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Musings from Arledge: Pac-12 Problems

At most conference media days, there is chatter about the teams in that conference that might make a run at the national title – or in some conferences, chatter about the teams that always make a run at the national title. Not at Pac-12 media day, because the Pac-12 doesn’t have a single team that with a legitimate chance to win the national championship. Not one. Just like it didn’t last year. Just like it hasn’t had such a team most years over the last decade. And the whole college football world knows it. So at Pac-12 media day, people get to talk about all that is wrong with the conference.

One obvious topic is money, since the conference makes far less than its competitors and is going to continue to make far less than its competitors. Larry Scott has a solution, as well he should, being that he makes two and a half times what his colleague overseeing the SEC makes and makes substantially more than the leader of the ACC. That’s right, he makes vastly more money than the commissioners from conferences who win national titles.

From Scott’s palatial and shockingly expensive office, he has concluded that the answer to the Pac-12’s money woes is to play 9:00 am games. If you’re asking yourself why nobody else has ever thought of that, it’s because nobody wants to play in or attend a 9:00 am game. Still nobody wants to. It’s a bad solution. But Scott has a problem: he’s trying to sell a product nobody wants to buy, and he therefore cannot compete directly with the better product being offered by his competitors. His solution is to offer his product at a time nobody really wants football to ensure that his product is more competitive with the television offerings available at that time–like Dora the Explorer, I suppose. It’s almost as if CBS had concluded that, because it could not compete with Seinfeld, it would televise its best sitcom during the Saturday cartoons. We will dominate that time slot!

The Pac-12 likes to call itself the Conference of Champions. Champions of what? The Pac-12 wins a bunch of sports that nobody watches. That’s great for those student athletes. But consistently winning at things that don’t matter that much to the public or the competition isn’t really winning. If one publishing house is churning out millions of units of Harry Potter and Stephen King books, its rival down the street can’t really crow about being the leading publishing house because it leads every year in the sales of travel journals, cookbooks, and works in braille. If a conference wins a lot of Olympic sports that even its most devoted fans don’t watch, but it is embarrassing in football and basketball, that conference is not the conference of champions. It’s the conference of delusions.

It’s not clear to me what Larry Scott is doing to earn his paycheck and elaborate office. His Pac-12 Network plan has proven to be a catastrophe. The conference is sinking further and further under his watch. And he tells us that the money deficit will continue to grow for at least five years when, he believes, technological changes will make a favorable deal available. We’ll see. I’m not sure how many people are buying what Larry Scott is selling.

But the fundamental problem is not Scott, as questionable as his value may be. And it’s not a marketing failure. The fundamental problem is that Scott is trying to sell a lousy product. These days, the team that wins the Pac-12 is generally nowhere near the caliber of the teams that win the other conferences. Until the Pac-12 changes that, it will continue to offer a product that most of the people in the rest of the country just aren’t interested in watching. And offering a product that people don’t want is a surefire path to failure.

Part of the problem for the conference is demographics. All of the SEC with the possible exception of Missouri sits in prime recruiting territory. Lock up the best prospects within a two-hour drive of your school, and you’ll have ample talent to field good football teams. The Pac-12 doesn’t have that luxury. The Pacific northwest schools have to pull in large numbers of players from far away. So do Utah and Colorado. At least half the conference can’t recruit in their own backyards and succeed. There are some programs that can carry such a burden and be successful. Notre Dame can with the right coach. Nebraska could when it had the right coach. Wazzu and the Oregon schools? No chance. Utah? Nope.

This means that the SEC can have programs that are not performing up to their ceilings and still be okay. Tennessee has been terrible. Florida has largely struggled since Urban left. LSU and Auburn have had some down years recently. Before Saban arrived, Alabama was awful. But it’s hard for the entire conference to be bad, because there are just too many programs with favorable recruiting territory, tradition, and the desire to win. One or more of them will be successful just about all the time.

The ACC is not as strongly positioned. But it has managed to overcome pathetic showings by Florida State and Miami recently because of Clemson’s rise. Again, there are enough programs with fertile recruiting bases and resources such that somebody can rise to the top and make the conference relevant.

In the Pac-12, who is that? More than half of the conference has no chance to be a consistent power. Programs that could be great–Stanford, Cal, UCLA–haven’t made a real effort to be great. Only USC has the favorable recruiting territory and the tradition to be an elite power, and only USC has the national interest to make the Pac-12 relevant nationally. Nobody in the south is interested in watching a good Stanford team. In Ohio they’re not turning on the television for a good Washington team. When USC is good, people around the country are interested.

The Pac-12 doesn’t seem to care. The other schools were more than happy to watch their flagship program get dragged down by a vindictive and petty infractions committee if it meant they could compete a little better against the bully in their own conference. Kill the kulaks, never mind the harvest. And so they got their wish. The Lilliputians were able to compete with USC on a level playing field for a while, so they could chase after conference championships and bowl games that didn’t mean anything to anybody outside the far west.

But USC is the biggest culprit. USC has acted like it simply doesn’t care. Keeping Lane Kiffin after he had clearly lost the team only to fire him at the airport in the middle of the following season was not the act of a serious program. Hiring Steve Sarkisian was not the act of a serious program. Neither was hiring a completely unproven journeyman like Clay Helton. We’ve already debated whether a serious football program would keep Clay Helton after a season like last year’s, so we don’t need to belabor that. The university doesn’t provide resources for the same level of staff help that other football powers have. USC has created a kangaroo court system that punishes students on the basis of allegations and administrators’ ideology rather than evidence, a practice exposed in a series of court cases in recent years, and that kangaroo system has damaged USC’s football team. Were those players guilty of the charged offenses and deserving of their punishments? Who knows? That’s the problem with relying on a fundamentally unfair process rather than one consistent with traditional notions of due process. In all these ways and others, USC is just not a serious football school. And without a serious USC, the Pac-12 is not a serious football conference.

So for all the angst over Larry Scott’s performance – and I understand the angst, since the guy hasn’t accomplished anything of note since he’s been on the job – the bigger problem is the poor quality of Pac-12 football. Even if the conference had a brilliant leader, you can’t compete against BMW if all you have to sell is Trabants.

Of course, Larry Scott could make a difference in one major area: officiating. We’ll see whether the report from Sibson will have any impact. Most Pac-12 football fans – this one included – were immediately put off by the report’s conclusion that the conference’s officiating program is “fundamentally sound and predominantly consistent with industry best practice.” Just stop with that, already. If you watch much Pac-12 football, you know that Pac-12 officiating is a mess, and compared to the other major conferences, is badly in need of an overhaul. Pac-12 officials regularly seem to interject themselves into the game far too much, and the prevalence of blown calls has apparently destroyed the faith of just about every fan base. These are conclusions derived from anecdotal evidence, to be sure, and it therefore makes sense for the conference to do a major and thorough assessment.

But it’s frustrating that the conference chose not to release the report. Without it, we have no way of analyzing whether Sibson asked the right questions, relied on sound procedures to gather data, or whether its conclusions are soundly derived form the data it collected. Sorry, but in light of what many of us know about the consulting world, and in light of how little reason we have to trust the people who run the conference or most of the institutions therein, it’s difficult simply to assume that they got this right.

But there is a silver lining. Sibson did note that the conference needs to revise its training program and needs to open up the officiating ranks to new and better talent, and the conference says it will implement Sibson’s proposed changes. Time will tell whether these changes are enough. But at least the conference has been forced to admit that the officiating program has problems and had promised to make some changes.   

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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