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PANIC! at Pac-12 Headquarters

Jon Wilner thinks the Pac-12 needs some fixing - is it bad that I can’t be bothered to care?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JUL 26 Pac-12 Media Day Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last few weeks half paying attention to a bunch of bowl games, and laughing as our Pac-12 rivals collectively soiled themselves. Much fun was had by all!

Unless, of course, your job is to write about the Serious Business that is college football. If that’s the case, the Pac-12’s collective 1-8 showing in bowl games is narrative mana from narrative heaven.

To the extent that the Pac-12 has a definitive print voice, that voice is Jon Wilner. Thanks in large part to his excellent reporting on the business/administration side of the Pac-12, his writing is visible and influential. And he did not pull any punches in a column that came out on New Year’s Eve, less than 24 hours after Washington fell to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl:

Had planned to spend the weekend piecing together a year-in-review piece, but we’re changing course to account for what sure feels like the early stage of a crisis situation for the conference’s football product.

I don’t use that description lightly, not in the slightest.

But after a bad regular season on the field, a worse regular season off the field (Kirk Herbstreit! cupcakes! truck racing!) and an unprecedented postseason meltdown — plus several natural headwinds — it’s fair to say the football finger should be inching toward the panic button.

Crisis! Unprecedented! Panic! Wilner’s extended article goes on to use adjectives and metaphors like ‘rotten smell,’ ‘horrific sight,’ ‘bleak’ and ‘meltdown.’ I find the article to be juuuuuust a tad over-the-top.

To be fair, Wilner acknowledges that the 1-8 bowl record by itself wouldn’t have led to this level of criticism, which makes it feel like he’s cherry-picking off of an unusual confluence of factors that led to the bowl face-plant to strengthen his larger argument about the Pac-12’s internal failures. Which, for the record, Wilner lists as follows:

  • Poor football performance compared to other Power 5 conferences
  • Scheduling issues/media licensing issues
  • Revenue gaps as compared to other Power 5 conferences
  • The Pac-12 network not producing any content for the early signing period

And summarizes the issue thusly:

The missteps encountered by the Pac-12 don’t happen to any other conference.

At this point, I’d guess that you, the reader, are nodding your head in agreement with Mr. Wilner. And I don’t particularly blame you! The Pac-12 has bumbled through a variety of issues, and I don’t think Larry Scott is anywhere close to the brilliant visionary he was marketed as upon his hire to lead the conference. But I’m going to take issue with the entire premise of Wilner’s article based on two issues. One is an immutable reality that was left out of his column. The other is an opinion. Let’s start with the unmentioned issue that directly leads to every problem Wilner describes in his article:

The Pac-12 faces an insurmountable deficit in fan population, attention, and engagement that conference administration will never overcome or solve.

This is the reason that the Pac-12 will always make less money than every other power 5 program. This is the reason that the Pac-12 signed a media deal that gave their network partners the power to put marquee games on days and times that are inconvenient for west coast fans and the programs themselves. This is the reason that the Pac-12 Network became a cable carrier debacle.

Unless and until fans nationwide are as interested as watching USC as they are Alabama, Washington State as they are Michigan State, or Arizona State as they are Georgia Tech, the Pac-12 will never have competitive equality with the rest of the Power 5 conferences. It’s an issue that has caused the conference angst for as long as I’ve been paying attention and almost certainly longer.

And honestly, I’m not super sympathetic to the idea that the administrators of the Pac-12 are dumber or more mistake prone that, say, the administrators of the Big 10 or the Big 12. It’s just that when the Big 10 or Big 12 makes an idiotic decision (like, say, to allow Rutgers into the conference, or randomly restructuring your conference each year in panicking reaction to the whims of the selection committee) that decision is masked by the legions of ravenous fans who keep the media rights deals the Big 10 signs ultra lucrative. Administrators in every conference make good decisions and bad decisions in equal measure, but the underlying demographics of college sports stay largely the same and are significantly more impactful to the bottom line.

So, keeping in mind that the Pac-12 faces an inherent revenue disadvantage that has been in place for years . . . well, how much energy should I, a fan of a Pac-12 team, really expend fretting?

Maybe if I were a fan of Washington or USC I’d get upset . . . but at the same time, you know what was a bigger factor in failing to make the playoffs than Pac-12 front office fumbling? Getting pantsed by Arizona State and Notre Dame, respectively. I don’t really think it’s a revenue disadvantage that caused those losses for those programs.

Wilner’s article ends with a call for the Pac-12 to create a ‘competition committee’ that ostensibly would exist to recommend/demand changes that would increase the Pac-12’s competitiveness with the rest of the Power 5. Which is fine. But the Pac-12 has already ended the Saturday-to-Friday-road-game swing that made so many teams angry this year. And I don’t need to remind you that, just one year ago, the Pac-12 placed a team in the college football playoffs and went 6-2 in bowl games. Or that THIS year, Pac-12 schools managed to pay millions to buy out coaches that ranged from iffy to down right adequate in attempts (ill-advised or not) to win more often.

Because let’s be honest: unless your school happens to be sitting on mountains of debt thanks to a ill-advised, mis-timed financing plan (Go Bears!), your school has more money than they know what to do with. So you just plow increasing millions into coaching salaries, or facilities, or whatever, and cross your fingers and hope that it means better recruiting.

So allow me to get back to that 2nd issue I promised a while back, which is my opinion about the entire hullabaloo:

College football just isn’t important enough for this level of hand-wringing . . . about this particular issue

I know it’s kinda lazy to just waive this all away . . . but the fact that Washington State can even afford to pay Mike Leach 4 million a season (and not the players) bothers me much, much more than the fact that other schools outside the Pac-12 might be able to pay him even more than that if they wanted because they have twice as many people tuning into their games than we do.

I’ve followed Cal football for 25 years. I wouldn’t be writing on this website if I hadn’t long ago accepted Cal’s place in the college football hierarchy and acknowledged that I would find moments of joy and happiness out of seasons that ended in a losing record. I got to storm the field this year! I watched Cal beat an SEC team! It was a fun season and we lost more often than we won!

The flaw with Wilner’s article was in attaching a level of gravity and urgency that just isn’t there. College sports are still just college sports, and even in that capacity they face many ethical and moral issues with far greater import than the fact that the SEC will, in an average year, be a bit better than my beloved Pac-12 conference.

Because when 2018 rolls around, if Washington beats Auburn on September 1, or if UCLA beats Oklahoma on September 8, nobody will be talking about the Pac-12’s 2017 bowl record. They’ll be talking about how Chris Petersen is a saint on earth or how Chip Kelly is a genius returned to his natural environment. And whatever low level stumbling going on at Pac-12 headquarters will be ignored.

Also, I hope every team in the conference loses every bowl game every year except for Cal. And that the NCAA grants special dispensation to Stanford so that when they have a losing record they have to go play San Jose State in the Head On! Apply directly to the forehead! Bakersfield Bowl.

Because all I care about as an irrational fan of my team (and not their conference) is my team. And should my Bears ever somehow get into the position where they win the Pac-12 and miss the playoffs WELL IN THAT CASE THAT MEANS THE BEARS ARE PAC-12 CHAMPS AND EVERYBODY ELSE IN THIS CONFERENCE CAN SUCK IT WOOOOOO PALMS OF VICTORY ON REPEAT UNTIL NEXT SEPTEMBER START BUILDING THE WILCOX STATUE NOW.