The Pac-12 Conference last won a football national championship in 2004 — and, even then, USC was later forced to vacate its title. It has not been represented in the College Football Playoff since 2016-17. In 2018, a Pac-12 member did not reach the Round of 32 in the men’s basketball NCAA tournament for the first time since 1986. During the 11-year tenure of conference Commissioner Larry Scott, just one team — Oregon in 2017 — advanced to the men’s Final Four.
On Wednesday evening, when the Pac-12 announced Scott will step down on June 30 — a full year before his contract is set to expire — a news release stated the “mutual decision” was not made “because Pac-12 football and basketball have not been competitive at the national championship level.”
And yet, that reality is irrefutable.
An executive committee comprised of Oregon Pres. Michael Schill, Washington Pres. Ana Mari Cauce and Washington State Pres. Kirk Schulz will lead a national search for Scott’s eventual successor. Said committee will “immediately select an executive search firm,” according to Wednesday’s news release, and ultimately present a list of finalists to the Pac-12’s presidents and chancellors.
On Thursday morning, the Times spoke with Schill, Cauce and Schulz about Scott’s departure and what they’re looking to find in the Pac-12’s fifth commissioner.
Among the more big-picture questions: what needs to happen, both on a commissioner and a CEO level, to return Pac-12 football and men’s basketball to a national championship level in the long term?
“Well, I’m anticipating we’re going to win the (football) national championship next year,” said Schill, who took over as Oregon’s president in 2015, with a wry smile. “So give us a full season. We’re ready.”
Added Cauce, who was named UW’s president the same year, in the joint video conference: “We’ll give you a run for your money on that one. We’ve got a great new coach (Jimmy Lake) 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 (a four-team model) the end-all, be-all of everything? There’s nobody here that does not want to win, but we want to do it the right way.”
Though it’s far from the only indicator of success, the Pac-12 has not won nearly enough in its most lucrative sports throughout Scott’s tenure. Schulz acknowledged that “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.”
Restoring that “competitive stature” — and a tattered national reputation — will require a collective effort from the conference as a whole.
“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 2016-17),’ 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?’” Schulz said.
“We’ve got a lot of talent. When I look at our football coaches, our men’s and women’s basketball coaches, if 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.”
For the first time in more than a decade, those discussions will not include the 56-year-old Scott. The former chairperson and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association facilitated the conference’s expansion to 12 teams in 2011, when it added both Utah and Colorado, and instituted a conference title game as well. He secured a 12-year, $3 billion media rights deal with Fox and ESPN that was, in the moment, the most lucrative in college sports. He oversaw the Pac-12’s agreement to embrace equal revenue sharing for the first time in its history.
He also launched the Pac-12 Network in 2012, and disastrously decided not to partner with a traditional television network. As a result, the conference’s annual revenue distributions ($32 million per school in FY18) suffered — falling behind Power Five competitors like the Big Ten ($55 million per school) and the SEC ($45 million per school). That’s despite the fact that, as Pac-12 commissioner and executive chairperson of the Pac-12 Network, he made $5.4 million in 2019 — easily the most of any conference commissioner.
Between 2009 and 2019, Scott amassed $36,057,637, according to ESPN. He’s on schedule to make roughly $50 million by the time his contract — which will be honored, even after he departs — expires in June 2022.
The conference’s next commissioner, who will start work while Scott continues to get paid, will “focus on our blended strengths of high academic achievement, competitive athletic excellence and diversity of our people and markets,” according to Wednesday’s news release. “In addition, we’re looking for financial and strategic acumen, a deep and abiding concern for student health and welfare, and someone who understands the unique nature of the Pac-12.”
The transition is taking place a year early to help accelerate that understanding. With the Pac-12’s media rights deal expiring in 2024 and negotiations expected to commence late in 2022, Schill said it made sense to remove Scott this summer “to get someone in place early enough so they could get their feet wet, they could understand what’s going on and 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.”
Added 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 (of media rights talks), 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.”
In the Pac-12, those challenges include waning fan support. After he accepted the same position at Texas this week, former UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski — a California native and formerly the conference’s highest paid assistant — lamented on KJR 950 AM that “support — whether it’s fan support, whether it’s monetary support, whatever it is — it seems to be different in different parts of the country. Good, bad or indifferent, that’s the way it is.”
But is that the way it has to be? And what can the next Pac-12 commissioner do to engage the conference’s increasingly apathetic fans?
“Coming from other areas of the country, there’s a lot of options on what to do on a Saturday on the West Coast,” Schulz acknowledged. “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 (can) be creative. …
“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.”
Added Cauce: “Obviously we have some work to do, there’s no question about it. But I feel really, really confident. The truth is that people missed it. People really missed being (at football games last season). I have no doubt that when we finally have our Apple Cup, whatever stadium it’s in, it’ll be full.”
Of course, a more consistent way to fill college stadiums is to win.
The next “Conference of Champions” commissioner — whoever he or she is — will be tasked with returning the Pac-12 to national prominence. But hey, no pressure.