‘We’ve lost our swagger’: Pac-12 decline belies Conference of Champions moniker

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Sometime during the 2017 college football season, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott attended a Saturday night game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. At halftime, he answered several media questions about his much-maligned conference.

No one saw him once the second half started.

“Larry usually gets on his private plane and goes home at halftime,” said one former Pac-12 executive who spoke to Sporting News on the condition of anonymity. “That way he can get back to his house by midnight.”

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The problem for Scott? Many fans of Pac-12 teams would like to join him, especially when they’re stuck at stadiums till midnight and beyond for one of the conference’s dreaded late-night kickoffs, marketed as #Pac12AfterDark for those who stay up late enough to watch them.

It’s one of myriad issues plaguing the conference as it heads into the 2019 season, a contributing factor to cynics questioning its standing among the other Power 5 conferences. The Pac-12 hasn’t truly challenged for a national championship since Oregon lost 42-20 to Ohio State in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship. Washington made the 2016 semifinal, where it was out-classed by Alabama in a 24-7 loss.

The Pac-12 has been excluded from the final field each of the last two seasons. It has the fewest such appearances (two) among the Power 5, behind the Big 12 and Big Ten (three), ACC (five) and SEC (six).

“There’s no question,” Scott said at Pac-12 Media Day in July, “the past couple seasons have fallen short of historical standards.”

One Pac-12 head coach, who spoke to Sporting News but wished to remain anonymous, was more stark in his summation of the league:

“If you want to play big-boy football, we can’t tell a recruit this is the place to be,” he said. “We’ve lost our swagger from a national perspective. Watch Clemson, Alabama or Ohio State. It’s a different level than what we are doing.”

Washington quarterback Jake Browning after taking a hit against Auburn (Getty Images).

In 2018, the Pac-12 became irrelevant on the national landscape almost as soon as eventual conference champion Washington lost its season-opener to Auburn in Atlanta. The conference faces a similar narrative at the start of 2019, with many pundits pinning its national reputation on whether No. 11 Oregon – the Pac-12’s highest-ranked team in the preseason – can beat No. 16 Auburn in Arlington on Saturday.

This, despite the fact the conference has five teams ranked among the preseason AP Top 25, equaling the combined total between the Big 12 and ACC.

“The first three or four weeks are going to dictate the narrative for our conference,” Scott said at Pac-12 Media Day. “We’ve got some huge matchups early on.

“We’re going to have to win a good amount of those games if the narrative about our league is going to turn and people are going to say, ‘The Pac-12 is coming back.'”

So far, no one’s making any bets on a comeback.

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The Pac-12 has a 24-17 record against Power 5 opponents in the regular season since the start of the Playoff era. But it hasn’t won a national title in 14 seasons, the longest stretch without championship hardware among any Power 5 conference. Attendance has decreased for six straight years, and last year’s average (46,733) is the worst mark since 1982. The conference nearly exacerbated that problem further with a proposed 9 a.m. kickoff, which it ultimately decided against.

Yet Scott defended the Pac-12 at his annual spring meetings with the football coaches.

“I looked around the room in our football coaches’ meeting and I felt very good,” he said at the time. “I don’t sense any lack of confidence our coaches have in how our football will be in the next few years.”

The challenge for Scott is finding footing for the Pac-12 while closing the ever-lengthening gap with the Big Ten and SEC – both on the field and in earned revenue.

In the 2018 fiscal year, the Pac-12 generated $497 million in revenue – a 2.35 percent decrease from 2017 – distributing $31.3 million (on average) to its member institutions, compared to $54 million for Big Ten schools and $43.7 million for SEC schools.

A contributing factor to that lag is the Pac-12 Network, which hasn’t generated the revenue Scott promised back in 2012. Before its launch, Scott said the network would provide each school $3 million-5 million per year. But in 2018, the network generated only $2.8 million per school, and the figure is expected to be similar in 2019. At least one school hoped for as much as $10 million by now.

But the network seems to be going backward. AT&T-Uverse dropped it last fall. DirecTV never carried it, a source of frustration for Scott, who constantly fields questions from reporters about the satellite network’s refusal to carry the channel. Advertising for the Pac-12 Network provides just 10 percent of its revenue, as viewers are uninterested in the barrage of non-revenue sports coverage.

The Pac-12 could fall even further behind, with its TV deals with FOX and ESPN locked in until 2024 – perhaps why Scott is seeking private equity bids of the conference’s media rights for a reported $750 million cash infusion. Skeptics wonder if this bold move will significantly help the Pac-12, or make it a hostage to a company that wants a healthy return on its investment.

“One of the reasons we’re looking at (an equity partner) right now is our schools feel a tremendous amount of financial pressure,” Scott said in May (via the Oregonian). “They do worry about the gap in revenues with peers from other conferences.”

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott (Getty Images)

It doesn’t help that Scott makes more than $5 million a year, flies on chartered flights and stays in a Las Vegas hotel suite that reportedly costs $7,500 a night during the Pac-12 basketball tournament. If that’s not bad enough, the Pac-12’s swanky San Francisco headquarters reportedly cost $6.9 million in annual rent, with an extra $11.7 million in deferred rent.

Said one current Pac-12 employee: “Larry’s always had extravagant tastes.”

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All of this makes some wonder how long it will take the Pac-12 to regain its mojo. The best place for that turnaround to occur is on the field, but that again leads back to the decision-making process of the conference. The Pac-12 – like the Big Ten and Big 12 – schedules nine-game conference slates. That format has led some coaches to complain it only holds the conference back.

“We’re beating each other up each week, often on Saturday nights when no one is watching,” said one Pac-12 athletic director. “We don’t have dominant teams like some of the other conferences.”

For years, Pete Caroll’s USC was that dominant force, the crown jewel of the conference and one of the premier programs in college football. The Trojans have had five coaches since he left in 2009, including interim stints. They went 5-7 in 2018.

Oregon filled that role from 2008-14, dominating the Pac-12 and college football headlines under former coach Chip Kelly. The Ducks went 4-8 in 2016 and 7-6 in 2017 before a 9-4 turnaround last season. Stanford enjoyed similar success in the early 2010s with Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, but hasn’t truly competed for a national title since the start of the Playoff era.

Washington has three consecutive double-digit-win seasons under Chris Petersen, but has also lost three consecutive bowl games. The Huskies went 10-4 in 2018 but lost to Auburn and Big Ten champion Ohio State, the two games that mattered most on a national scale.

Even when the Pac-12 won last year, it only hurt itself. Washington State went 10-2 in the regular season but couldn’t make the conference title game or New Year’s Day 6 bowl after a loss to rival Washington in the Apple Cup. The Playoff committee dropped Washington State five spots in the penultimate rankings, placing four three-loss teams ranked directly ahead of the Cougars.

Washington State was shipped to the Alamo Bowl, prompting athletic director Pat Chun to say, “We can easily infer that where we’re ranked is a result of maybe the perception of the league.”

Said the former Pac-12 executive: “Washington State never had a chance because it played in the Pac-12, which is considered soft.”

Washington State’s loss to rival Washington kept the Cougars from a higher-tier bowl in 2018 (Getty Images).

That perception gets reinforced by a 19-22 bowl record since 2014, including a 1-8 mark in 2017. The Pac-12 has had three straight seasons without a winning bowl record. At least it shouldn’t have another officiating scandal like last season. Woodie Dixon, Pac-12 general counsel and football administrator, has been barred from any involvement in football officiating following an outside review by Sibson Consulting.

Dixon, who has no officiating experience, called the Pac-12 command center during last year’s Washington State-USC game, overruling them and the in-stadium replay official to force a no-call for targeting on Trojans linebacker Porter Gustin. It was a national embarrassment for the Pac-12, and only became public after disgruntled officials leaked the information.

“Woodie Dixon will no longer be involved in any capacity with football officiating,” Scott said in July, nine months after the controversy. The Pac-12 on Monday also released new communications protocols for officiating to avoid similar incidents in the future.

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Even against the onslaught of criticism – including from within the conference – some coaches will publically carry the flag for the conference in 2019.

“The people who know football and that watch football, they know how competitive this conference is,” Shaw said. “There are not a lot of conferences out there that can legitimately look up and say more than half their conference has a chance to win the conference.

“And those teams in the middle of our conference, any of them can beat anybody at the top of the conference.”

Petersen, the last coach to lead a Pac-12 team to the Playoff, believes its problems are temporary.

“I think five or six years ago, the Pac-12 could do no wrong and we were in the greatest position ever and we were going to do this and that, and five years later we don’t even know how to play football anymore,” Petersen said. “It’s always somewhere in between. I know we’ve got good players out here and good coaches and programs. I think it’s all cyclical.”



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