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Howell: CU Buffs’ Rick George strong candidate to lead Pac-12

Rick George has been Colorado's athletic director since the summer of 2013. He could be a candidate to take over as Pac-12 commissioner.
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Rick George has been Colorado’s athletic director since the summer of 2013. He could be a candidate to take over as Pac-12 commissioner.

This has been a tumultuous year in which a lot of people in positions of power have had to make difficult decisions.

Colorado athletic director Rick George and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott are among the hundreds, if not thousands, of bosses around the country that have had to lay off employees, ask others to take furloughs and even more to accept pay cuts.

Amid all of that, Scott also collected a $2.2 million bonus, while George donned an apron and served food to the CU student-athletes because there weren’t enough employees to get the job done at one point last fall.

One of these men is a leader, and the other will no longer be employed in the Pac-12 by July 1.

The hefty bonus Scott collected last fall was one of many reasons why the Pac-12 CEO group voted to push him out a year before his contract expires. The leader of the conference since 2009, Scott took some chances and had some highlights during his tenure, but ultimately was steering the Pac-12 in the wrong direction.

As the Pac-12 looks for a man or woman to right the ship, it ought to give serious consideration to George.

The Pac-12 CEO group — presidents and chancellors from the 12 campuses — will make the decision, and leading that group is a three-person executive committee: Oregon president Michael Schill, Washington president Ana Mari Cauce and Washington State president Kirk Schulz.

Members of the executive committee have gone on record this week saying “nothing is off the table” as they conduct their search, which is sure to include those entrenched in the sports media world, as well as sitting athletic directors or commissioners.

Schill told Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, “At a minimum we want someone who has executive capacity, who has financial acumen, who cares about students and higher education, who can articulate the values of higher education.”

George checks those boxes and more.

George became CU’s athletic director on July 17, 2013, after three years with baseball’s Texas Rangers. With the Rangers, he was chief operating officer before a promotion to president of business operations.

George also spent two and a half years as executive vice president and chief of operations for the PGA Tour; five years as president of the Champions Tour; and five years as president and CEO of the Fore!Kids Foundation.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado athletic director Rick George, left, has build good relationships with many CU student-athletes, including Laviska Shenault, who is now with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

In each of those stops, George spearheaded fundraising efforts and increased revenue with creative ideas and fresh energy.

At CU, George has led the department through a $156 million expansion of athletic facilities, including a much-needed and long-awaited indoor practice facility and state-of-the-art resources for all the Buffs’ programs. Over $100 million was raised for the facilities project, making it by far the most successful fundraising campaign in CU athletic department history.

One of the positives of Scott’s tenure was the emphasis he put on student-athlete health and research that has gone into issues such as mental health and concussions. He was not, however, in touch with the student-athletes themselves.

Perhaps more significant than his fundraising, George has focused on the Buffs’ student-athletes. He has dramatically increased the resources CU puts into mental health, career development, nutrition and the overall well-being of the student-athletes.

It’s also significant that CU’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee has selected him as staff member of the year three times (2014, 2018 and 2020). George has an open door policy with CU’s student-athletes, meets with them regularly and he’s frequently at games, home and away. It’s a good bet that if George was commissioner, he’d personally interact with student-athlete leadership groups at all 12 schools.

If the Pac-12 wants its next commissioner to know football, George checks that box, too. He was a four-year letterman and 27-game starter at Illinois; he was recruiting coordinator and assistant AD for football operations at CU during its greatest run of success that reached its peak with a 1990 national title; and he currently serves on the College Football Playoff committee.

Highly respected around the country, George has worked in four of the Power-5 conferences (Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC and Big Eight, which is now the Big 12); serves on the Division I council of the NCAA and on the transfer working group; and he’s on an 18-member committee that is exploring name, image and likeness for student-athletes. He also spent two years as the chair of the LEAD1 Association.

CU would have a tough time replacing him, but George could be the best person to replace Scott, so I asked him about his interest in the job.

“I’m focused on making Colorado better,” he said. “That’s my focus and I haven’t really thought about that (commissioner) role at this point. We’ve got some challenges in front of us, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

That’s the answer I expected. However, the Pac-12 is facing significant challenges, as well, and tabbing George as its next leader could move the conference — and Colorado — in the right direction.