The Pac-12 was roiling when its athletic directors gathered in Santa Clara, Calif., in late October for their fall meeting with conference executives.
The officiating scandal, in which an untrained administrator interfered with the instant-replay process, was threatening to swallow the football season, and the athletic directors were livid.
Years of quiet frustration came tumbling into the open, directed at commissioner Larry Scott and his staff.
Frustration with unmet revenue projections, frustration with the sagging Pac-12 Networks, with misguided messaging and exorbitant spending and, above all, frustration with their lack of influence in setting conference policy and direction — feeling like second-class citizens in their own conference.
The ADs were irate, the culture was busted, and the semiannual, state-of-the-conference meeting turned intense.
“It got pretty heated,’’ one source said. “There was acrimony because of how the schools felt they had been treated. It had reached the boiling point with the officiating.”
The immediate priority was getting control of the instant-replay crisis. And that required buy-in from the athletic directors.
When the meetings adjourned, the Pac-12 issued a news release trumpeting the recommendations from an internal review of its instant-replay procedures.
The announcement was accompanied by an endorsement from the athletic directors, who expressed “confidence in the integrity of our process and the personnel charged with monitoring the process.”
The personnel charged with monitoring the process.
“If you noticed,” another source said, “there was no endorsement of conference leadership.”
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This weekend, those same athletic directors will gather with those same Pac-12 officials in Las Vegas to discuss the latest conference initiatives, albeit with two important differences:
The presidents and chancellors will be present; the acrimony will be absent.
“There has been a hard shift since those fall meetings,” a source said.
Over the past four months, the Pac-12 has undergone a mammoth change in how it operates.
No longer is policy set in San Francisco by commissioner Larry Scott and his top executives, leaving campus officials feeling like, as one said, they were “being told what our priorities are.’’
In the new world order, the athletic directors are setting the direction for the conference with the help of the Pac-12 staff and the blessing of the Pac-12 chancellors and presidents.
From bad has come good.
“The athletic directors are the keys to the success of the Pac-12,’’ said Colorado chancellor Phil DiStefano, who took over as chair of the Pac-12’s board of directors last year and has been a prime driver in the power shift.
DiStefano’s vision of a more collaborative process took root in the late fall and has prompted a degree of unity not seen since the early years of Scott’s tenure — when the conference was ahead of its peers financially, when Scott could do wrong, when the promise of the Pac-12 Networks seemed limitless and the conference looked destined for extraordinary heights.
It only took a few years for that promise to disappear into the fog of unmet financial expectations, the DirecTV stalemate, conference spending, night kickoffs, the basketball-officiating scandal (remember Bountygate?) and the Pac-12 Networks’ struggle for revenue and relevance.
And all that unfolded before the crash-and-burn of the past 18 months, starring the FBI scandal, ESPN’s sideline cupcakes, shoplifting in China, the FS1 truck races, a bowl-season implosion, a March Madness meltdown, Scott’s clunky public explanation of an officiating decision and, finally, the worst of the worst:
General counsel Woodie Dixon influencing the instant-replay process during the Washington State-USC game using a procedure that was approved by Scott but should never, ever have been implemented.
“That was a difficult time, with the challenge around football officiating,’’ said Arizona’s Dave Heeke, who serves as chair of the athletic directors’ council.
“It further galvanized the ADs. We talked about how we are a conference of 12 institutions. We’re not one office. We all have to work together.”
Since the tense meeting with conference leadership, Heeke added, “There has been very active collaboration between the ADs, the conference office, specifically the commissioner, and the presidents and chancellors. We all stepped back and said, ‘We want to work together on this and move forward.’’’
The change — long overdue and highly encouraging for the schools — would have been unlikely without increased engagement from the presidents and chancellors, and one in particular.
DiStefano, who arrived in Boulder in 1974, is an avid reader of presidential biographies. His management style tilts heavily toward Lincoln and his “Team of Rivals.” Dissenting views and healthy discussion, he believes, are vital to a healthy policymaking process.
DiStefano got to know Woody Hayes during his time as a student at Ohio State, but his perspective on athletics has been shaped by his role as Colorado’s faculty athletic representative, his decadelong tenure as chancellor and his close relationship with Buffaloes athletic director Rick George.
George, who once served as the recruiting coordinator for legendary Colorado coach Bill McCartney, is respected by Pac-12 peers and is said to have a clear-eyed view of conference culture and operations.
It’s hardly a stretch to envision George and DiStefano conversing about the need for increased collaboration and transparency either before or after — or both — DiStefano took over as board chair from Max Nikias, who was ousted as USC’s president last summer.
“That’s how I’ve operated at Colorado, with a great deal of cooperation with my senior-level team, including our athletic director,’’ DiStefano said last week. “It’s a leadership style that I’ve adopted over the years. It works best when you hear different opinions before decisions are made.
“When I took over (the Pac-12 board), I didn’t plan to change that approach. I shared that plan with my colleagues, and they have been extremely supportive of how we’ve moved toward a collaborative model.”
He made those intentions clear to Scott, as well.
“I had conversations with (Scott), and he was very open to moving this forward the way I wanted,” DiStefano said.
“The way I explain it is, we are going through an evolution. When (Scott) was hired, it was a very different group of presidents. They did things one way. I see new individuals coming in’’ — the majority of presidents and chancellors have been appointed within the past few years — “and I think most of us … believe in an open, transparent model.”
That approach, according to sources, runs counter to the model in place for most of the decade.
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For years, campus officials have privately — and in some cases publicly — expressed frustration about the lack of information from the conference office … about financial data being made available for a brief time on a secure website … about the lack of transparency with spending at the conference office … and about the bifurcated nature of conference meetings.
Scott’s approach is to meet separately with the athletic directors and presidents/chancellors, adding to the sense among the ADs they were viewed in a subordinate capacity.
But those days are over.
The athletic directors and chancellors/presidents will be in the same room Saturday in Las Vegas, when the conference will discuss its latest initiatives and receive an update from The Raine Group on the pursuit of an equity sale.
Why the change?
The executive committee of the board of directors — Washington president Ana Mari Cauce, Oregon president Michael Schill and, of course, DiStefano — pushed for the inclusive gathering.
“All the groups, including (Scott), have adopted and embraced the way we’ve engaged with each other,” DiStefano explained.
Asked for his views on conference leadership, DiStefano said:
“(Scott) still has a contract with us. He’s the commissioner, and we’re working on things together. That’s something we’ll take up at another time.
“What’s really important now is moving forward with Raine.”
Scott’s contract runs through the spring of 2022. Decisions to extend executives are typically made well in advance of contract expirations.
“This is all Phil’s way of opening everything up,’’ a source said. “I think he’s watching to see how it goes.’’
Thus far, the results are encouraging, with a slew of subcommittees examining issues seen as essential to the conference’s long-term health, including scheduling, officiating, the football-championship game, media rights and student-athlete wellness matters.
There’s also a working group devoted to conference finances, although a source said a detailed breakdown of expenditures has yet to be shared.
Heeke oversees the subcommittees, but each has a point person. The groups chat monthly via conference call and include, when appropriate, university and athletic department financial officers, faculty athletic representatives, senior women’s administrators and others.
“There’s constant communication with the conference office and the commissioner,’’ Heeke said. “The conference staff has done good job keeping us informed. We have to work together to move forward.”
The first public sign of progress came from the officiating subcommittee, headed by Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson, who ran the NFL’s officiating program as the league’s executive vice president for operations.
The group pushed for an outside firm, Sibson Consulting, to review football officiating. After the October controversy, the athletic directors determined an independent assessment was the best way to correct flaws and restore credibility to the process.
Anderson has noticed the change in dynamics.
“There’s a more trusting working relationship between the conference office and all the folks on campus,” he said.
The change could lead to better policies and more efficiencies, to a cohesiveness that gives the campuses the best chance for success.
It is, after all, supposed to be about the schools … about the athletes.
The hope on campus is that the collaboration is permanent.
“The past four or five months,” Washington State athletic director Pat Chun said, “the conference has been very deliberate about communicating. And it’s noted.”