Why is the Pac-12 teetering? Hubris

  Up and down the West Coast today, I can only imagine how the oldsters are grieving: For the conference that gave us Hugh McElhenny and John Elway and Troy Polamalu, for the conference that annually had a spot in the most hallowed bowl game; for the conference that sketched out the best geographical slice of the nation.

  The Pac-12 Conference appears to be up in flames, with no fire trucks in sight. And we’re left, along with all those mourners, to wonder: How the hell did we get here?

  In the big picture, I think the Pac-12 has been done in by its own hubris. By being too full of itself. That air of superiority seemed to inform every decision, large and small, for decades, and now it’s going to take some uncommon resilience and considerable imagination – both in alarmingly short supply lately – to save the league.

  The grizzled among us recall how the Pac-8 always tended to do business, dating as far back as Pac-8 days. You might remember that when college basketball began booming in the late 1970s, the league resisted having a post-season conference tournament, no matter that everybody else in the nation, save the Ivy League, was doing it. Too much missed class time, the league presidents sniffed, and if that aligned the conference with the Ivy League, so be it. (The Pac-10 finally relented in 1987.)

  Anything innovative was often quashed by those three words – “missed class time,” as if Fulbright scholarships were liable to be forfeited.

  In the early ‘90s, when it came time to punish the University of Washington for some rules violations (the league had its own enforcement division then), the Pac-10 took a sledgehammer to the Huskies, kneecapping them with two years’ bowl ban and loss of 20 scholarships in two recruiting classes. Measured against some of today’s miscreants, like Tennessee, the Huskies were hardly felonious, but the league went heavy on the penalties, intent on a message.

  “Really, what happened is,” UW’s recruiting coordinator back then Dick Baird told me recently, “we were too good.”

  Most of those years, expansion was considered sort of a dreamy, abstract concept, but the Pac-12 had some foundational givens – schools like San Diego State and Fresno State were the hoi polloi, not to be courted. And Brigham Young, with its religious affiliation, was a non-starter. Today, wouldn’t BYU look pretty good in the Pac-12?

  There was always a sense that the Pac-12’s geographic isolation lent itself to independence. The West was best; it had the coolest geography, the urbane cities and the hippest vibe. People had better things to do on autumn Saturdays than go see their alma mater play Northern Colorado, and that was all right.

  Even the presidents realized, though, that when Tom Hansen retired as their longtime commissioner in 2009, they needed an infusion of new ideas. Unfortunately, that came in the form of the imperious Larry Scott.

  One of Scott’s first moves was to try to filch Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 as part of a six-school takeover, but when that fizzled, the Pac-10 turned its back on the likes of Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and added Utah and Colorado.

  It was believed widely that Texas ultimately hadn’t taken the bait, yet Scott, in a bit of breathtaking license that captures the historical posture of the Pac-12, portrayed that his league did the dismissing, not Texas.

  “We could have expanded, but the deal didn’t make any sense at the end of the day for us . . .” Scott told ESPN.com. “There is a very high bar. It’s hard to imagine very many scenarios for our conference to expand because the bar is so high.”

  Hmm. Well, the bar seems to have receded a bit since he said that. Limbo lower now.

  The Pac-12 presidents humored Scott through all of his multiple missteps, far beyond what any reasonable soul would have allowed. This is what happens when you’re not paying attention. I’ve always believed that through the decades, the majority of the league presidents cared about two things vis a vis athletics: That they not violate rules, and that they operate in the black.

  After Utah and Colorado joined in 2011, conference expansion talk turned quiet. There was nothing in the West that interested the Pac-12, so it could just concentrate on doing better what it did already. Nobody was coming, and nobody was going to go.

  That construct, of course, disintegrated with the bombshell 13 months ago that USC and UCLA were headed to the Big Ten. And now Colorado is exiting as well.

  I don’t blame Scott’s successor, George Kliavkoff, for being dumbstruck at the USC/UCLA announcement. It came 48 days after he took over. But Kliavkoff has since played village idiot, failing to nail down a TV deal and issuing vapid pronouncements about stability.

  He reminds me of Kevin Bacon’s character in the closing scene of Animal House, the ROTC stooge who keeps repeating, “Remain calm, all is well!” as the parade chaos inspired by the Deltas boils over around him.

  In this latest misadventure, the Pac-12 seems to have waded in to play rock-paper-scissors and discovered an alley fight. I agree with Jon Wilner; it’s time to do something dynamic. For one, figure out a way to entice the non-football school, Gonzaga. It would be a national talker, something that appears to be imaginative rather than a move of desperation. Problem is, the Zags have to be wondering about the Pac-12’s long-term future.

  It’s time for some visionary thinking. For far too long, the vision has been jaded by a nose in the air.