When it rains, it pours: That should have been the slogan for the Pac-12 in the last year.
It was bad enough for the “conference of champions” to be excluded from the College Football Playoff, for its teams to go a combined 1-8 in postseason play and for its champion, USC, to be thumped by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.
That was not the most humiliating thing the Pac-12 went through in the last six months. Not even close. In men’s basketball, it sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament. Two of them lost in the play-in round: ASU fell to Syracuse and UCLA couldn’t beat St. Bonaventure (who?). And Arizona better be thankful that top seed Virginia lost to 16-seed UBMC, because otherwise its humiliation at the hands of Buffalo would’ve been the defining upset of the tournament. The Pac-12 became the first Power Six conference in history to fail to send a team to the second round of March Madness.
How about USC, which began the season ranked 10th in the country? It finished the year unranked, was snubbed from the tournament and saw its season end with a loss in the second round of the NIT to Western Kentucky. Oh, and it remains also still embroiled in an FBI investigation that resulted in its best player, De’Anthony Melton, leaving school early and its associate coach, Tony Bland, being arrested.
That’s still not the worst of it. Arizona, the Pac-12’s only real brand name nationally for men’s basketball, has literally zero recruits for next season because it, too, is caught in the FBI pay-for-play sting. The Wildcats also had an assistant coach arrested and their head coach, Sean Miller, was reportedly wiretapped discussing a $100,000 payment. Arizona is not going to be good again for a long, long time.
And we haven’t even gotten into how three UCLA men’s basketball players were arrested for shoplifting in China. When this is the fifth worst thing that has happened to your conference in the span of a few months, you know you’ve had a bad year.
So where do we go from here? How does a conference that has become nothing short of a national embarrassment redeem itself? It depends on whether we’re talking about the short or long-term problems.
By short term, we’re talking the results we see on the field or the court. In football, the Pac-12 is better than the 1-8 postseason showing — there were circumstances and match-ups that created the perfect storm. Don’t forget that last season, Washington played Alabama in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff and USC toppled Penn State in the Rose Bowl. And in basketball last season, three teams made it into the Sweet 16 and Oregon advanced to the Final Four.
It’s possible that the results we saw this season were anomalies, just one bad break after another. It happens. But it’s the Pac-12’s job to put its schools in position to never have these instances happen again, and that’s where Commissioner Larry Scott and the Pac-12’s long-term problems come in.
Let’s start with the Pac-12 Network, which has been an unmitigated disaster for the conference. While SEC and Big Ten programs are raking in around $8 million in revenue from their TV contracts, Pac-12 schools received just $2.5 million in 2017. That might still seem like a lot of money, but when you’re trying to keep up with the likes of Alabama or Michigan, it’s a paltry sum. Add in the fact that the Pac-12 still can’t reach an agreement with DirecTV and you have a network that’s making little profit and not giving its programs the requisite exposure — the worst of both worlds.
Speaking of exposure, the start times are not conducive at all. Nobody is staying up for a 10:45 p.m. kickoff time on the East Coast to watch Washington State play football on ESPN2. They’re just not.
And then there’s the scheduling. USC last season was a prime example. Keep in mind that the Trojans were probably the Pac-12’s best shot at producing a playoff team, and then, listen to this: USC was forced to play 12 straight weeks without a bye, and by the end of the season, it was pummeled by injuries. It had to play Washington State in Pullman, Wash., on a Friday night after playing a road game the week before. And it had to play Notre Dame on the road, a week after facing a tough Utah team at home.
These are not excuses for USC’s two regular season losses. Rather, it’s the fact that the conference did not put the Trojans in a position to succeed by handing them a terrible schedule that ultimately left them outside the playoff picture. Why does Alabama, which won the national championship, get to play Mercer in the middle of the season and essentially take that week off for rest? Because the SEC actually puts its best teams in a position to succeed.
Perhaps Scott is doing enough to satisfy the presidents, chancellors and athletic directors of the universities he works with — he does make $4.2 million a year, the highest of any conference CEO. But from the outside looking in, it’s pretty unanimous that the Pac-12 is in need of repair, that steps need to be taken to ensure the dumpster fire that was the 2017-2018 season will never happen again.
Eric He is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Thursdays.