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 into 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 competition beyond the stadium walls and out across the nation.
Old-school league commissioners came from the academy, where they'd learned about the collegiate model, or out of the NCAA bureaucracy, where they'd experienced firsthand the operation of the enterprise. Others still were recruited from the military or FBI, which provided a useful education on the top-down bureaucratic process. No matter where they started from, as commissioners they were deputized as a combination overseer, detective, and law-enforcement official within their regional territory.
The original commissioners were tasked with monitoring their membership for strict compliance with conference rules and NCAA bylaws. They had responsibility for enforcing the rulebook at home while working as a top-level liaison between their league and the NCAA's national office. The position was meant to be an open line between the far-flung conferences and the NCAA's headquarters in Chicago and, later, Kansas City, Missouri.
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 of oversight and enforcement exposed itself when television dollars began pouring into the sport in the second half of the twentieth century. The fast accumulation of wealth and prestige, and the opportunity to pursue more with each new media-rights contract, escalated the risks cutthroat programs were willing to run in pursuit of the sport's most-lucrative prizes.
A rules-monitoring program that relied on strict honesty and collegiality was fouled by the corrupted relationship between commissioners and their leagues, which paid the salaries of the same men tasked with holding them to the law. It was a tricky conflict of interest when the money and spoils were modest, generated almost exclusively through ticket sales and concession proceeds at the home ballpark, but with the arrival of the gold bars that television delivered on time and by a very precise calendar, there came along with it the build up of tremendous tension between the universities that needed the lucre and the oversight officers tethering them to a book of increasingly reviled rules.
Further complicating the sport's moral order was the hallowed cultural tier the top coaches began to occupy. Successful program chiefs, particularly after they began appearing on television—stoically pacing the sideline, deadly-serious in command of a well-drilled squad of armored warriors—were national figures, peace-time leaders with bases of support dug in beyond the reach of any individual school or league. The cultural prominence of college football gave them both a rare mystique and an air of authority that guaranteed their special interests would be prioritized.
The big bosses—the presidents, chancellors, and athletic directors who oversaw the sport at the university level—were under pressure across 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, while important trustees, alumni, and boosters demanded a winning program to consecrate their donor dollars. For many universities it appeared the only thing to do was attempt to match the pace of the sport's finest outfits, and do whatever it took to stay there.
But winning big at major college football always has necessitated compromises to the academic side of a university's mission, and a certain tolerance for extra benefits and privileges to accrue to the school's top athletes. So if a university president and athletic director were in agreement with their head coach that the rules could be pushed for the greater good of the institution, they knew also at some point they would have to encounter the man they'd had hired to police their league, and slip around him.
With all of the demands being made of the football program, and the schools fully committed to its huge wealth-generating potential, the sport grew too powerful for the simple checks and balances meant to restrain it. As the sport blew up on television, taking an even larger role in the national culture, it became not just unpopular, but professionally dangerous, for conference commissioners to expose programs for transgressions they may have committed in pursuit of football excellence. A commissioner who stepped forward to indict a successful program for breaking rules that only a select few respected would be greeted like a prohibition agent kicking in the door during a New Year's Eve party to seize all the booze. Almost no one would stand up to watch his back, and fewer still could comprehend his position on the matter.
Instead of standing sentinel as league failsafes, backed by their schools' (frequently out-of-touch) faculty and administrators, conference commissioners became potential narcs to be boxed-out and run-around as a matter of policy. The game's heavy hitters began to talk about self-policing as a form of self-sabotage, and the self-reporting of violations a kind of Horatio Alger innocence that the other, more committed schools would eagerly exploit for their own gain.
The sheriff they'd brought on board—prior to discovering the cave of treasures television could open for them—was about to be run out of town.
THE PCC COMES OF AGE, AND TURNS ON ITSELF
While the modern role of a commissioner took decades to develop, there was a moment when the position emerged, Phoenix like, from the ashes of the Pacific Coast Conference after it had burned to the ground in 1959. The PCC is the direct ancestor of the current Pac-12, but the original structure had disintegrated in a firestorm of scandal and a plague of mutual distrust shortly after its venerable commissioner, Victor O. Schmidt, was forced to resign for the crime of enforcing its bylaws with a little too much zeal.
This dissolution and reconstitution of the major West Coast league happened at the same time the sport was sloughing off the rest of what gave it a reasonably-amateur nature. The crack up, not coincidentally, happened several years after the NCAA's Sanity Code—a nationalized set of rules meant to preserve college athletics for serious college students—had been abandoned in disgrace. It occurred also less than a decade after the NCAA sold the sport to broadcast television for the first time; and in the middle of the transition to the Full Ride athletic scholarship—the so-called “pay for play”—that marked a fundamental change in collegiate-athletic philosophy.
“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.”
This collapse of that ruling structure was precipitated by what happened out West, where the Pacific Coast Conference had been in business since 1915. The PCC was known from the first as an ultra-strict, faculty-controlled, academically-prestigious league. It was the kind of place where, in the words of Robert Sproul, president at the University of California, "We wanted students playing at athletics, and not athletes playing as students."
The conference was not afraid to suspend its flagship football schools for violating its charter, or mete out harsh punishments for middling violations of its stifling rulebook. The PCC was the kind of league that would, for the simple pleasure of grabbing football by the scruff of the neck, float off-season proposals to banish spring practice or outlaw participation in bowl games because the season, in the learned opinion of the faculty, was long enough.
Up until 1975 the conference, right alongside the Big Ten, by far its closest philosophical ally, would send only its league champion to the Rose Bowl. Everyone else, no matter how worthy their team, was forced to stay home while the rest of the country's top teams paraded through the hugely popular bowl season, playing in marquee games and cashing appealingly large checks. The conference not only turned its back on millions of dollars in revenue over the years, but an unfathomable amount of national publicity for their universities, in order to make a dubious point about their commitment to a questionable form of amateurism.
The academics running the PCC demanded law and adherence to law, and they did not care how hypocritical or foolish they looked making sure they got it. While the Southern colleges were playing big-time football and loving it, dealing out full-ride athletic scholarships since the 1930s, the West Coast colleges were being ordered to play school by a collection of academics who didn't fully understand what they were involved in. All of that bravado and sanctimony would have been fine, in the end, if they'd declared themselves the West Coast's Ivy League and de-emphasized the sport—but they wanted it both ways—to play the big-time game without ever swimming in the same water with schools they considered beneath them. In trying to pull off this impossible trick, they made themselves ridiculous.
The league’s first commissioner had been Ed Atherton, a Georgetown University product who was invited over from the FBI to survey the conference from a law and order perspective. At the time a number of reports of flagrant dishonesty within the ranks had begun to circulate up and down the coast. After submitting a sophisticated, two-million word report on the integrity of the league's mission, or lack of it, for the presidents and chancellors, Atherton was brought on board as commissioner in 1939. Something about that two-million word report, chock full of anecdotes on rule skirting, and novel methods for capturing and punishing malefactors, had endeared Atherton to the league's leadership, both faculty and the presidents.
Atherton served quietly and effectively as a commissioner invested with tremendous power until 1944 when, at age forty-seven, he suddenly dropped dead. It was a stunning loss to the conference, which approved of how active Atherton was in tracking down perfidy, and he was quickly replaced by the aforementioned Schmidt, who had been his assistant commissioner and protege. Schmidt, who did not have the same ruthless detachment in pursuit of his quarry as Atherton, inherited the post under orders to keep the conference clean, and he was at work doing just that when everything went to pieces a decade later.
It is important to understand the unusual way in which the PCC had made itself whole. The conference was chartered by just four schools, California-Berkeley, Washington, Oregon, and Oregon State University, but had expanded over the next fifteen-years to include Stanford, Washington State, Idaho, Montana, USC and UCLA. When that strange, volatile mixture of old and new universities, public and private institutions, major population centers and small rural communities, it did not take long before class antagonisms, ideological differences, and resentments over disparities in value festered into unhealthy rivalries between league members.
Old-money Stanford and Cal, the best of frenemies from time immemorial who believed they were both the league's crown jewels and its moral epicenter, hammered on nouveau riche USC and the city of Los Angeles. The Bay Area schools attacked USC for its low academic standards and its “too-exuberant” embrace of football as a cheap way to build up the wealth and fame of its university. They believed also that USC was playing with ineligible athletes and bankrolling others to compete under their banner. Cal and Stanford joined forces in the middle of the 1924 football season to severe all future athletic relations with USC, making the move just two years after the Trojans had been admitted to the conference. The Golden Bears and Indians claimed, in comically sanctimonious fashion, that it was in the best interest of not just the PCC, but all of intercollegiate sport, that USC be sent away from the warmth of the big fire.
Despite implying heavily in newspaper and periodical pieces that ran across the country that USC was all but beyond redemption as an academic-athletic institution, the Bay schools almost immediately agreed to resume relations following a series of secret meetings held in San Francisco after the 1925 season had ended. But the older California schools never let USC forget their shared disdain for its university, its city, and the way they did business. This shared contempt, and USC's justifiable desire to punch back, would bubble to the surface multiple times in the ensuing decades.
When UCLA, the nine-year-old Southern Branch of the University of California, joined the league in 1928, the two Los Angeles schools found common ground in a culture war against the Bay Area aristocracy. Both Southern California schools took offense at the openly snobbish and superior attitudes of their northern rivals—with UCLA indignant that its sister school treated it like some kind of mutant outgrowth—and found motivation in striving to dominate them in athletics. While Cal and Stanford publicly chastised the Los Angeles schools for their plebeian love of athletics and competition, behind the scenes the old patricians were doing everything they could to keep up, including breaking the rules.
But several decades later this bitter California Split became an unforeseen California Confederation, allied with the University of Washington in Seattle, as the leagues' power centers turned a hostile glare toward the smaller, rural universities of the north. The bigger institutions believed that universities like Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, Idaho, and Montana were manipulating the conservative, academically-obsessed leadership of the PCC into screwing down artificial lids onto their naturally higher athletic ceilings. The big-time schools felt trapped on a small-time ticket, and they resented the schools who'd got them under contract.
In an era before television contracts paid out millions, when stadium gate receipts were a critical source of funding, the big-market schools took severe financial hits playing games at small stadiums in Corvallis, Eugene, and Portland, Oregon; Helena, Montana, and Moscow, Idaho. The gate and concession revenue from one game in Los Angeles or Seattle, for example, could generate more cash for both teams than three seasons worth of return trips to the smaller ballparks in the north. Exacerbating the tension was the fact the smaller schools left the big city with half the profits, but could not offer anything remotely comparable in return.
In addition to the cash, which was critically important in its own right, the national reputations of the big schools suffered under the widespread belief they played weaker competition than the other major programs around the country. As a consequence of this USC and UCLA had begun floating the idea of football independence, and playing national schedules to showcase their programs widely throughout the fall.
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, encapsulated 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.
The smaller schools, for their part, suppressed their disdain for the leagues' big shots, fearing, with a great deal of justification, that if they lost membership in the PCC their athletic departments might disappear from the sport’s biggest stage, forever. They absorbed the condescension and abuse of the league's aristocracy and stored it for a later date. Like an unhappy marriage, both sides suffered each other while dreaming at nigh of a better future.
In the early days under commissioner Schmidt the PCC maintained its reputation for a strict adherence to rules. The Sanity Code, adopted NCAA-wide in 1948, lasted only two years before it proved spectacularly unpopular with every league except the Big Ten and PCC, who loved it. In 1949, fearful of missing an opportunity to batter its own schools with The Code before it vanished, the PCC fined multiple universities between $55,000 and $120,000 for sundry violations of its provisions. Looking over the morning papers while filling out penalty checks to the league office, athletic directors could read about this thing called the Insanity Code and watch as the rest of the intercollegiate sporting enterprise operated as if it didn't exist.
That particular action—fining their own schools under a set of rules that were about to go extinct—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.
The Carnegie Report of 1929, a document generated by the famed institution for the advancement of teaching after three years of research into the state of college athletics, described the schism that had formed in the PCC:
No matter how much administrative machinery is provided, nor how many teeth placed in the regulations, the fundamental problem concerns not the enforcement of rules by conference administrators, but conscientious adherence to them and their honorable observance on the part of all whom they affect—alumni, graduate managers, coaches, faculty members, college presidents, and undergraduates. It has been proved again and again that no rule, however well intended, can be made as binding without the consent and the active cooperation of those to whom it applies.
The athletic players in the PCC had stopped believing in the rules, and their conscientious adherence to them had deteriorated apace.
Toxic rivalries between various population centers—a feeling that certain school’s athletic departments were battling their own university administrations to field teams—and an overarching sense that the conference 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 be shown on a weather radar, the catastrophic storm that broke out to open the decade would not have surprised a soul. The equivalent of a super-cell event was about to level the league and prove once more the college-football marketplace was nearly impossible to regulate below its own preferred level.
The Storm Comes
The crisis began quietly enough in 1951 at Oregon, with the Webfoot’s coach Fred Aiken admitting to commissioner Schmidt he'd provided athletes extra benefits, mainly cash, to play for him. It was a desperate act, but he'd felt extreme pressure to keep pace with the powerful teams coming out of Seattle, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles, he said.
Eugene, Oregon was a small town with a small stadium and a little known football team. There were very few high-level players in the state to recruit from, and Oregon could not give the athlete what he would get in the big city—so they did what they had to do to compete with their conference rivals. It is a tale as old as college football.
"If you have to choose between breaking the rules and losing games, wouldn't it be better to break the rules?" said Aiken. "If you lose your games, you're certain to be fired. If you break the rules, you have to be caught before you're fired."
Aiken had been busted, but coaches around the league felt he'd been made an example of in a bogus show of force against a problem that had not been cut down to size. In fact, the pressure to do what Aiken had done was only increasing as the NCAA's early television contracts went into effect.
For five years after that scandal broke the PCC made a public effort to demonstrate its integrity, adding the authority of its university presidents and chancellors to the powers already vested in the faculty reps that ran the league. Their point man for the enforcement crackdown was of course commissioner Schmidt. The PCC did what it could to demonstrate that its love of law-and-order, the old amateur ways, remained intact. But in January of 1956, with the mess half cleaned up, an even bigger explosion suddenly went off to the north.
Players at the University of Washington, unhappy with some allegedly physical discipline meted out by Huskies’ head coach John Cherberg, mutinied behind an ambitious, and possibly treacherous, assistant coach. Cherberg, in a kind of kamikaze move, went to the newspapers himself. Just a day after being fired Cherberg told the world that the university had a well organized alumni network that paid players cash and provided expansive extra benefits to those who wanted them in exchange for competing for the Huskies. He said the university was well aware of this arrangement and allowed it to go on.
Multiple players, following their own plan, not only trashed the head coach and his program—claiming he had stomped on a player's foot before a game to make him angry enough to play, and slapped a player in the face during a loss to UCLA—they confirmed 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 the happy hunting grounds of of California, but also in Chicago, where they took players out of Big Ten territory at a time when that kind of national recruiting was reserved for Notre Dame and just a few others.
The big joke, which should have touched off a much earlier investigation, had landed during the 1937 Rose Bowl, where Washington was playing the University of Pittsburgh—another school that had no problem paying its athletes to compete. After the public-address man had read off Washington's starting lineup, giving Chicago as the hometown of seven Husky starters, a writer in the press box had looked around in amazement: "Who's coaching the team—Capone?"
Once the slush fund in Seattle had been exposed, lips loosened around the conference, giving commissioner Schmidt, who was out investigating on his own, critical insight on where to look for more. Within three months of the fiasco at Washington, multiple illicit slush funds were uncovered at UCLA, USC, and Cal, where ostensibly benevolent organizations like the one exposed in Seattle were found operating in plain sight.
Making Schmidt’s job even easier was astonishing way in which one caught-school helped expose the next in line. It was the wife of a UCLA alumnus, for example—shortly after UCLA had been busted for connecting athletes directly to local donor clubs—who'd stumbled across USC’s bogus academic fund and turned them in. Afterward, it was USC's people who'd pointed investigators toward multiple booster fronts set up at Cal, including one operating long-distance in Los Angeles, attempting to draw athletes away from both the Southern Branch of the University of California, and USC, to the nobler university in the north.
What was most disturbing to the PCC's leadership about the network of slush funds was that in every case athletic administrators and coaches both knew of their existence and facilitated their connection to athletes. These were not rogue boosters operating outside the school's reach, these were organizations working in concert with their athletic departments. And, clearly, players were being encouraged or coached to lie to league investigators when questioned about extra benefits. In a league with a fast-fading consensus on how to participate in college athletics, and a lot of toxic infighting, it was almost touching the way the membership decided they would all rather burn together than to go it alone.
For the NCAA 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 by its commissioners, 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, both 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 multiple-season suspensions for Washington, Cal, USC, and UCLA, including full classes of would-be seniors being declared ineligible for competition. It also tacked on a three-year Rose Bowl ban for the Bruins, one more than anyone else got, at a time when UCLA was dominating the conference, having won three league titles in a five year stretch, including a national championship in 1954.
Asked about his prospects for the coming season, UCLA head coach Red Sanders said: "How do we look? Just like the situation at Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Iowa or any other top university if you took away all their seniors."
But commissioner Schmidt made a serious error in appointing Orlando Hollis, the dean at Oregon’s Law School, as the faculty representative in charge of the investigations and discipline. Hollis operated at the center of a group of smaller schools that openly disdained the league heavyweights. Beyond that well-known and serious conflict of interest, Hollis had an open contempt for the city of Los Angeles, which 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 commonplace, 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 best from 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 malice 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 at faculty meetings for booster practices that were common everywhere in the conference. Remember, the slush-fund scandals first became public at Hollis's University of Oregon, a football program the big-city schools were stuck watching in the Rose Bowl as they sat home in the stockades.
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 a consistent basis.
In a general way, athletic conferences stayed in confederation as the colonies had in the early years of the United States. A collection of schools existing in varying economic, social, and geographic circumstances, had to be shown strong common cause in order to stay glued together. In the late 1950s the PCC lost its belief in commonality and broke into pieces.
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 the NCAA and PCC's rules, that was a violation, he would be ridiculed as a fool and a simpleton. Following these series of meetings the football powers decided they would no longer countenance a Ned Flanders-esque policing of their league. Scofflaws were no longer worthy of citation 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 first shock wave had been sent down the West Coast. During that time he'd had done nothing more than the job he was hired for, and in that pursuit simply followed extremely obvious evidence to its logical conclusions.
But powerful forces within the league had reached their epiphany: The police work of a conference commissioner had become, in practice, indistinguishable from that of a professional saboteur. Schmidt, who was brought onboard in one era and forced 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 weird 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 power centers within the PCC had changed tacks right under the nose of their stodgy presidents, chancellors, and faculty. The athletic side of the league had come to believe they were doing business exactly like the other major leagues across the country and, rather than confront that problem at a national level, they decided to make an example of their local law enforcement and carry on.
Schmidt had no illusions about what was taking shape in major college football, and at a meeting of the full NCAA Council he 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 hiring another one. A league that once had been a stalwart, standing up to shackle the growing beast of football before it grew out of control, allowed their aging restraints 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, a school that had used its own booster system to buy athletes, but had escaped the pillory this time around, would join them within a month.
The universities made a point not to identify themselves as a conference. They decided also against a strong central authority and the post of conference commissioner, opting instead for a kind of ambassador, which 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.
Hamilton had been attempting to build the sport's first national association, a league dubbed the Airplane Conference, before the Pentagon ordered Army, Navy, and Air Force out, causing the plan to collapse in its final stages. Each of the five West Coast powers had planned to join up before it broke down. Hamilton, looking for a new opportunity, went west.
Upon arrival 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, 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 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 traumatized by treachery within its ranks. 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 blocked Oregon, Oregon State, and Washington State from joining them. The move made it clear their participation was not necessary for financial success, and that their France-punishing-Germany after World War I-act during the last round of scandals had been the end of their friendship. It was derision and scorn going down to the bone.
The University of 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 beg for another two years, making it five in total, the association relented in 1964, permitting both institutions to rejoin the old cohort. At that moment it became a proper league once more, calling itself the Pacific Athletic Conference. Four years later, in 1968, the schools reconstituted as the Pac-8, retaining all the old records from the PCC years, 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 would later tell 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 the league was far from alone. In the late 1950s in the Southwest Conference, league commissioner Howard Grubb reported that Paul “Bear” Bryant—who had been caught paying players at Texas A&M—was stirring up fans and schools within the league against him for enforcing its 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 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 any rabid and potentially psychotic fan bases. Grubb would retire from the SWC in 1971 on the eve of a volcanic eruption.
Within a decade the conference was caught in several of the biggest football scandals in the history of the NCAA, including the first and only use of the so-called Death Penalty, a nuclear option administered to SMU after the 1986 season. At its craziest, every school in the league would be hit with some manner of NCAA sanction 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 a wildly fluctuating standard of enforcement that has proven so haphazard that even the most veteran reporter in the field will refuse to predict what might happen in a given case. But while the NCAA has brought much of that enmity on itself, it is important to remember the massive share of blame that belongs to the presidents and chancellors, the faculty representatives to the NCAA, and the conferences themselves for offloading the entire responsibility for keeping it clean onto a beleaguered central office.
As the glory and gold that came as a consequence of winning grew, the stomach for calling out cheating and bringing down the hammer of enforcement collapsed. In slowly retreating from the difficult, hated work of keeping their games clean, or being willing to reform the rules to better match reality, the schools and leagues put the NCAA enforcement division in an untenable situation.
The association does not have the manpower or legal authority to professionally investigate their membership, forcing them to rely for their rulings on self-reported violations and evidence freely turned over to their investigators. 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 connected deal maker with a toothy smile and a ready wink, climbed from the wreckage into a remade world.
The long-term consequences of that cultural shift are obvious 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'd been handed by his bosses—Scott—sixty-years later, was pressured out for failing to sell and promote the league as a lucrative entertainment package. The man he’s been replaced with will be expected to build up what Scott allowed to crash down.
The role of the conference commissioner has followed the arc of college football, for good and ill. Both were designed to be one thing as they slowly transformed into something else. A critical turning point in that evolution happened out west at the end of the 1950s, when a major conference decided it no longer needed to pay a security guard to keep its nose clean.