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Musings from Arledge: Larry Scott, the Pac-12 and half a season

So the Pac-12 conference will play football after all.

I’m pleased. But I can’t help but notice that the conference walks into the season with something of a limp, having once again shot itself in the foot. Shooting yourself in the foot being a way of life in this conference. It’s not an occasional pastime; it’s the routine, the conference’s standard operating procedure. Shot after shot after shot, the conference plays out the end of Reservoir Dogs on its own foot.

There was a time when Pac 12 football was one of the big boys; we could match up with the best in the country and win our fair share.  

Not anymore. Now, in terms of on-field performance, public perception, and national relevance, Pac-12 football now ranks closer to the Mountain West than it does the other Big Four conferences. This recent “we’re not playing”/”maybe we’re playing”/”we’re going to play but it took us forever to make up our minds because some of our teams don’t really want to play” situation is just another example of the Pac-12 just being the Pac-12.

This is what we’ve come to expect. After all, the people who run this show, the Pac-12 presidents, hired, and for years have continued to tolerate, a commissioner whose previous job was, I believe, learning the casino business from Moe Greene. (“Aw, now that, that was nothin‘, Mike. Moe didn’t mean nothin‘ by that.”) Someday, somebody will take Larry Scott fishing. It will be about a decade too late for Pac-12 athletes and fans who have suffered as Scott has – and I’m going to put this nicely – failed spectacularly. His brainchild is a network nobody can watch, he leads a conference that is weaker in both marquee sports than it has ever been, and other than single-handedly propping up San Francisco commercial real estate prices, it’s hard to understand what value Larry Scott even adds. Yet he’s still there, still doing Larry Scott things.

Which includes, apparently, laying off huge numbers of people from his failing enterprise while giving himself a massive, seven-figure bonus – for what, I’m not sure.

Maybe it was for Scott’s providing conference CEO’s with bad COVID information as part of their deliberations.

Or maybe it was for failing (according to that same John Canzano report linked above) to keep the universities in the loop about the coming availability of rapid, daily testing.

These aren’t Scott’s biggest screw ups. They won’t make his online biography next year when he’s in charge of his next media venture, which if justice exists will be something no more significant than a YouTube channel dedicated to Nepalese badminton. But nevertheless these last two errors were a contributing factor in the Pac-12’s first major COVID screw up: its decision to suspend all fall sports.

On August 11, the Pac-12 suspended its fall sports seasons through the end of 2020. What was the emergency that required that decision at that time? In August the conference knew that it couldn’t play anything for at least four months? How could it possibly have known that?

Even without knowing about the bad information that was given to conference leaders, it was clear almost immediately that the conference made its decision based on unclear and disputed information. I complained at the time that the conference did not appear to have done any analysis of whether players were more likely to catch COVID playing sports than not playing sports. And you can’t legitimately say you’re saving people from COVID without doing that fundamental analysis – without it, you’re just avoiding blame in case something goes wrong. It was a decision rooted in fear, in CYA thinking, rather than leadership.

The stated concern about myocarditis, while legitimate, does not change the nature of the decision. The conference admitted this was new information. Nobody yet knew how to weigh the risk. But there were plenty of legitimate experts who argued that sports could continue. There was simply no reason to cancel the season on August 11.

But that’s what they did. They jumped into a premature announcement, which showed the entire college football world – including recruits – that the conference wasn’t serious about football. Top conference players jumped to the NFL. Schools told players they didn’t need to be physically ready to play and sent them to their couches and remote controls. Everybody else moved on without the Pac-12 (and the Big 10).

It didn’t have to be this way. The start of the season could have been postponed while more information came in. Players could have been allowed to meet in small groups. They could have engaged in small-group conditioning. They could have been ready to play once the conference had more information with which to weigh the actual risks.

If the Pac-12 had simply taken a little more time, things would have cleared up nicely, as we now know. It was only a few weeks later that the Pac 12 signed a deal that would give it access to rapid COVID testing.

Larry Scott called this deal a “game-changer.” His comment requires us to ask two questions. First, why was the season suspended until 2021 only three weeks before this “game-changer”? Did the conference not know on August 11 that this technology would soon be available? If not, why not?

And if events were moving so quickly that they could not have known this information on August 11, well, that’s why you don’t make that rash decision on August 11!

The second question is why didn’t the conference immediately take steps to reinstate the season when this “game-changer” came down? This is the second, obvious screw up from the Pac-12 here. And look at Larry Scott’s response at the time (quoting from the same ESPN article above):

“We still have six universities — our four California schools, our two Oregon schools — that don’t have the requisite approvals from public health authorities to engage in contact practice at the moment. Even if we were ready to start tomorrow, we couldn’t start what we know as training camp.”

This is infuriating. I said at the time that once immediate testing was available the authorities would let the schools play. I know politicians don’t give up their right to boss everybody around easily. But no way were politicians going to stand up to public pressure from USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Cal if those schools were arguing that the rapid, daily testing was, in fact, a “game-changer.” So why wasn’t Larry Scott immediately asking conference members to reconsider their decision and immediately putting public and private pressure on the politicians? For that matter, why wasn’t Carol Folt? Why wasn’t Mike Bohn? Why wasn’t Clay Helton?

Why did everybody have to wait until Kedon Slovis sent a letter to the governor? The Pac-12 is playing football because Kedon Slovis sat down at the keyboard. Isn’t that insane?

Now don’t get me wrong. I love Kedon. He’s not only the likely MVP of this coming season, he is the MVP of making the season happen. The kid’s great. I trust him more than any of the highly compensated officials in the preceding paragraph. If we got to vote on whether Kedon should replace Larry Scott – maybe even Clay Helton or Carol Folt! – count me in the “aye” column. But with all of the highly compensated professionals who have responsibility in this system, why did it take a 19-year-old college kid to get this ball rolling? What, was Greta Thunberg busy?

So here we are. The authorities backed down as soon as the spotlight shone on them a little, just as I suspected they would, giving the conference a chance to fix its earlier, rash decision from August 11. The Pac-12 conference could get back in the game.

And it did, kind of, half-heartedly. After spending three weeks dithering (the rapid-testing announcement was September 3), the conference then tries to figure out if it wants to play at all, and we get leaks in the media that UCLA and Stanford (among others) weren’t that interested in playing and certainly weren’t interested in starting in time to have a real chance at a playoff berth. The Mountain West will try to start October 24. The Big 10 will start the same weekend. The Pac-12 conference will start two weeks later, in November.

Keep in mind, a November start is pretty weird. The Bruins, for example, haven’t played a meaningful November game since the Clinton administration. You would think they would be eager to tank their season no later than Halloween, like they usually do. And maybe they will. Maybe they will petition the conference to start the season 0-2. This would save time and still allow them to start with their usual momentum.

But for everybody else, the opportunity to play something that more resembled a real season did exist.

The rest of the Power Five conferences are trying to earn a berth in the college football playoff. The Pac-12 has decided to have a partial, intramural season.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the Pac-12 likely wasn’t making it into the playoff no matter how many games they played. We could have adopted a 27-game schedule and a playoff berth was unlikely. The truth is that Oregon is the only team that cares about winning in this conference these days, but they’re a second-rate program with no natural recruiting territory. (No, Clay Helton’s backyard is their current recruiting territory, not their natural recruiting territory.) USC is about six consecutive personnel decisions away from being a real football program. And UCLA and Stanford, as we’ve seen, simply don’t care. They were ready to hang out on the couch all fall. 

But, still, the Pac-12 should at least pretend that it cares about competing for championships. Appearances matter. And the kids – the ones that Mario Cristobal, Clay Helton, and Chris Petersen recruited and promised a shot at a title – they want that shot. These kids at USC and Oregon who were dreaming of playing for a national championship – sorry, guys. We’re not committed to doing that. Those recruits who are trying to decide between Pac-12 programs and programs in other parts of the country. Yeah, we don’t really care about competing at the highest level. But while Ohio State and Clemson are playing for a shot at the national title, don’t forget to watch USC and Oregon State play a nationally meaningless game in their half-season. You can catch that exciting action at 10:30 eastern on a network that only 18 people can access. That game could have Emerald Bowl implications if there still is an Emerald Bowl. Conference of Champions!

And why, do you ask, would the Pac 12 do this to themselves? The stated reason is to they can have a full six weeks to prepare for the opener. (Six weeks? Well, that’s six weeks after waiting three weeks after the “game-changer” came down.) The Big 10 can play faster than that. In reality, everybody can play faster than that. High schools don’t take six weeks to get ready. But the Pac-12 does, apparently.

There are rumors that some Pac-12 coaches are unhappy about this. Cool. But why aren’t they all unhappy about being relegated to insignificant status in their sport? Why isn’t Clay Helton publicly demanding that the conference give his team a fair shot at the playoff? We heard from Ryan Day and Jim Harbaugh. We heard from Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. Can Clay Helton not speak up and tell the truth – that the Pac-12 doesn’t need six weeks to get ready to play a football game? Can’t he speak up and say that his players want a shot at the playoff and that he wants to start on the same day as the Big 10? Can’t he stand up for his players and earn some of that $4 million per year by helping the conference avoid another unnecessary and disastrous decision?

The school presidents don’t know how to prepare a football team for the season. Larry Scott doesn’t know. The conference coaches do. (Well, some of them anyway.) Why aren’t they getting out in front of this thing and making clear that they can have their guys ready by October 23? Are the Pac-12 coaches so resigned to second-class status that they don’t even pretend to play major-college football anymore? Make millions a year to coach a half season of intramural ball? Count me in!  

My theory – and it’s only a theory, since none of the conference coaches has me on speed dial (is that even a thing anymore?) – is that the coaches already know that the playoff is ridiculous. Other than USC and Oregon, nobody even pretends to think about making the playoff this year, and USC and Oregon pretend to think about that only because of history in one case and a desire not to waste Uncle Phil’s walking-around money in the other case.

But what does matter to these coaches is their job security. It would be harder to prepare for a season in three, four, or even five weeks. And nobody wants to be risky when their jobs are on the line. (Not all of these coaches can simply set their jaws, you know. Some might get fired for poor performance.) So the Pac-12 coaches are fine not competing for the playoff. That was never the goal. Having six weeks of prep time so they feel more comfortable they can hold onto their jobs? That’ll do, donkey. That’ll do.

Well, maybe I shouldn’t complain. The Pac-12 will play. That’s better than expected. And I’m told it will be real football. I half expected this conference to vote that nobody can tackle in practices or games for social-distancing reasons. We didn’t go that far. USC may not tackle in practices, but it will be permitted to tackle in games, if it so chooses.

So get ready for another season of Pac-12 football. Kind of. A few of us diehards will pay attention; the rest of the nation likely won’t, because the games will have no national significance. And that’s sad. It means that the Pac-12 has cheated its current players of their opportunity, and it sends a very clear, very loud signal to elite recruits all over the country that playing in the Pac-12 is not much different than playing in the MAC or the Big Sky. We should have sent a different message.  And everybody – every single person associated with this string of bad decisions, from the school presidents, to Larry Scott, to the AD’s, to the football coaches – should be ashamed of themselves. Everybody except Kedon Slovis, the kid that salvaged a season. Or half of one.

What the heck. It’s half a season, and nobody but us cares, but it beats nothing. 

Cathago delenda est.

Chris Arledge

Chris Arledge is a graduate of USC’s Gould School of Law and is the co-founder and managing partner of an intellectual property law firm. Chris’s forgettable football career started at Elsinore High School, where his Tigers defeated Kyle Wachholtz’s Norco squad for the league title (Bring on Brad Otton’s team, too!), and ended at William Jewell College, where Chris was a team captain and an all-conference defensive back.

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