Roscoe “Torchy” Torrance.
The slush fund had helped the Huskies recruit not only in California, but also in Chicago, where they took players out of the Big Ten’s territory at a time when that kind of national recruiting was reserved for Notre Dame and few others. Once the slush fund in Seattle had been exposed, loosening lips around the conference gave Schmidt critical insight on where to look for more. By 1957 business began to break bad quickly for a league that prided itself on law and order.
Within three months, multiple illicit slush funds were uncovered at UCLA, USC, and Cal, where ostensibly benevolent organizations like the one exposed at Washington were found operating in plain sight. Making Schmidt’s job even easier was the way in which one caught-school helped expose the next one in line.
It was the wife of a UCLA alumnus, shortly after UCLA had been exposed, who stumbled across USC’s bogus athletic fund and reported it. In turn it was USC people who pointed investigators toward booster fronts set up at Cal. What was most disturbing about the network of slush funds was that in every case administrators and coaches both knew of them and facilitated their connections to athletes. In a league with little consensus on how to participate in college athletics and a lot of infighting, it was almost touching the way its membership decided they would rather burn together than alone.
For NCAA schools this was a monstrous scandal, the black-ugly heart of everything the association was built to control and blot out. But because the sport at this time was watched over and policed locally, much of the investigation and punishment fell to the conference itself, a process the NCAA more or less certified at its annual meetings. This is where Schmidt, in zealously prosecuting his office, cost himself his job and helped bring about the dissolution of the league. It was a moment that forever changed the role of conference commissioner in college athletics.
The PCC dealt out swift and savage punishments to its biggest schools, including suspensions for Washington, Cal, USC, and UCLA, along with a three-year Rose Bowl ban for the Bruins. But the league made a serious error in appointing Orlando Hollis, the dean of Oregon’s Law School, the faculty representative in charge of the investigations and discipline. Hollis operated at the center of the group of smaller schools that openly disdained the league heavyweights. Beyond that he had a well known contempt for Los Angeles, a city he referred to as a "cesspool" while implying its universities were of a piece with the town.
When Hollis and his faculty crew, in consultation with commissioner Schmidt, announced their litany of penalties, the conference began to set fire to itself rather than live under the established order. The newspapers in Los Angeles, where the seedier realities of big-time football had become mundane, inserted themselves into the fray, lambasting what they considered the backward administration of the league. In one editorial they branded the conference chiefs: “The Floundering Fathers of the PCC."
The Los Angeles Times was vicious in its contempt for the way the conference’s faculty took over the penalty phase, describing the process as “the posturing of intellectual giants who are suddenly feeling their muscles . . . . the acts of egg heads who were frustrated, thwarted, and diabolically envious of the fame achieved by football coaches and players, since their own search for personal acclaim has proven futile.”
Hollis at Oregon was zeroed in on for direct and sustained shelling, with newspapers calling Oregon the “University of Hollis,” and Hollis himself “The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.” One editorial described the school as little more than “Orlando Hollis and his gay group of vestal virgins,” while yet another described him as an “Avenging Angel and well-known inventor of unworkable athletic codes.”
The same newspapers began advocating for UCLA and USC to leave the PCC and join their academic and athletic peers in another league; or to go independent and play an intersectional schedule against national powers. A related movement got up at the same time calling for the four California schools to break away from the PCC and form their own league to compete against the rest of the country.
The situation somehow deteriorated further when the bigger schools moved to raise the monthly stipend for scholarship athletes, which was an honest effort to make the reason for the slush funds less of a necessity. Their proposal was voted down by the small schools who felt the current amount was satisfactory, which of course it was in towns like Eugene, Corvallis, Pullman, and Moscow. How far the same dollar went in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle was of little concern to them. There were growing class antagonisms, brass tacks economic realities, and feelings of pure disdain punching holes in the fabric of the league.
With USC and UCLA freshly suspended, and major penalties debilitating both Cal and Washington, Oregon State and Oregon promptly won back to back PCC titles in 1956 and 1957, respectively. The Beavers and Webfoots played in consecutive Rose Bowls, with Oregon State clobbered by a powerful Iowa team and the Ducks clipped by Ohio State in a close battle. Those two campaigns solidified the big-school's paranoia that the league’s smaller schools would resort to hamstringing them in order to beat them, punishing them for booster practices that were common everywhere in the conference.
The Los Angeles papers called it “the tyranny of the smaller schools,” claiming they were motivated by jealousy and resentment over a level of success they knew was beyond their reach on any consistent basis. In a general way conferences stayed in confederation as had the colonies in the early United States. A collection of schools existing in varying circumstances, with different economic conditions and opportunities, had to be shown strong common cause in order to hold together. In the late 1950s the PCC lost its belief in commonality.
Throughout 1957 representatives of the PCC’s bigger schools applied pressure on commissioner Schmidt, sounding him out on his principles and beliefs. They had not formally changed their position since he was hired thirteen years earlier, but they were starting to sense their approach was obsolete for the new era taking shape. According to NCAA executive director Byers, Schmidt would be called to the floor during conference meetings and asked questions like "Jesus had been the by Pharisees.”
Someone would ask Schmidt if a coach buying a football recruit a soda during his visit was a problem. When Schmidt answered yes, by NCAA and PCC rules, that was a violation, he would be ridiculed as a fool and a simpleton. Following these meetings the football powers decided they would no longer countenance a Ned Flanders-type policing of their league. Scofflaws had become exactly that, and bigger violations were something to be talked out in private, not in faculty meetings amongst jealous academics, or on the front page of newspapers distributed across the country.
The incessant top-down pressure from the league’s heavyweights led to Schmidt’s resignation in December of 1957, six years after the scandal at Oregon had touched off the crisis, and one year after the Washington mutiny sent the rest of the dominoes cascading down the West Coast. During that time Schmidt had done nothing more than the job he was hired for, and in that pursuit simply followed extremely obvious evidence to its logical conclusion.
But powerful forces within the league had reached an epiphany: The police work of a conference commissioner ran the risk of becoming, in practice, indistinguishable from that of a professional saboteur operating from within the organization itself. Schmidt, who was brought onboard in one era and force down the plank in what was clearly another, left his post a bewildered man.
“They hired me to keep it clean,” a shellshocked Schmidt told Byers.
Byers, who had watched the disturbing drama from NCAA headquarters in Kansas City, believed Schmidt was a scapegoat for the rampant pay-offs and dirty recruiting he had helped uncover. The athletic power centers within the PCC had changed tacks right under the nose of their stodgy presidents and chancellors. The athletic side of the league had come to believe they were doing business like the other major leagues across the country and, rather than confront the problem at a national level, they decided to make an example of their local law enforcement.
Schmidt had no illusions about what was taking shape in major college football, and at a meeting of the full NCAA Council he had laid out his perspective:
“We cannot cure a disease by treating its symptoms. We legislate against recruiting while allowing the pressures from winning to go unabated. We know it takes winning material to win games. We know the fate of the coach who fails. We are the guardians of a precarious balance between institutional idealism and practical college athletics."
“Ethically and idealistically, colleges and universities cannot accept the professional. Practically and realistically, they are unwilling or unable to govern the pressures for the highly organized, competitive and winning athletics program that their public, their alumni and, perhaps in a lesser degree, their students demand.”
Later, after he had resigned, Schmidt penned a public letter describing the trouble the next league commissioner, and every commissioner after that, was going to find.
“Under the code, he the commissioner will have the rather unenviable position of sitting as judge of those who employ him. He must preserve a judicial demeanor and temperament while those seeking his rulings, no matter how sincere they might be, are blinded by their own interests. His ruling in many cases disappoints the institution requesting his opinions.
“His decisions will prove too literal, too narrow, too technical, too liberal, or too broad. He will, moreover, require an objectivity and perspective which he cannot expect from those against whom he may rule. There is nothing abnormal or uncommon in this result; it is the thinking of all mankind. It is motivated by self-interest.”
The major players in the PCC, as it turned out, agreed with Schmidt about the problems with a conference commissioner, and they weren’t going to risk another one of his ilk. Over the course of a turbulent decade the PCC had changed its spots. A league that once had been a stalwart in stepping up to shackle the growing beast of football began showing signs that the restraints were about to snap.
In 1959, with the big schools deciding their differences with the smaller ones were irreconcilable, the membership agreed to dissolve the conference. Immediately UCLA, USC, Cal, and Washington announced a new affiliation, which they called the Athletic Association of Western Universities (AAWU). Stanford would join them within a month. The universities made a point not to identify themselves as a conference. They also decided against a strong central authority and the post of conference commissioner, opting instead for a kind of ambassador they called the "Association Executive."
The man they hired as their operative was Tom J. Hamilton, a star halfback on the Naval Academy's 1926 national championship team, and a World War II veteran who had served as the executive officer on the legendary USS Enterprise aircraft carrier. Hamilton had been a head-football coach at Navy and the University of Pittsburgh, but most importantly he was well liked and his integrity was beyond doubt.
Upon taking the job Hamilton was told there would be no enforcement role in his new position. He would serve instead as an ambassador and salesman for the new association, promoting its interests around the country, helping schedule big intersectional games, and growing its prestige wherever possible. Overnight the West Coast schools had built the prototype for the modern league commissioner, no matter what title they bolted onto him.
Rather than a strict conference charter with explicit rules, like the PCC had prided itself on, the new association reverted to a much older model, allowing for an “institutional application of rules” to determine how athletes would be handled. In the most revealing stricture of the new order, all of the member schools were expected to adhere to a personal honor system when it came to violations of the NCAA code. It was a radical experiment in trust from the remnants of a league freshly traumatized by multiple major slush fund scandals across its top programs. They were determined not to repeat history—not by reforming themselves—but by choosing to stop looking for trouble.
The AAWU flexed its power immediately, making an aggressive statement about its new thing when it explicitly blocked Oregon, Oregon State, and Washington State from joining the original five. The move made it clear their participation was not necessary for success and that their France-punishing-Germany after World War I-act during the last round of scandals had been the end of the line. It was disdain and distrust going down to the bone.
Idaho, a school barely hanging on as a member for decades, took the opportunity to go independent for several years. Later, the Vandals became a charter member of the Big Sky Conference alongside the University of Montana. The Grizzlies had left the PCC of their own accord in 1950 just before the institutional problems went public.
While the AAWU did not have a contract with the Rose Bowl, the committee in Pasadena demonstrated their loyalty when they invited Washington, the association’s first champion, to represent the West following that inaugural season in 1959. The AAWU would blackball all of its old PCC antagonists in the north until 1962, when Washington State was allowed to join the club.
After letting the Oregon schools plead their case for another two years, making it five in total, the association relented in 1964, permitting both institutions to rejoin the old cohort. At that point they became a proper league once more, calling themselves the Pacific Athletic Conference. Four years later, in 1968, they reconstituted as the Pac-8, but the philosophical principles of the AAWU remained operative.
Hamilton would serve as league executive until 1971 when he was replaced by Wiles Hallock, who once again took the title of commissioner. Hallock later told Byers that during the transition Hamilton had confessed to a difficult moral ambivalence over his role as AAWU executive. Hamilton was aware of multiple NCAA violations within the Association, but because it had been made explicitly not his job to police the league, he could only meet with schools behind the scenes and attempt to mediate a solution. Unlike his predecessor, Schmidt, Hamilton never took anything public and the league maintained its high prestige during his tenure.
THE NEW WORLD
The implosion of the PCC was an extreme example of the drift occurring in major college football, but they were far from alone. In the late 1950s in the Southwest Conference, at the same time the PCC was falling apart, league commissioner Howard Grubb reported to the NCAA that Paul “Bear” Bryant, who had been caught illegally recruiting and subsidizing players at Texas A&M. Once caught, Bryant began stirring up fans and schools within the league against its commissioner for enforcing their own rules.
“It’s getting pretty rough down here. You can’t believe what the Texas A&M people are trying to do. Bryant has them charged up,” Grubb told Byers.
Grubb took so much personal heat that he began hiring private investigators to conduct interviews and gather evidence on behalf of the conference. He wanted his name out of the newspapers and out of the crosshairs of a rabid and potentially psychotic fan base. Grubb would retire from the SWC in 1971 just before the volcano erupted.
Within a decade the conference was caught up in several of the biggest football scandals in the history of the NCAA, including the first and only instance of the so-called Death Penalty, administered to SMU after the 1986 season. At its craziest, every school in the league would be hit with some manner of NCAA penalty inside of a ten-year window.
The NCAA over the years has become one of the most reviled organizations in American sports, disdained for its obsolete conception of amateurism, its big-money exploitation of athletes, and its wildly fluctuating standards for rules enforcement that have proven so haphazard that even the most veteran reporter will refuse to predict what might happen in any given case. But while the NCAA has brought much of the enmity on itself, it is important to remember the large share of blame owed to the presidents and chancellors, the faculty representatives to the NCAA, and the conferences themselves.
As the rewards and glory for winning grew, the spine for calling out cheating and bringing down the hammer of enforcement shrunk. In slowly retreating from the difficult work of keeping their sports clean, the schools and leagues put the NCAA enforcement division in an untenable situation. The association does not have the manpower or legal authority to investigate these athletic departments and must rely on self-reported violations and evidence freely turned over in making its rulings. The abdication of responsibility by the leagues for their own compliance has made a farce of the process.
All of this ethical turmoil can be seen clearly in the scandals that erupted on the West Coast from 1951 through 1959, culminating in the forced resignation of an honest league commissioner, and the incredible dissolution of a forty-four-year-old prestige league in the PCC. The new style of conference commissioner, the businessman with a shark-tooth smile on his face, emerged from that wreckage.
The consequences of those decisions are visible in the clearing out of Pac-12 commissioner Scott and the hiring of Kliavkoff to heal the league’s wounded reputation. While Schmidt was bullied out of office for strictly enforcing a rulebook he had been handed by his bosses, Scott, sixty-years later, was pressured out for failing to sell and promote the league as a highly competitive entertainment package. The man he’s been replaced with will be expected to shore up what Scott allowed to fall down.
The role of the conference commissioner has followed the arc of college football, for good or ill, designed to be one thing but slowly transforming into another. A critical turning point in that evolution happened out west at the end of the 1950s, when a major conference decided it did not need to pay a policeman to keep its nose clean.