We can get granular and technical about the daunting tasks facing the next commissioner of the Pac-12 conference — which are copious and complicated.
But you can also boil down the job description to a simple concept. Larry Scott’s replacement, above all else, must restore the prestige and reputation of the Pac-12.
Period, end of story.
The specifics of how its status sank so precipitously low during Scott’s 12-year tenure tell a sordid tale. And the mechanics of how to pull the league out of its tailspin will be hotly debated over the next few months during the search for Scott’s replacement.
But the mission is clear: In so many different arenas, Scott’s ham-handed, tone-deaf and often misguided leadership led the Pac-12 astray, and adrift. The new leader will be charged, ultimately, with bringing esteem back to a league that once overflowed with it.
Suffice it to say that the once proud “Conference of Champions” has, to a large extent, become irrelevant at best, and a laughing stock at worst. This is where I must interject that I’m referring to the sports that largely determine the national perception of any conference — football and men’s basketball. In the realm of women’s and Olympic sports, the Pac-12 remains without peer, and for that Scott deserves a gold star on his ledger.
But it is football and men’s hoops that pay the freight, and those have fallen the farthest. The Pac-12 has become an afterthought on the national scene. It hasn’t had a football national champion since USC in 2004, or a team in the College Football Playoff since Washington in 2016. The most recent Pac-12 men’s team in the basketball Final Four was Oregon in 2017, and before that UCLA in 2008. The most recent men’s basketball national champion was Arizona in 1997.
In the eyes of many, the Pac-12 has become the lap dog to the Big Ten when it comes to making big decisions. Not only has there been an alarming drain of the West Coast’s top high school talent as they head to other regions of the country, but now many prominent coaches — such as Washington defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski — are being lured away with financial offers the Pac-12 can’t match.
You can run a direct line from Scott’s most significant decisions to the Pac-12’s current misfortune. The television package Scott negotiated with ESPN and Fox in 2012 to much fanfare — it was for $3 billion over 12 years and expires in 2024 — has proven to be flawed in numerous ways. And the Pac-12 Networks, a seminal brainchild of Scott’s, have been an artistic and financial disappointment.
Bottom line is that the revenue generated by the Pac-12, while rising steadily during Scott’s tenure, lags significantly behind that of the other major conferences, who made shrewder media deals. With four years to go before the Pac-12’s television package expires, the revenue gap gets more daunting every season.
It’s easy to view Scott as a complete failure, especially as he heads out the door. That’s not quite fair. He deserves credit for expanding the Pac-12 by adding Colorado and Utah (and nearly pulling off what would have been a stunning addition of Texas and Oklahoma before that fell apart at the eleventh hour when the Longhorns backed out).
That led to two divisions and the advent of a much-needed conference title game in football. As mentioned, the nonrevenue sports have continued to thrive, and the television package, when he signed it, was the most lucrative in college football history.
But what really set Scott — and by extension, the Pac-12 — off course were the unforced errors and tone-deaf maneuvers that steadily eroded confidence in him.
Massive damage to the league’s credibility was done in 2018 when it was revealed that conference administrator Woody Dixon had interfered with an officiating decision during a USC-Washington State football game.
Meanwhile, the Pac-12’s image was battered by a series of revelations of lavish and profligate spending. Whether it was the $7 million a year spent renting offices in downtown San Francisco, to the $7,500 per-night suite where Scott stayed in Las Vegas during the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament (apparently comped by the ARIA Resort and Casino, but still a bad look), to the approximately $4 million in bonuses Scott handed out to himself and other high-level executives last year, a month before laying off or furloughing 94 of his 196 staff members, it has been one eye roll after another.
There will be much debate about whether the new commissioner should be someone steeped in the media world, because negotiating a new deal in the complicated television landscape will be the first order of business. The success of that venture will go a long way toward determining whether the Pac-12 can navigate out of its mess.
Scott famously justified his massive annual salary ($5.3 million, more than any of his peers) by saying he wasn’t a commissioner, but also the head of a media company. In its next leader, the Pac-12 would be wise to find a man or woman who is steeped in the world of college athletics, and knows the campuses. Scott came from the Women’s Tennis Association and never seemed to convince coaches and athletic directors he understood their issues or had a road map to solving them.
I found the comment that an unnamed Pac-12 administrator gave The Athletic’s Matt Fortuna to be particularly apt: “The right leader will immediately validate our league and restore confidence in our brand just by accepting the position.”
We’ll take it on faith that such a person is out there. Now it’s on the Northwest-heavy Pac-12 executive committee that will spearhead the search — Oregon president Michael Schill, Washington president Ana Mari Cauce, and Washington State president Kirk Schulz — to find him or her.