As the general astride the white horse, Larry Scott will not be offering politenesses such as such as “excuse me,” “pardon us” and “mind the hooves” as he sends the Pac-12 battlewagons across the college sports landscape.
“People accept the arms race as a given,” he said with a shrug Friday morning in Seattle. “We want to be very successful. If we’re honest, the conference had been thinking for some time that we were great enough as institutions with incredible pedigrees that we didn’t have to engage.
“But there was an epiphany about that, which led to me getting hired: We have to compete aggressively if we want to be successful. To be successful long-term, we have to be focused on revenue generation.”
So there you have it – from the commissioner himself, the explanation for Thursday night college football, for Apple Cups in Pullman the day after Thanksgiving and basketball teams flying in from a road game at 3 a.m. Monday just ahead of class at 8 a.m.
His perspective wasn’t a surprise, but hearing the conference will do most anything for money clears up any ambiguities fondled by the myth-keepers around big-time college sports. The dislocations of, and subsequent snarling from, the affected are merely collateral damage caused by demands from the Pac-12 Network, the infant engine that drives the conference and, by close extension, the academic institutions in the caboose hanging on for dear life.
“The flippant answer is that everyone likes the TV exposure, but they don’t like what they have to do to get it,” Scott said to laughter from a couple of hundred guests having breakfast in a hotel ballroom, invited by the Seattle Sports Commission to hear Scott in connection with the Pac-12 women’s conference hoops tourney at KeyArena this weekend. “In previous years, we’ve scheduled (men’s basketball) based on convenience, (less) missed class time and cost savings. We were pretty blind to what it takes for maximum (national TV) exposure.”
Now we know. But just to show Scott isn’t wholly ruthless, he did report a slight cringe.
“We realize (the pursuit of cash above all) comes with a lot of costs, pressures and tensions on campus,” he said. “There are lots of growing pains. We learned a lot in the first year; let’s take a step back and look at commitments we’ve made and where we can adjust start times and play dates. I’m sure we didn’t get everything right the first year, so you’ll see some course corrections.”
But Scott raised no expectations that returns to the old, logical, player-friendly basketball and football schedules was imminent. His prime directive from the university presidents was to get every Pac-12 football and men’s basketball game on a national TV platform, and damned if he didn’t do it. Don’t like it? Tell the bosses who hired him. Then expect a pat on the head and a pinch of the cheek.
Another point Scott stressed in his conversation was that he was championing the growing national campaign for a cash stipend, maybe $2,000 a year, for every athletic scholarship recipient to cover the cost of college attendance, not just the tuition/fees/books/housing that has been the same since the heyday of the Princess phone.
Although $2,000 will barely cover the traditional recruiting visit to a strip club, it’s a step in the right direction. While the stipend is, in truth, a sop to mollify some critics of the billions going to major conferences from TV revenues, the cash is a step a big majority of NCAA members — Divisions II, III and a number in D-I — do not want to take, because many are already under water with their athletic budgets.
That position chaps Scott and all of his big-conference, cash-positive brethren who feel they shouldn’t be denied the chance to pay some non-school expenses of their athletes just because Wossamatta U in New Hampshire can’t afford ankle tape.
“We have different facilities, we pay coaches differently, we have a different value on the level of education,” he said. “On so many levels, there are differences. As long as the membership doesn’t try to create false parities, it’ll be fine.”
But what if they do?
“That’s the litmus test,” Scott said after the event broke up. “If the schools decide that those who can afford it shouldn’t be allowed to pay the full amount of expenses of student athletes at our schools because they can’t do it for their athletes . . . that, for me, would create much greater concerns. I’m hopeful that won’t happen.”
Scott is right about the litmus test – or perhaps the issue should be calling the breaking point for the NCAA. As Scott described it, the NCAA rules that begin from the premise “one size fits all,” don’t work anymore, if they ever did.
The fact is that the big six football conferences have grown so rich that they don’t need the NCAA for much of anything except voting to keep the field 100 yards long.
Oh, they need one other thing – the NCAA’s non-profit status and subsequent tax break.
Otherwise, there is nothing but shame to keep the biggest schools, including Washington and Washington State, from breaking away to form their own independent enterprise of four 16-team super-conferences. And shame is a hard commodity to find in college sports these days. Ask Western Kentucky after it hired chopper daddy Bobby Petrino’s flying circus to be its head football coach.
In the world of business, spinning off, or selling parts, of companies that either don’t fit or work better as stand-alones, is standard practice. Scott’s words make clear that the big football boys are less and less a fit with the gymnasts of East Whiffenpoof Valley.
The conversation has begun quietly, but it’s nothing Scott claims to have heard.
“I don’t hear any talk of that,” he said. “I’m not of the school that says there has to be structural change. As long as the NCAA membership can show a lot of deference and flexibility on a lot of different levels, it can work. A strong national body is important because of the things it can do.”
Like lobby Congress to keep its tax-exempt status.