The Pac-12 (and its predecessor the Pac-10) has for many years dubbed itself as the ‘conference of champions’ and never seems to tire of flaunting the self-obsessed slogan.
There’s just one problem. In the sports that actually matter to most, the Pac-12 is anything but.
In men’s basketball, the Pac-12 has not won an NCAA title since Arizona did in 1997 and last appeared in a championship game in 2006 with UCLA. In some ways it’s worse in football. The last national title won by a Pac-12 team was USC in 2004. But since the Trojans were stripped of the BCS/Coaches title that year because of the Reggie Bush scandal, you have to go all the way back to USC in 1972 to find a consensus national champion from the conference (when it was the Pac-8).
Needless to say, all other Power 5 conferences have won titles in the meantime in both football and basketball. But at least in football, there are some hopeful signs that the Pac-12’s drought might be ending soon.
At the recently held Pac-12 Media Days in Burbank, Calif., there was renewed optimism in the air. But you came away with the nagging sense that there was more hope than substance to all the talk, just like the ‘conference of champions’ motto. With that being the case, here are the five key takeaways:
1. USC is ascendant, at least on paper
The Trojans are finally off the crippling sanctions from the aforementioned Reggie Bush scandal, and will be close to having a full compliment of roster players for the first time in four years. Because of its abundance of talent, and having a Heisman contender in quarterback Cody Kessler, USC was picked by the media to win the Pac-12 for the first time since 2008.
Steve Sarkisian, in his second year as the Trojans’ head coach, sounded cautious while embracing the challenge.
“You voted us to be the conference champions, but the reality is we need to go out and prove it,” Sarkisian said. “We all chose to come to USC to win. I didn’t come here to be okay or come here to be mediocre. We came here to win championships. If the expectations were going to be too big, this wasn’t going to be the place for you. … So for you guys to feel that way about us, that’s, like I said, that’s great and all but ultimately we have to go perform.”
2. But Oregon is ready to cede the throne to no one
The Ducks made it to the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game, only to fall against underdog Ohio State. They lost Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota to the NFL Draft, but it’s only time to reload in Eugene, not rebuild.
Mark Helfrich, who’s 24-4 in his two seasons as Oregon’s coach, is ready to take on USC (Nov. 21 at Autzen Stadium) or whomever.
“We can all go home. It’s done. It’s decided,” joked Helfrich after learning USC was voted by the media to win the conference. “No, I think whatever it is, I always tell our guys, whatever the noise is that you listen to, if it’s your girlfriend, your wife, the media, Twitter, whoever, if you use that for motivation, great. If you use it to dwell or think about something else, that does nobody any good. So if somebody’s sitting at home going ‘those jerks didn’t vote us for whatever’ and they go lift. Great!”
3. RichRod has a future as a comedian
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez is many things: innovative, unorthodox and a little country. But he won the day during Media Days with his dizzying references to “Dumb and Dumber,” “the Lion King” and how many cars are on the 405 and 101 (freeways) in L.A. But he saved his best for when someone asked him whether it’s “refreshing” to have a returning quarterback.
“Refreshing?” RichRod quipped. “I think a nice cold beer or a Bacardi and Coke, or maybe even a nice iced tea sweetened is refreshing. … What was the question again?”
4. Pac-12 is falling behind in the arms race for cash
With reports of the SEC and Big Ten hauling in record amount of cash (in excess of $30 million per school last year), the Pac-12 is not keeping pace. While the SEC Network and BTN are reportedly netting SEC and Big Ten schools, respectively, more than $10 million each year, Pac-12 schools are clearing just $250,000 after buy-back expenses.
The $10 million annual gap per school isn’t likely to change anytime soon as the Pac-12 is locked in its current TV deal for another decade. Yet commissioner Larry Scott was happy that he won’t have to negotiate anytime soon.
“I’m glad we’ve got our deal done,” said Scott, who worked the current TV contract that runs through the 2023-24 season, “I’d be more worried if I were the Big Ten coming up.”
5. But the conference’s failing TV business might get a reprieve
Entering its fourth season of existence, the Pac-12 Network is by any measure a massive failure. By refusing to partner with ESPN or Fox as the SEC Network and BTN did, the Pac-12 now owns a network that has independence but little leverage. While its competitors are in more than 60 million homes each, the Pac-12 Network is barely in 10 million homes, and nowhere near saturation even within the conference’s own footprint.
A huge problem that confronted the Pac-12 Network from Day 1 was its inability to cut a deal with DirecTV. Four years in, the standoff with the satellite giant looked to continue with no end in sight … until now.
Thanks to the FCC’s approval of AT&T’s takeover of DirecTV in July, now there’s a possibility that the Pac-12 Network will finally be on DirecTV this football season, since AT&T is one of the Pac-12’s biggest corporate partners. Scott was cautiously upbeat that a deal can get done, but refused to speculate on when.
“We’re not going to think we’re their first, most important priority (for AT&T),” Scott said. “But we are a priority. I expect we’ll be engaging very soon. I don’t know that it’s realistic to think that before the start of the (football) season (there will be a) resolution.”