• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Connor Stalions, George Kliavkoff lurk in shadows of championship game


Jan 8, 2024 #Sports


HOUSTON — On Friday evening, the de facto start of the 2024 College Football Playoff championship weekend, the technicians in the Houston media hotel were struggling with a bank of TV monitors. The screens were supposed to be showing various sports channels and fancy digital CFP logos, but instead, as the ballroom engineers were testing the monitors, they plugged in to the in-house cable. What popped up on the video wall was a Star Wars movie, “The Phantom Menace.”

What was shown were dueling Jedi and Sith lords. What could just as easily have been featured, requiring no title change at all, were the headshots of two college football pariahs, shadowy figures who have been spotted in public sparsely over the last two months, but even in those fleeting moments managed to cast some form of clouds over the accomplishments of the teams they were there to support.

“You can’t go into a football game like this one, the biggest of your life, and be looking over your shoulder,” said Washington Huskies head coach Kalen DeBoer. “The first reason for that is if your head isn’t where your feet are, then you aren’t in a state of preparation for what’s coming or in an appreciation for what you are experiencing.”

The 49-year-old, in only his second season as UW head coach, laughed before he continued, adding, “And the second reason is that you might not want to see who is standing back there over your shoulder!”

The first of our CFP Houston haunters is Connor Stalions, the former Michigan staffer who left midseason after evidence showed he had headed an elaborate sign-stealing scheme to aid the Wolverines. He became infamous in mid-October when the story broke that the military man-turned-UM football analyst had allegedly constructed a network of Michigan minions to attend the games of future and potential future opponents to decipher and deliver those teams’ playcall signals to Ann Arbor.

Stalions resigned in early November and vanished into the late-season ether as his former boss Jim Harbaugh was suspended for three games; Michigan nonetheless won all three to earn a spot in the Big Ten title game. Then, like a Go Blue whack-a-mole, Stalions was spotted in Indianapolis, sitting in the stands not far from the Wolverines bench, even drawing the attention of a handful of players, who smiled and waved. That appearance went largely unnoticed (but was verified via photos obtained by ESPN). However, when Stalions was spotted at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, the college football social media world was set afire. A photo posted by former Michigan linebacker Chase Winovich showed Stalions in a Michigan hoodie with roses around his neck.

No hat. No sunglasses. No folded arms and stoic face. It was quite a contrast to the image of Stalions that most people know, when he was caught on the Central Michigan sideline in Chippewas gear Sept. 1 scouting Michigan State.

The smirk on his face, standing two rows behind the Michigan bench in Pasadena, seemed a contrast to his statement to Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic one day later that “I do not want to be a distraction.”

Just two days before the national semifinal against Alabama, at Rose Bowl media day in Pasadena, it was hard to categorize the continuing specter of Stalions as anything but a distraction. Every Michigan player and coach who was given a stint at a podium faced at least one question about the scandal. One week later, they were peppered with the same queries, only this time they were framed with, “Well, he was at the Rose Bowl, so do you expect him to be behind the bench in Houston, too?”

From the Pasadena parking lot tents to the downtown Houston convention center, the response from every person dressed in maize and blue, whether they were a reserve, an All-American or a millionaire coach surrounded by cameras and microphones, was essentially the same: a polite deflection with a tinge of continuing irritation.

Running backs coach Mike Hart: “We had so many supporters in Pasadena, from all over the nation. It was great. Thank you.”

Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore: “Whatever was said, whatever was talked about, we are the best team in college football, and that’s what we want to prove to everybody.”

A group of reserves headed back to the bus after an hour of being asked no questions: “The only guy I saw in the stands last week was my dad. So, that was cool.”

The second CFP Phantom Menace is George Kliavkoff, the soon-to-be-former Pac-12 commissioner who has spent his fall riding out the implosion of his conference. He arrived in Houston on Saturday afternoon, girding his loins for what could be an awkward grand finale, standing onstage with Washington. The Huskies would be celebrating the league’s first CFP championship and first non-vacated natty of any kind since 2003, all while they already have two paws out the door for the Big Ten. A departure spurred by Kliavkoff’s perceived failure to deliver a rich-enough media rights deal.

Since his ill-received presentation to the Pac-12 membership in August and the defection of most of that membership over the following days, Kliavkoff has been seen in public only twice over the span of nearly six months. Both of those drop-ins took place on a stage, to help hand Washington its trophies for winning the conference championship game and last week’s CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl. In New Orleans, he was swarmed by the media members he had managed to dodge all autumn.

“It’s surreal,” he confessed. “It’s upsetting that some of our schools weren’t more patient because if they saw what we were building, it would have paid off. … Happy for the kids [at Washington]. They don’t deserve all the nonsense going on around them. We were focused on rebuilding football. Took 2½ years. I wish it would have happened quicker.”

Depending on whom you ask, Kliavkoff will either be at the helm of whatever is left to manage in the “2Pac” conference of Washington State and Oregon State through the end of the academic calendar, or he will be out of a job before the January calendar hits double-digit days.

But again, like Stalions, his presence … or lack of it … or sort of lack of it … or whatever … hangs over this weekend’s festivities as an uncomfortable reminder of the constant machinations and uncertainty of this new age in collegiate athletics. And again, the mention of He Who Shall Not Be Named led to some polite “Come on, we still talking about this?” exchanges at CFP media day.

DeBoer: “There’s the stuff we can control and the stuff we can’t. You just trust your leadership to do what’s best for your university and your team.”

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr.: “I don’t really care who is handing us those trophies, as long as it means there is someone handing us those trophies.”

Another group of reserves, this time in purple and white, also headed to the bus following no Q&As: “Who? Did you say George Costanza?”

Once the big game kicks off Monday night (7:30 ET, ESPN), the focus will be on the two teams on the field fighting for a title, as it should be. But TV cameras and smartphones will no doubt be scanning the seats of NRG Stadium, searching for Connor Stalions. A pack of NCAA investigators — reminder, the case is still ongoing — might even go looking for him. And if Washington wins, George Kliavkoff will once again materialize for an uneasy handshake with Washington administrators. If the Huskies lose, he will slide out the backdoor back to the Bay Area, for likely a limited time only.

No matter what happens, they won’t be the biggest story of the night. They shouldn’t be. But they will be a story. They should be. No matter how irritating that truth — and their presence — might be.


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