So here we are, about to hit the finish line in the weirdest of weird years. In the Pac-12, that means allowing a football team that never should have been in the championship game, Oregon, which replaced another team that never should have been in the championship game, Washington.
A conference with just a smidge of planning and foresight would have seen back in late summer that it made no sense to hew to the traditional divisional scheme – not when one Northern member, the Huskies, was getting to host Arizona, which would later lose by 63 points to its bitter rival; and another North entry, Washington State, was having to travel to USC.
I can’t say that I advanced the idea of scrapping divisions and going with one simple, 12-team conference in 2020. But I’m merely a groveling sportswriter trying to pay the mortgage, not somebody at the Pac-12 office whose job it is to think of these things.
Inevitably, that brings us to the Larry Scott Problem.
(Here, a brief pause to explain “In the Wake of the News . . .” This occasional blog, tied to the Mad Hoops website, will address happenings around the college landscape, both in football and basketball, especially as they relate to the Pac-12.)
I think back to 2009, when a small group of us print-media folks were introduced to Scott in Los Angeles the day before Pac-12 football-media day. He was out of the box, a hire who headed the women’s tennis tour and would bring innovative media notions to the Pac-12. No more would the league be staid and unimaginative, as it was perceived under longtime commish Tom Hansen.
And when Scott engineered TV deals in 2011 with ESPN and Fox, you couldn’t contain all the hosannas showered upon him. Yes, I participated.
Then, drip by drip, came a long series of Pac-12 misadventures. The Pac-12 Networks launched in 2012. When that happened without DirecTV, an industry analyst told me he figured DirecTV would be on board within a month. Well, it’s been 99 months since the launch – eight years plus – and still no DirecTV.
In 2013, when I was still laboring at the Seattle Times, I did a story on the impasse and quoted Dan York, chief content office at DirecTV. “It turns out the price-value proposition is even lower than we’ve offered,” he said. “Most of the games fans really want to see will still be available on DirecTV.”
And fundamentally, that was the problem then and the problem now. There simply isn’t enough quality content on Pac-12 Networks to move the needle. While the ethos of the Pac-12 has always tilted toward sporting balance, toward promoting the Olympic sports, another airing of the Arizona State women’s soccer team doesn’t entice viewers.
Scott has referred to himself as the CEO of a “media company.” But the miscalculation on DirecTV by the media-company CEO has been disastrous.
There ensued a long series of conference officiating fiascoes, and nobody does officiating fiascoes like the Pac-12. In 2013, basketball supervisor of officials Ed Rush resigned after a widely publicized scandal in which he had offered a bounty for officials giving a technical foul to Arizona coach Sean Miller. He said later it was in jest, but the optics were horrible.
Later came the mess surrounding Pac-12 general counsel and Pac-12 vice president Woodie Dixon, insinuating himself improperly into the Pac-12 replay process. More recently there was a report from Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News that David Coleman, who now oversees Pac-12 football officiating, is vastly less experienced on the field than his Power Five peers.
The league simply can’t seem to get out of its own way. And inevitably, responsibility falls to Scott, who commands a $5-million annual salary and lodges conference headquarters in pricey downtown San Francisco.
The Pac-12 ought to be the envy of college conferences nationally. Its diverse geography and demographics are wonderful. Instead, the league has become a national punchline.
Ultimately, I blame the presidents, the vast majority of whom have turned over since Scott was installed. My sense, generally, of presidential presence in athletics is outlined in three imperatives: One, they don’t want to be involved; they’ve got other far more pressing concerns. Two, they don’t want athletics to embarrass the school. Three, they don’t want athletics to run in the red.
Somehow, Scott has successfully romanced the presidents and chancellors, who have seemed as though they’ve spent the last eight years without a newspaper, a telephone or a computer. They’ve taken the I-don’t-want-to-be-bothered-with-it concept to extremes. Shortly, they’ll have to. The presidents are expected to entertain Scott’s future with the league in the first half of 2021. If they pull the plug on him, there’s a need to have a successor in place to ensure time for the next round of TV negotiations.
Speaking to the growing financial gap between the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12, Scott took the tack Thursday that it’s the natural rhythm of timing, that his league will catch up with the next round of contracts, which take effect after the 2023-24 school year. That doesn’t address how for years, the two behemoth leagues have been turning out millions more per school than those in the Pac-12.
In fairness, Scott has had to deal with two embedded challenges that are never going away in the Pac-12: The time-zone disparity, and more important, that we’re not natively as wired for football as the South and Midwest. You may have noticed that there are things to do in the West other than hang out in the lobby of a hotel and hope to glimpse Nick Saban on the way to doing his SEC media-days presentation.
Scott’s 11 years have been provocative, to say the least. The missteps have been serial, and obvious.
The league presidents don’t need to make another one.