The Pac-10 Has More Work Ahead to Overcome Natural Disadvantages
Earlier this week, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott turned Horace Greeley's mantra on its ear, employing a "Go east, young man!" philosophy. Scott, joined by all 10 of his conference's head coaches and the Pac-10's four highest-profile quarterbacks (Matt Barkley, USC; Nick Foles, Arizona; Andrew Luck, Stanford; and Jake Locker, Washington), flew cross-country for media howdy-do's in the twin metropolises of Manhattan and Bristol, Conn. The coaches, by the way, flew in two separate jets, five per plane (no, it was not nine in one jet and Lane Kiffin in another).
Less than 72 hours later, all of them were back in Pasadena for Pac-10 media day at the Rose Bowl. Remember when Traveler was just a horse on the sidelines of the Los Angeles Coliseum?
Scott, 45, has been on the job 13 months. He's the former captain of the Harvard tennis team, is energetic, affable and intelligent. He is also progressive, even if "former captain of the Harvard tennis team" sounds like a line that would more likely impress Daisy Buchanan than, say, the college football punditry class. And yet we are. The pilgrimage to New York City, first and foremost, made the opinion-shapers of the sport feel awfully important and say to, and amongst, themselves (continuing The Great Gatsby theme), "That Scott's a real swell."
This is something that Charlie Weis never did quite get.
Already, Scott has overseen the commissioning of a new Pac-10 logo (that's called reinventing the brand), which will soon be modified to become a Pac-12 logo. Too, he has commissioned a video that this autumn will be seen on every Jumbotron west of Tucumcari, New Mexico.
Bold moves? Yes. And yet it was symbolic -- and likely not coincidental -- that the highest-profile college football story to appear online this week involved the curious case of Jeremiah (rhymes with "pariah") Masoli, the quarterback who last year played at Oregon and is now headed to Mississippi to play for a man named Houston. Got that?
Masoli began his undergraduate career at the City College of San Francisco, the same school where O.J. Simpson launched his. Either Masoli, or U-Dub's Locker, entered the spring as the conference's top Heisman Trophy candidate, although we must note that the last non-USC Trojan Pac-10 player to win the Heisman Trophy (do you know?) was ... in 1970 ... from Stanford ... Jim Plunkett.
I grew up in a Pac-10 town -- Tempe, Ariz. I attended games at Arizona State in the late 1970s that drew more than 70,000 screaming, rabid fans. Although, nowadays, outside of Corvallis and Eugene, such fanaticism and fervor is largely absent (and rushing the field because ESPN's cameras are there does not count).
I already know that the Pac-10 is home to the most scenic parts of the country, something that the Pac-10 video accentuates, yet not nearly enough. Where are the shots of the Grand Canyon? Mount Rainier? Half Dome? Crater Lake or Lake Tahoe? Heck, this is the region that gave us "Double rainbow. Oh my God!"
I already know that the Pac-10 is home to some of the nation's sexiest campuses (the utopian destination of 1985's "The Sure Thing" was UCLA, while 1984's "Revenge of the Nerds" was filmed at the University of Arizona) and, yes, most attractive female undergrads. Towns such as Eugene, Tucson and yes, even Pullman, are unique and charming in their own way, while Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Phoenix/Tempe and Seattle are metropolises that double as vacation destinations. If you cover college football, you can't beat the Pac-10 beat.
And I already know that the Pac-10, purely on the gridiron, has as impressive a curriculum vitae as any conference. The Rose Bowl, the conference's bowl game, is not only the "granddaddy of 'em all," it is the best. Ask any sports writer who has attended it. No school has been awarded more Heismans than USC's seven, even if the Trojans now claim to have six.
The conference has been relevant since its inception in 1915 as the Pacific Coast Conference. Gil Dobie's teams at the University of Washington were in the midst of a 63-game win streak at the time, which remains a Division I record (yes, Pac-10 schools are responsible for both the longest basketball and football win streaks in major college history). It can lay claim to iconic figures from Ernie Nevers (Stanford) to John Elway (also Stanford) to Jack Thompson ("The Throwin' Samoan," -- now there's a nickname) to, yes, O.J., to Pat Tillman (Arizona State).
The Pac-10 can lay claim to the most famous play and most infamous band in all of college football. That "The Play" culminated with a Cal player crashing into members of that band, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band is poetic.
All of which is to say that it's almost embarrassing, if not demeaning, that the Pac-10 feels as if it needs a splashy logo or propaganda video (watching it, I was reminded of the video for that sleazy agricultural corporation in "Michael Clayton") to promote itself. And it is beyond pathetic that the Pac-10, which has so much to offer and with two of the country's five largest cities (No. 2, Los Angeles and No. 5, Phoenix) in its home turf, finished last in revenue among the six BCS conferences in 2009. In fact, according to Andy Staples of SI.com, both the Big Ten and the Big 12 earned more than double the Pac-10's $96.8 million sum.
The most stunning example of the disconnect between perception and reality in the Pac-10, though, may be Toby Gerhart. Last season for Stanford, Gerhart led the nation in total rushing yards, points scored and touchdowns, and his bulldozing carries were tailor-made (as well as Taylor Mays'd) for SportsCenter. And yet Gerhart, a senior, finished second in the Heisman balloting to a running back -- Alabama's Mark Ingram.
Although the balloting was close -- the closest in Heisman history, in fact -- it is reasonable to infer that the ultimate difference had much to do with the fact that Ingram, a sophomore, plays in the SEC while Gerhart played in the Pac-10. And the SEC, as everyone has heard -- accurately -- is the toughest conference in college football.
The logo, the video, the new directive that receptionists at the league office answer the phone by saying, "Pac-10" as oppose to "Pacific-10," those are fine. But what Scott needs to do, and what he appears to understand, is that this is not what it's all about. What it's about is 1) exposure, 2) stories and 3) culture. Let me then outline the plan that Scott and his team must follow to put the Pac-10 where it rightfully belongs: in the upper half of the top six conferences in college football.
Does it often feel to you as if, with the exception of USC, that you only see Pac-10 games when ESPN goes back to the studio and Rece Davis offers a look-in to a game currently airing on Fox Sports Net? FSN has a much greater presence in the Pacific time zone than it does on the east coast, but that isn't the part of the country where Scott needs to grow his brand.
The Pac-10, due to the impractical reality of a heliocentric solar system, will always lag three hours behind New York and the rest of the eastern corridor. Thus, that noon Saturday window will always be closed to the league unless it chooses to kick off at 9 a.m. local time (which, you may recall, Boise State and San Jose State of the WAC agreed to do a few years back in order to be seen on ESPN2).
With that in mind, the Pac-10 must become far more aggressive in placing its best game either in that 3:30 p.m. (Eastern time) window on ABC or in the 8 p.m. window on ESPN. ABC gets the national prime-time game, which sometimes feature a Pac-10 (read: USC) team or a Pac-10 conference game. However, that prime-time ESPN game that airs concurrently is almost always an SEC game. Cutting into the SEC's prime-time air time, particularly when the Brent-and-Kirk contest does not feature a Pac-10 school, needs to become a priority.
Second, the Pac-10 must make traveling east a priority -- not just in July. Scott must continue to make playing at least one game east of the Mississippi (including at Mississippi) every other season a priority for each school. USC visits South Bend every other year, and in consecutive years UCLA and Oregon will have visited Knoxville. SEC programs can afford to stay home because they happen to be in the two most viable time zones. For the Pac-10, however, a journey east gives a program an opportunity to perform in that noon or 3:30 window. They just have to hope that, with the three-hour difference, players don't hit the snooze button at kickoff, as Cal did when it fell behind Maryland 28-6 after a noon start in 2008.
The most recognized, discussed person in Pac-10 football is not a player. It's coach Lane Kiffin at USC. The Pac-10 has the most intriguing collection of young coaches in the nation in Kiffin, Stanford's Jim "What's your deal?" Harbaugh, Washington's Steve Sarkisian and Arizona's Mike Stoops. Lump in human sound-bite Rick Neuheisel of UCLA and Oregon's Chip Kelly and you have the most alluring cadre of coaches, from a media standpoint, of any conference in the nation. Play 'em up, particularly the nascent alpha-dog rivalry that is sure to develop between Harbaugh and Kiffin.
Washington's Jake Locker is the top-rated quarterback for the 2011 NFL draft heading into this season. Matt Barkley is to Kiffin what Rod Tidwell was to Jerry Maguire, i.e., the difference between survival and the abyss. Owen Marecic is going to start at both linebacker and fullback for Stanford. Vontaze Burfict of Arizona State has received three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties since you began reading this story. Oregon State's Jacquizz and James Rodgers are the most interesting fraternity to be set in the state of Oregon since Delta Tau Chi ("Animal House" was filmed in Eugene; yes, Oregon State is in Corvallis). Speaking of Eugene, LaMichael James finished ninth in the nation in rushing as a freshman -- gaining more yards per game and per carry than Heisman Trophy winner Ingram -- last season.
We should be hearing more about all these people. We should at least know what they look like. Again, that goes back to Scott cozying up to ESPN. Scott should exploit the fact that Jenn Brown, the heiress apparent to Erin Andrews, lives in Los Angeles in order to garner more feature stories on College GameDay. In the past decade or so, the Pac-10's inclusion on the popular pregame program has largely been limited to whatever Shelley Smith was reporting out of Pete Carroll's camp.
This is the most difficult fix of all. Anyone who has attended college football games nationwide will tell you that, outside of Eugene, the Pac-10 cannot compete with the Big Ten, SEC or Big 12 in terms of the game-day experience. Not at least in terms of intensity.
The Rose Bowl, UCLA's home, is sublime. And Husky Stadium has that waterfront property. And USC has, or had, those star-studded sidelines (assuming that The Fonz, Henry Winkler, is still a star).
However, if you could transport someone on game day from Beaver Stadium to Sun Devil Stadium, or from Neyland Stadium to Stanford Stadium, their first reaction would be, "Who turned off all the noise?"
How do you change that culture? To a certain degree, given the quality of life, you cannot. College football will always be more important in Happy Valley than the Valley of the Sun because 1) there are no professional sports franchises in the former and 2) there's a greater variety of options with what to do on a Saturday in the latter.
When Alabama loses, upset Tide fans have been known to try and kill their own kin. When UCLA loses, you go surfing.
How does Scott combat this problem? Since he cannot turn back time -- the ASU teams I saw play along with 70,000 others played in a city that had only one pro sports franchise (the Phoenix Suns) where now there are four -- he must turn up the talent. Nothing attracts a crowd in sports like a winner. The sooner the Pac-10 escapes its "USC and the Nine Dwarfs" image, the sooner it produces more top 10 teams, the sooner it has more programs besides USC that resemble, well, the Oklahoma Sooners, then the sooner Larry Scott accomplishes his mission.
Logos and videos are cosmetic and, worse, artificial. Memories are what build fan loyalty. Ask any USC fan which is more powerful: the 1:47 video the Pac-10 just released or the 1:55 drive at the end of the 2005 game at Notre Dame?