PAC 12

Larry Scott, the Pac-12, and the complexities of conference leadership

October 1, 2016: PAC-12 Commissioner Larry Scott talks with Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach before  the game between Oregon Ducks and the Washington State Cougars at the Martin Stadium in Pullman, Washington. (Photo by Steve Conner/Icon Sportswire)
Steve Conner/Icon Sportswire

The circus surrounding the Big 12 false alarm on expansion, ably reported on by the great Wendell Barnhouse here at Today’s U, has shone a spotlight on conference governance and the constant jockeying for position in the Power Five pecking order.

This has been a great year for the ACC with the announcement of the ACC Network and the rise of Louisville as a league power (at least, a team which shows signs of becoming one). The ACC is deeper than it’s been in some time. The basketball realm is a lush garden paradise with two Final Four teams and four Elite Eight teams last spring. John Swofford has certainly pushed the right buttons with great frequency.

The SEC and Big Ten led the nuclear arms race for television dollars — not always for the good of college football, but certainly for their own coffers. This financial enrichment has been made possible by forward-looking leadership, but the SEC and Big Ten have passionate fan bases which insist on quality coverage and will punish — with their wallets — wayward decisions among broadcast outlets and corporate entities which don’t meet their needs.

In this larger college sports ecosystem sits the Pac-12.

The league is better run than the immensely dysfunctional Big 12, but that’s a low bar to clear. Commissioner Larry Scott lives in an environment in which the SEC, Jim Delany, and Swofford enjoy entrenched power and marketplace clout. Judged by the standards set in Birmingham (where the SEC offices exist), Greensboro, North Carolina (ACC), and Rosemont, Illinois (Big Ten), Scott will look like a lightweight.

For this reason, any of Scott’s failings are magnified, and his successes are overlooked or minimized.

This piece today is concerned with offering a levelheaded appraisal of Scott’s job performance — not an apologia, but not a hit piece, either.

As is usually the case in life, the truth of a situation exists between extreme interpretations.

What’s important to note, though, is that if you asked Pac-12 fans about Scott’s performance, most will respond negatively. (That’s not scientific fact, but it’s an assessment derived from continued study of Pac-12 fan bases in various social forums.)

This will sound like apologetics on Scott’s behalf, but I believe that Scott — while clearly unable to leverage various situations to his conference’s advantage, and deserving of forceful criticism on a number of issues — has done a much better job than his prevailing public reputation in the West would suggest.


The Pac-12 placed only one team in the New Year’s Six last season. It missed the College Football Playoff. The advent of the playoff has placed excruciating pressure on each of the Power Five conferences. No one wants to be the one left out, so the Pac-12’s exclusion has understandably turned up the heat on Scott.

Two issues persistently nip at Scott’s heels when his body of work and the Pac-12’s national standing are discussed:

  1. Visibility. Playing games late at night remains an issue, as does the impasse with DirecTV, leading to lasting and deep frustration among many Americans who can’t watch Pac-12 Network, even if they wanted to.
  2. The nine-game league schedule in a non-round robin (i.e., non-Big 12) context, which has certainly contributed to a number of New Year’s Six (formerly BCS) bowl berths going begging. This is also believed to be a playoff impediment, and the 2015 whiff propelled the argument made by Scott’s most unforgiving critics.

These are legitimate points. The SEC stays at eight conference games and does really well as a result of playing well-positioned cupcake games. The SEC and Big Ten are the leagues in position to get three teams into the New Year’s Six. The SEC got three teams in the NY6 in 2014, the Big Ten three last year. It is entirely fair to say that Scott has made (or failed to change) decisions which undercut the Pac-12’s ability to maximize NY6 spots, revenue, and national visibility.

This is why fans get so upset, and why the DirecTV failure becomes more of an issue than it would have been if the Pac was packing the NY6 and the playoff with member schools each year.

These ARE valid points, but they’re not the whole story.


Forget the fact that Scott just got a deal done with DISH Network to give the Pac-12 4 million new subscribers. I never intended to write about that or make light of it; the news happened to break before I sat down to write this column.

What’s worth highlighting in an appraisal of Scott’s leadership is that the Pac-12 Network, for all its limitations, has still pumped in more money to the conference. With this money, more league schools have been able to attract quality coaches.

Some of these coaches are currently struggling — see Rich Rodriguez at Arizona — but they have accomplished something of note in previous parts of their careers. It is reasonable to say that the Pac-12 has a more talented pool of coaches than ever before. It’s a gateway to the money line when discussing Scott, warts and all.

For all of Scott’s shortcomings, missed deals, and unresolved situations, he brought the conference into the 21st century after the tenure of former commissioner Tom Hansen, who lived in the 20th century and is best remembered as a man who developed an Olympic sports powerhouse but failed to cultivate football. Pac-12 football has brought Chris Petersen and Mike Leach to the Northwest, revitalizing Washington and Washington State. Gary Andersen is clearly rebuilding Oregon State. He should have a good team in two years. Mike MacIntyre has Colorado in position to win the Pac-12 South. Oregon and Stanford are suffering, but achieved very richly over the past seven years.

If Scott deserves criticism for what he’s failed to do — and he does — other sources of the Pac-12’s national limitations on the football field can’t be ignored or denied.

Can we stop for a moment and note that UCLA has failed to win the Pac-10/12 since 1998, when it should be doing a far better job? Can we note that Pat Haden was an awful athletic director at USC, and that Clay Helton appears to be a second-rate hire, following in the footsteps of similarly bad hires?

What if USC hired an elite coach — as it did with Pete Carroll — and Oregon picks the right successor to Mark Helfrich in 2017, assuming it fires the coach in a few weeks? The Pac-12 might stop underachieving in terms of playoff or NY6 spots.

Programs and fan bases have legitimate gripes with Larry Scott, but when USC and UCLA are so consistently failing to be what they ought to be on the gridiron, it’s very difficult to view the nine-game league schedule and DirecTV as more central reasons for the Pac-12’s shortcomings.

Coaching and administration at league schools hold the central keys to the Pac-12’s short-term future.

Viewing Larry Scott as the embodiment of the league’s problems is shortsighted and, ultimately, unfair.

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