Pac-12: A Conference in Decline

The Pac-12 Conference is – undeniably – the “Conference of Champions”.

Schools from the Pac-12 have claimed over 400 NCAA titles. Next in line is the Big Ten, still looking to top 200.

The Pac-12 has three schools – Stanford (115); UCLA (114); and USC (104) – with over 100 national championships. Next in line is Oklahoma State … with 51.

And it’s not as if the Pac-12 is letting up. In the current (2017-18) Learfield Directors’ Cup standings, representing how Division 1 schools are faring against one another in Fall Sports, the Pac-12 is dominating. Stanford is No. 1 (The Cardinal has won the Cup so often – 23 straight years – that they may as well retire the trophy), with UCLA at No. 3 and Colorado in at No. 6. Five other schools – USC: Oregon; Washington; Washington State and Cal – are all in the Top 25 of the rankings.

So, as Alfred E. Neuman would say, “What – Me Worry?”.

Truth be told, however, the Pac-12 has plenty to worry about.

While the conference continues to pile up national championships in water polo and fencing, in the two sports where national attention – and $$$$ – matter the most, football and men’s basketball, the Pac-12 is falling behind.

Way behind.

The debacle which has been the 2017 bowl season is only the latest symptom. The Pac-12 went 1-8 in bowl games this December, and it wasn’t pretty.

A brief recap of some of the embarrassments:

  • Oregon lost to Boise State, 38-28, in the Las Vegas Bowl. The final score is misleading, however. The Broncos were ahead of the Ducks, 24-0, in the second quarter, but then gave up back-to-back turnovers which were returned over 85 yards for Oregon scores. Had Boise State held onto the ball on those possessions, and even settled for field goals, it would have been 30-0 at the break, instead of 24-14;
  • UCLA lost to Kansas State, 35-17, in the Cactus Bowl. Playing without quarterback Josh Rosen, the Bruins raced out to a 17-7 second quarter lead … only to be out-scored, 28-0, the rest of the game;
  • USC lost to Ohio State, 24-7, in the Cotton Bowl. The Buckeyes rolled to a 24-0 lead, with the only score posted by Sam Darnold and the Trojan offense coming on a 15-yard drive after recovering a muffed punt;
  • Arizona State lost to North Carolina State, 52-31, in the Sun Bowl. The Wolfpack coasted to a 38-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, before the teams started swapping touchdowns to make the final score less appalling.

The only victory for the Pac-12 in bowl action came when Utah defeated West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Even that win was tempered by the fact that the Mountaineers played without its starting quarterback, Will Grier, who sat out with an injury, and 1,000-yard running back Justin Crawford, who bypassed the game in order to prepare for the NFL draft.

An argument can be made that bowl games are just exhibitions, and should not be taken as a barometer of actual prowess. If that were the case, then a conference could expect to win about half of its bowl games in any given year. This year, however, the Pac-12’s 1-8 record set a new standard for ineptness, while the Big Ten, the other conference shut out of the College Football Playoffs, is 7-0 (including a tidy 4-0 record over the Pac-12).

If bowl records are not a true measure of how the Pac-12 is faring against its fellow Power-Five brethren, then let’s look at a few other yardsticks:

— College Football Playoff appearances. This is the fourth year of the College Football Playoffs. The Pac-12 has had two representatives in the four years (Oregon in 2014-15; Washington last season). In that same time frame, the SEC has had five representatives, including two this year alone (Alabama and Georgia). With USC, Washington and Stanford – top 15 teams in the final regular season polls – all losing their bowl games, the Pac-12 will finish the 2017 season with no teams in the top ten nationally, much less the top four;

— National championships. The Pac-12 hasn’t had a national champion in football since USC in 2004 … and that title was vacated. The 2003 Trojans won the Associated Press national title, but LSU was the BCS national title game winner. In 1991, Washington split the title with Miami, and in 1990 (if you want to count the Buffs as members of the Pac-12), Colorado split the title with Georgia Tech.

If you want to find a Pac-8, Pac-10, Pac-12 undisputed national champion, you have to go back to USC in 1972 (the Trojans also shared titles in 1974 and 1978). That’s a long drought without national bragging rights.

— Show me the money. If you don’t regularly follow Jon Wilner at the San Jose Mercury News, you should. Wilner covers the Pac-12, and often has insightful stories about the Pac-12, the Pac-12 Networks, and the conference inner-workings. This fall, he noted that the distributions to Pac-12 schools are not only behind those of other conferences, they are way behind:

Hotline projections for FY18 distributions:

Big Ten: $51.1 million
SEC: $45+ million
Pac-12: $32.5 million

That’s a $19 million difference per school between the Big Ten and Pac-12. Tally it up over a five-year period, and each Big Ten athletic department has $95 million more to work with than its Pac-12 peer.

“This is a concern of the Pac-12 presidents and I can tell you it’s a large discussion point with meetings with the commissioner at every single meeting,” (Washington State president Kirk) Schulz added.

“Because everybody needs these revenues to be competitive, not just within the Pac-12, but hey, the Pac-12 schools have got to be competitive with ACC, the SEC and the Big Ten and Big 12, and we’re falling behind.”

While the running of the Pac-12 Networks is receiving (much deserved) scrutiny, it’s not just that the Pac-12 Networks failures which are bringing about the demise of the conference. The existing television contracts have made “Pac-12 After Dark” a running national joke, with the majority of the nation in bed before some – and sometimes most – of the Pac-12 games have concluded.

And it’s not as if men’s basketball is helping the Pac-12’s stature.

In Joe Lunardi’s current bracketology, there are only four teams from the Pac-12 destined to make the NCAA tournament this spring, the same number picked by Jerry Palm at CBS Sports (The ACC, meanwhile has ten teams playing in the big dance; the Big 12 and SEC seven apiece).

Saturday night, No. 17 Arizona defeated No. 3 Arizona State, 84-78, handing the Sun Devils their first loss of the season. A capacity crowd of 14,644 were on hand at the McKale Center for the hard-fought victory for the home team.

And that’s about all who watched the game.

The contest was shown on the Pac-12 Network. Good for the Network; bad for the Pac-12 conference, as only about one-fifth of the televisions in the nation had access to the game.

Throw in the FBI investigations which include assistant coaches at the Pac-12’s flagship basketball programs, Arizona and UCLA … well, you get the idea.

So, what can be done?

Jon Wilner has proposed the Pac-12 form a committee to oversee scheduling, so that the best teams in the conference aren’t playing Friday night road games after Saturday road games, which have served to provide upsets … but ultimately hurt the conference with reduced national rankings, and with them, reduced national revenue.

Wilner is also a proponent – or at least sees the value – of USC return to its dynastic ways. Having the Trojans in the national hunt each season is seemingly the only way for the Pac-12 to maintain national relevance. Adam Rittenberg at ESPN also penned a column this summer, “The Pac-12 needs to take a page out of the ACC’s playbook“, saying a USC/Washington domination, along the lines of Florida State and Clemson in the ACC, could save the conference.

The way the 2017 ended, there will be predictions of the start of a USC dynasty in the 2018 preseason magazines. The Trojans (their loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl notwithstanding), did post the first ever conference title for the Pac-12 South, and every other team in the division lost at least six games in 2017. USC will be a heavy favorite to repeat in the South next fall.

Will that be enough to pull the Pac-12 conference into national relevance?

Not likely.

The entire conference will have to endure a long off-season of hearing about the 1-8 bowl record. The Pac-12 coffers will go another year falling further and further behind other Power-Five conferences.

And the Pac-12 Network … continues to be the Pac-12 Network.

The Pac-12 isn’t going to be relegated to a lower division in our lifetimes. The television networks aren’t going to be interested in seeing the Pac-12 replaced among the Power Five conference by the likes of the Mountain West or the MAC.

But the decline of the “Conference of Champions” is real.

And there is no obvious turnaround coming in the foreseeable future …


4 Replies to “Pac-12: A Conference in Decline”

  1. PAC -12 Athletics in decline ?

    If and only if Football and Basketball are going to be the metric by which we measure success and consistency of Collegiate Athletic Department achievements. Stuart, as you noted above Stanford, UCLA and USC are truly in a ‘League of Their Own’ when it comes to overall athletic supremacy.

    I would venture, when one looks at CU’s 26 National Team Championships the ratio of All sports’ to Football, Basketball National Championships in addition to Academic Accreditation CU is clearly marked as a PAC 12 type of program. IMO we are in the Conference where we belong.

    As Wilner rightly points out we are not keeping up in the NCAA Revenue Stream Race; but, I would hardly go all in that the sporting landscape in this country will look the same two decades from now as it does today.

    I am old enough to remember in the late 1950’s how prognosticators who predicted the growth of Professional Football and Basketball, were basically crazy and baseball would reign supreme forever. Then came the AFL and ABA.

    The PAC 12 needs to do what is BEST for its member institutions and “THEIR STUDENT /athletes” in particular we should schedule to meet their needs and contract with the various media on our terms. By the way if anything is in a flux and is going to see continued drastic changes in the next 5 years, it is media and how we access content.

    Welcome home CU, the PAC 12, it is where you BELONG.

  2. As long as we are talking about recruiting I wonder how much the late game starts affect it. The lack of viewership leads to a lack if attention that has to ripple out to recruiting. Conversely the overwhelming attention and money the SEC gets seems to keeps their momentum rolling.
    There is a culture difference as well. Spectator sports arent as popular in the West where the lure of the spectacular terrain leads to more individual sport and out door rec. The diversity of recreation in the West leads to more diversity in sport and other areas of culture. This was one argument for CU joining the PAC 12.
    Its fine with me though. As much as I like football I would probably consider killing myself if I had to live in Alabama. To be honest, if I had to choose between football and my trips to the mountains and desert canyons, football would be last. I do see a time when population growth and greed destroy the recreational opportunities afforded to individuals in the West. Maybe then the PAC 12 will catch up in football along with NASCAR.

  3. As football goes, so goes the status of the PAC-12. And as everyone knows, the life blood of every college football program rests on a team’s ability to recruit. A review of this year’s ESPN 300 Ranking show that the first high school player to sign with a PAC-12 team was at #23 (Palaie Gaoteote to USC) followed by Jacob Sirmon with Washington at #30 and Dorian Thompson-Robinson to UCLA at #51. So the PAC-12 got 2 players out of the top 50 – Not good if you want to dominate college football. We can contest the validity of the high school ranking system but if a particular conference (ACC, SEC, BIG 10) are consistently getting the preponderance of high quality high school players, it is no wonder that those program are going to rise to the top. The Buffs recruiting results were nice (#38 nationally) but it is going to take a whale of a better job coaching than what we saw this last year if they want to be competitive. Maybe with Chip Kelly at UCLA we will see the caliber of recruiting in the whole conference improve. Competition only makes one better and certainly UCLA will give USC a run for the roses within a year or two and that will make everyone else better.

    Don’t get me started on the disaster of a program MBB has become at CU. It has gone steadily down over the last 3 years and this year could be way worse than last. I think Rick George has a real problem because Tad is a local product that would be hard to move. With the league being down this year, one would hope CU could take advantage of it. Of course injuries and the NCAA has hurt them bad. It’s always wait until next year it seems with MBB.

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