Larry Scott, Pac-10's audacity
If Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott correctly anticipated the Pandora's box he was opening with the rest of the college sports establishment, not just the Big 12 Conference, as part of his beautiful plan to reshape the staid old Pac-10 in his very first year on the job, in the end it didn't matter. Because Scott had no antidote to stop the backlash.
Last weekend had started so triumphantly for the Pac-10. Scott had gone crisscrossing the Southwest in a private jet to welcome Big 12 defector Colorado to the fold during a news conference in Boulder on Friday. Then he took off on courting trips to four other Big 12 members to personally deliver Pac-10 invitations and pitch his vision of a new Pac-16 superconference that would stretch from the coast of Washington and California to the plains of Oklahoma and Texas -- and kick out cash for its members like some ATM. The whole trip was a novel touch; the university presidents were receiving him. Historic change seemed imminent. But by Sunday, things were unraveling quickly.
Scott went underground Monday when it all fell apart.
He issued only a one-paragraph statement acknowledging that the University of Texas' decision to stay put meant no Pac-16.
Instead of presiding over a beefed-up football conference that could've billed itself as qualitatively on par with SEC, the Pac-10 added perfectly respectable Utah -- whose cachet nobody will ever confuse with Texas' -- as its 12th member/consolation prize.
So much for the "revolutionary" change Scott had been alluding to since February, critics snickered. Just who did Larry Scott think he was? And why did the think he could mess with Texas?
In the end, Scott looked like a newbie on the job who got played like a three-dollar fiddle by DeLoss Dodds, Texas' longtime athletic director and the architect of a behemoth Longhorns program that's the indisputable top dog in the country when it come to influence, revenue and success. (Sorry, Notre Dame.)
But this outcome wasn't just about Scott vs. Dodds.
You know that expression that some ideas are too big to fail?
Scott's was too big to succeed.
The timing was wrong.
If only for now. And only because of the enormous chain reaction that would've been unleashed across college sports if Scott had wooed Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State from the Big 12 along with Colorado. Scott was operating on one timetable: Expand now to get a windfall when the Pac-10's TV rights come up for renegotiating next year. The Big 12 schools' motive was different: Tell us why we should leave?
Knowing Texas was the Pied Piper and linchpin in the Pac-16 plan, some observers enjoy drolly pointing out the more effete-sounding details in Scott's résumé. He's a Harvard grad who majored in European history, speaks French and came to the Pac-10 from the Women's Tennis Association.
But the more important truth is that 44-year-old Scott has a proven reputation as a shrewd businessman and rainmaker who presided over a 250 percent revenue increase in his time at the WTA.
Scott's failure wasn't that he couldn't talk football with the good ol' boys down in College Station or Austin or Stillwater.
The reasons were bigger than that.
Scott was not going to be allowed to succeed. Because too many powers that be in college sports were too invested in preserving something closer to the existing status quo.
That resistance is what really kicked in during that breathtaking span of 48 to 72 hours that ended Monday, the Pac-10/Big 12 battle over Texas turned into a high-wire dance featuring everything a good thriller would want: brass-knuckle deal-making and high-stakes drama, backroom shenanigans and stare-downs. There were shows of brinkmanship and naked self-interest, ambitious grabs for more TV money by college administrators who prefer fans to focus on happy front-of-the-shop diversions such as the pep bands and cheerleaders, not all that kneecapping going on beneath the grandstands as universities struggle to fund their athletic programs.
Scott found himself in a fight, all right. Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe bit back publicly at one point, saying, "We shouldn't be a fly-over zone" as Scott was still tooling around the Big 12's airspace in that private jet.
Beebe said that by this past weekend he was getting "personal and professional support" from numerous people who thought what was happening "wasn't good for college sports." He said a diverse coalition of colleagues and powerbrokers -- some of them known, some of them still not -- shared the same goal: Stop the naked bootleg Scott had lit out on before his plan, which ostensibly was about just reshaping the Pac-10, set off a game of musical chairs that could radically realign the rest of college sports -- and all at a breakneck pace hardly anyone felt comfortable with, at the added risk of consequences nobody could confidently predict.
What might that new college landscape look like going forward? Nobody knew.
Would the Big Ten, having already picked up the Big 12's Nebraska the previous week, now go ransacking other leagues to build its own competing mega-conference? Might Notre Dame finally surrender its independent status? Clearly, the SEC wasn't going to just sit back and idly watch, as its flirtation with Texas A&M proved. Would the emergence of more superconferences besides this new Pac-16 finally bring a megabucks college football playoff system?
Again, who knew?
Certainly not the TV networks, which are used to exercising control.
Working feverishly over the weekend, not even bothering to sleep Saturday night, Beebe got more assurances -- again from industry sources he didn't name -- to take to his Big 12 members that the Big 12's next TV contract could be expected to match the $17 million or so annual windfall that Scott claimed the Pac-16 could pay out per team. That was new.
He was able to sweeten the deal for Texas and the others with significant concrete financial incentives to stay, assurances he hadn't had just days before. An example: Beebe secured a promise that TV partners ABC and ESPN wouldn't cut the Big 12's rights fees despite the loss of Colorado and Nebraska, which meant the remaining teams would now split the same money among only 10 members rather than 12. "That was big to us because we weren't sure what would happen to the TV contract," Texas women's athletic director Chris Plonsky says.
While all of that was happening behind closed doors, pressure was building on the outside, as well. Fans and former star players were saying the Big 12 should be saved. Tradition was invoked. Politicians were starting to spout off and schedule public hearings. Local pride and old resentments started rising up. Onetime Texas A&M player, coach and current regent Gene Stallings said he didn't understand why A&M had to "piggyback" on anything archrival Texas did. And anyway, Stallings added, he preferred that A&M go to the SEC if it went anywhere.
"The SEC? Playing there's tougher than being stuck in the back end of a shooting gallery," jokes T. Boone Pickens, the colorful business tycoon and avid Oklahoma State booster.
In the end, one last whopper of a power play by Texas brought everything to a swift conclusion. With the clock ticking down and speculation raging that Texas was a goner, Texas leveraged the Pac-10's interest to extract permission from the Big 12 to start its own lucrative TV network and keep the revenue.
Then Texas -- still playing all the angles and milking every stone -- asked Scott for the same arrangement. Scott said no. Texas said it was staying put. The wholesale Big 12 exodus was off.
"Happy? Why, I wouldn't have drawn up what's left of the Big 12 any differently if I had been allowed to do it myself," Pickens says. "This was all about money, of course. Texas had the most power, and Texas used it. But I didn't want to see us all split up."
Two attempts to reach Scott for comment this week were answered Wednesday by a Pac-10 spokesman who e-mailed back to say, "Unfortunately, [Scott] is unavailable and respectfully declines your request."
He did finally speak later in the day to The Associated Press, putting an upbeat spin on romancing the Big 12 teams even though it didn't work in the end. But the truth is that although growing to 12 teams will allow the Pac-10 to stage a lucrative conference championship football game, the Pac-10 is left in a bit of box canyon.
There aren't any other scintillating expansion partners that make sense for the league to chase. The Big 12 was the glory move, the only seismic coup to be had. Going forward, the Big Ten or SEC has a better chance of executing the sort of superconference dream Scott was chasing. Until one or two other leagues do that, Scott might have to content himself with making his conference more progressive and raking in more money via projects like a Pac-10 regional network, all things he's very good at. Then hope those Big 12 members he covets someday have a change of heart.
But Scott was right Wednesday to maintain that "swinging for the fences" now made sense. Even if folks are saying they could've told him you don't mess with Texas.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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