On Wednesday evening, the Pac-12 Conference announced that commissioner Larry Scott will step down on June 30 — a year prior to the date when his contract expires. The Pac-12’s executive committee — which is comprised of Oregon Pres. Michael Schill, Washington Pres. Ana Mari Cauce and Washington State Pres. Kirk Schulz — will lead a national search for the conference’s next commissioner.
The Times spoke with Schill, Cauce and Schulz in a video conference on Thursday morning about the “mutual decision” for Scott to step down and what they’ll be looking for in the next Pac-12 Commissioner. A full transcript of that conversation is below.
Schill: “We’re very excited to be kicking off this new adventure in terms of searching for a new commissioner of the Pac-12. We think there’s tremendous opportunity. We are very, very focused on the future. We think Larry in many ways has done an exceptional job and we are really grateful to him for all he’s done. The decision that we made and was announced yesterday was a mutual decision and he’s going to be with us until June 30, running the Pac-12. We don’t want to miss a beat. We want to set up the next leader for tremendous success.”
Cauce: “We do think that we have a lot to offer here. It’s a great place to work. It’s a great place to live. These are just terrific schools. We very much are wedded to our own culture. We put student-athletes absolutely first. We care about our institutions academically. We want someone who cares about our culture and wants to maintain it. I think this is going to be a great job and we’re very excited about working together to get an absolutely terrific commissioner that’s going to take us to the next step.”
In terms of Larry Scott’s contract running through 2022, why did you feel individually that it was the right timing to start that transition to a new commissioner a year early?
Schill: “I think from my perspective and I think the board’s perspective, our media contracts are coming up in 2024, which means we start negotiating quite a bit earlier than that. If we were going to have a new commissioner, we wanted to get someone in place early enough so they could get their feet wet, they could understand what’s going on, work with us to strategize what our future would be. It just seemed like this was a good time to be thinking about the future.”
Schulz: “We also needed to bring our new commissioner on board early enough so they could really get to know our campuses. We’ve got everything from college town campuses to big urban centers. A single visit isn’t enough to sort of get to know us. If they’re going to negotiate and be able to lead the conference in that next round, they’ve got to understand the uniqueness of the west coast. They’ve got to understand the uniqueness of our schools — our strengths and some of our challenges. I think expecting a person to come in and start doing that immediately was really unfair. So we need to give he or she the runway to be successful for the conference. So the timing was about right. And every year the board sits down with Larry — and we will with the new commissioner — on goals and objectives and contract stuff. So this was all part of a normal conversation.”
I know none of you were in your current positions when Larry Scott’s tenure started. But how would you evaluate the conference’s performance under Larry Scott, and also where it needs to go in the immediate future?
“This is my fifth year. So I’m kind of midway through Larry’s tenure. I think he did a brilliant job of adding a couple schools to the conference that fit the academic profile of the other schools. I was in the Big 12 when Colorado was there and they always felt more like a west coast school than a Midwest school. I was involved in a conference that lost some members, so Larry did a great job of doing that. That initial media contract was a monster media contract. We all have recalibrated that now with the SEC and Big Ten. But remember at the time that thing was monster and it made a huge positive impact on our schools. And we won a tremendous number of national championships. So if I look at those three things, those are really notable. Areas of opportunity for the next commissioner are what many of you have written about, our competitive stature nationally in sports like men’s basketball and football. That’s something that’s going to have to be addressed by the next commissioner. To me, the next commissioner’s got to get to know our footprint, our schools and our unique culture and be able to come in and say, ‘Hey, here’s some strengths, and here’s some things we need to work on,’ and work with the board and athletic directors on some of those things. That’s kind of my take on some positives and some opportunities moving forward.”
Cauce: “There’s no question there was progress made over the last 10 years. Kirk and I came in fairly close to the same time. But at this point we have more work ahead of us. And it’s not just the changes that are taking place within the Pac-12 but also across the NCAA and Division I more broadly. So we want to take advantage of this moment to position ourselves even better.”
Schill: “Another achievement of Larry’s has been helping us through the pandemic. As you know, this has been a very, very challenging time. All of the presidents feel that he has done a really good job in helping us begin the seasons and deal with some of the disruptions that we had to endure. So he’s done a very, very good job of that.”
The press release yesterday included a Q&A that stated that the next commissioner should be someone who understands “the unique nature of the Pac-12.” How would you define the unique nature of the Pac-12 and its challenges?
Cauce: The Big Ten might give us a little bit of pushback, but I’d say after the Ivy Leagues, we’re the strongest academic conference out there. That’s something we care about desperately. If you look at the initiatives we’ve been doing in terms of student-athlete health, that says something about our commitment to student-athletes all around. Believe me, we are going to be competitive on the field. There’s no question. There is not one of us here that does not want to win. But we want to do it the right way. We want to do it with the student-athlete first and foremost.”
Schulz: “Coming from other areas of the country, there’s a lot of options on what to do on a Saturday on the west coast. I mean this in a really positive way. People go hiking. They do outdoor activities. Other areas of the country, you go to a stadium that day or things like that. One of the unique things about the Pac-12 is we have great weather, fantastic schools. But we are competing with a lot of different things for fan interest and attendance and things like that. I think that’s absolutely unique and to me it’s an opportunity for the next commissioner, on how we be creative. The other things that’s distinctly different — and this is my fifth year on the west coast and in the Pac-12 — I think we have a better fanbase for women’s sports in the Pac-12 than any other conference. When Oregon-Oregon State play in women’s basketball and you pack out an arena, there’s a lot of places that have top-10 teams that can’t put 2,000 people in an arena to watch them play on the women’s side. I think that speaks really well. It’s a unique aspect of our conference and one that may not be acknowledged as much as it should. So I don’t say they’re peculiarities. They’re what makes us different. I want a commissioner to come in and build on those strengths, promote those strengths and then take the areas where we need some work and say, ‘OK, let’s get together and figure out how we’re going to do something a little bit different.”
Cauce: “As you were talking about the importance of women’s sports, I couldn’t agree with you more. We had the experience a couple years ago where we sold out our basketball arena for a women’s game. That was the first time ever, and we did it twice in a row. But also, our commitment to Olympic sports and the full range of sports is something that we care about and very much is characteristic of our division.”
I know that the Q&A in the press release yesterday also mentioned that this decision was not made because football and men’s basketball have not been competitive at a national championship level. But what needs to happen, both on a commissioner and CEO level, to return Pac-12 football and men’s basketball to a national championship level in the long term?
Schill: “Well, I’m anticipating we’re going to win the national championship next year. So give us a full season. We’re ready.”
Cauce: “We’ll give you a run for your money on that one. We’ve got a great new coach and we’ve got great players. I wouldn’t say that we haven’t been competitive. We put strong teams out there. Do we want to get even better? Absolutely. There are some questions that are also being raised about, do we have the right model for the CFP? Is that the end-all, be-all of everything? There’s nobody here that does not to win, but we want to do it the right way.”
Schulz: “I might give a slightly different perspective on this. What I would like the commissioner to come in and do is engage the board and our ADs and our coaches and say, ‘OK, we have not put a team in the football playoff (since 2014),’ or, ‘We have not had enough Final Four teams in men’s basketball.’ Let’s put together a group and say, ‘What do we need to do if that is our goal?’ That doesn’t mean you accept what those (answers) are, but I expect the commissioner to come in and lead and not necessarily bring their own (opinion) of, ‘Here’s what you’ve got to do.’ They need to work with the people in our footprint to say, ‘OK, if we’re going to do this, maybe every school’s got to do more fundraising for athletics, or we’ve got to make a compromise here.’ We may as a board say we’re not willing to do that. But I expect the person to come in and say, ‘Here’s some things that need to happen in the conference, and I want to work with you on improving that competitive balance if that’s something we feel is important to us.’ That’s a little subtlety I would expect from a leadership point of view. It’s not to point at Mike (Schill) and say, ‘Well you need to build more stuff,’ but to work together with us and say, ‘If this is where we’re going to go, here’s how I think we need to get there.’ We’ve got a lot of talent. When I look at our football coaches, our men’s and women’s basketball coaches, you get them in a room with presidents and ADs and start saying, ‘What do you need to take that next step?’ we’ll have a pretty comprehensive plan. I just want to see the commissioner facilitate and lead those kind of discussions.”
UW just had its defensive coordinator (Pete Kwiatkowski) leave for Texas and he essentially said that football receives more fan support other places than it does in the Pac-12. In terms of waning attendance and other things, what needs to be done from a commissioner level or CEO level to better engage fans of Pac-12 sports?
Schulz: “We’ve had this conversation as a board. Game times are a real issue with a lot of our fan base, and I understand the reasons why. The fact that they are very late or at these odd times I think frustrates some of our fans. Winning helps. Our out-of-conference ability to win some big games means that people get excited about teams and they want to show up. So I think we’ve got to look at several items on how to make it attractive. How do we make it attractive for families? If someone brings young children to a football game and there’s somebody that’s hammered in the stands, yelling profanity, you start to say, ‘There’s other things I’ll do with my kids.’ I want to make it family- and fan-friendly, but we’ve got to look at what types of things are important. Frankly, we’re competing live with 85-inch, high-definition televisions sitting at home watching that and surfing through channels and watching three games at the same time. So how can we use technology to effectively enhance our gameday environment? So those are all things, and we have some of the best universities in the world in our footprint. We don’t need the SEC to tell us how to do this. We can figure it out in our own conference footprint, I believe.”
Cauce: “I want to add to the game times (discussion). I think another one of the big issues has been predictability. Even if it’s going to be in the evening … I know for myself, I’m waiting until they tell me so I can plan my entire weekend. So I think predictability has also been an issue. But we’re also looking at, how do we enhance the experience in the stadium? Are there ways we might be able to use social media or the internet in ways that can enhance the stadium experience? Obviously we have some work to do, there’s no question about it. But I feel really, really confident. The truth is that particularly next season … people missed it. People really missed being there. I have no doubt that when we finally have our Apple Cup, whatever stadium it’s in, it’ll be full. And go Dawgs.”