Talking the business of sports
John Calipari had the ball — and perhaps Brett Yormark’s career — in his hands.
It was the mid-1990s, and the New Jersey Nets’ executive needed help from the team’s coach. Yormark, the Big 12’s incoming commissioner, was in sponsorships back then trying to close a deal with Pathmark CEO Jim Donald.
“He was a young guy. We were both pretty young,” Calipari told CBS Sports of Yormark. “He used me to help him sell [a] sponsorship. I thought, ‘You know what? If he has enough balls to walk in here and say, ‘I need you to help you sell this sponsor,’ I’m going to do it.”
It wasn’t exactly that easy. Calipari didn’t play the patsy, beating Donald 10-1 in one-on-one.
“I had to give him one, or we were going to lose the account,” said Calipari, now a hall-of-fame coach at Kentucky. “It ended up being our biggest account.”
A bond was formed. Yormark and Calipari remain the closest of friends to this day.
With Calipari back in the college game since 2000 and Yormark set to embark on his first try at intercollegiate athletics, surely he will lean on his friend for advice as he observes a defining month in the space prior to his Aug. 1 start date.
The 55-year old Yormark not only needs to learn his new job on the run, he must understand the intricacies of conference realignment — fast. With USC and UCLA shockingly headed to the Big Ten in 2024, college football has kicked off a second round of realignment in as many years.
Enter Yormark, who was unfamiliar to many in the Big 12 prior to being named Bob Bowlsby’s replacement. Eyebrows were raised already when he got the job despite precious few ties to the league or the profession. A New York guy with a Big Ten degree (Indiana) working for Jay-Z after with a career’s worth of experience in professional sports doesn’t seem to fit the Big 12 profile.
But Larry Scott, and now George Kliavkoff, came from the outside to guide the Pac-12. Former Minnesota Vikings executive Kevin Warren, armed with two West Coast powers, is on the cusp of negotiating a monster media rights deal for the Big Ten.
Like it or not, a significant part of the future of college athletics is in their hands. Balls? Yormark will need ’em.
“I knew [Brett] would blow them away,” Calipari said. “He had to sit in the room and say, ‘Guys, we need something different.’ It’s not that he doesn’t understand TV and marketing and sponsorships. But what the Big 12 needs right now is, ‘We’re going to have to think different. What’s our way forward to jump up and for us be a disrupter?'”
In the Big 12, it’s up to Yormark to strategize whether his league stands pat with its 12-team lineup in 2025 or engages in — what one industry source called — a realignment stare down with the Pac-12.
As of Saturday afternoon, two days after the massive Big Ten announcement, those issues are still hanging in the breeze. The Big 12 presidents have not met formally to address expansion. Of course, that could change in a heartbeat.
The Pac-12 is already on record as saying it will aggressively pursue “all expansion options.”
The Big 12 should know more than any other league the importance of being proactive in expansion. It was less than a year ago this month that Texas and Oklahoma shocked the world by scampering off to the SEC.
If ESPN thought nothing last summer of leaving the Big 12 in danger of collapse — — then Fox had to consider the same about the Pac-12.
“No. 1, we’ve got to stay together,” one Pac-12 administrator said. “No. 2, we’ve got to find a path forward.”
Same for Yormark and the Big 12. The new commissioner met with his athletic directors Friday via Zoom. The reviews were glowing.
Now, there needs to be a strategy for a realignment process that might be well underway before Yormark takes office in a month.
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