Commentary

Pac-10 hits the road to generate interest

Originally Published: August 1, 2010
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Amid the swirl of humanity in Times Square on Wednesday, 10 men in different-colored golf shirts and an 11th in a suit stand. Perpetually annoyed New Yorkers hustle through the man-made rainbow and dawdling tourists. Up above on the seven-story NASDAQ video screen, each man's smiling image appears, one after the other.

Another man stops and looks up. He's curious.

"Are dees some famous people?" he asks in accented English.

[+] EnlargePac 10 Coaches
Dhon Santos/Pac-10 ConferenceLarry Scott and the Pac-10 coaches gathered at "The Crossroads of the World" to promote the conference.

Ah, good question. In fact, it's the question. The Pac-10 football coaches and commissioner Larry Scott -- not to mention many of the coaches' spouses and a contingent of conference officials -- are standing 2,500 miles from home and within shouting distance of the Atlantic Ocean because there's a feeling in the Pac-10 offices that the coaches from the West Coast and their programs aren't famous enough.

The night before, surrounded by the Manhattan hipness of the W Hotel and an East Coast media gaggle, Scott said the new Pac-10 -- soon to be the Pac-12 -- is adopting a new strategy of "telling our story more aggressively and in a more dynamic way."

The Pac-10 is reaching out and asking for -- demanding? -- attention. It's asking its coaches, who'd rather be doing just about anything other than tap-dancing for the media a week before preseason practices, to adopt perma-grins for the cameras. It's flying players across the country so they can act classy and humble in the best tradition of "student-athletes" during a series of interviews in New York and the ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn.

Why? To become more famous. And why is that important? Because more famous means richer. Scott will begin negotiating new media contracts after the first of next year, and he needs a blockbuster deal to keep pace with the Big Ten and SEC.

"Our current TV partners see us making a real marketing effort," Scott said. "And our prospective partners."

So I tagged along to see what a bicoastal media days/marketing effort looks like.

Act naturally

"As much as you can, be yourselves. Just be yourselves. The more the better." -- A Pac-10 official to the coaches before they enter the NASDAQ building in Times Square

OK, I know what you're thinking. Forget marketing and promotions. You want to know how everyone gets along, don't you? These are rival coaches. They battle on the field. They swing haymakers in recruiting. Their fans don't like one another. They can't possibly tolerate one another for three days.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
Dhon Santos, Pac-10 Conference Although the trip went well, Jim Harbaugh knows the coaches' main goal is to beat one another.

"I don't like them," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "They are not friends of mine. We're trying to beat them. Ah, we respect them. They are very likable guys. [But] we're basically trying to claw each other's eyes out to get a win."

Harbaugh delivered most of that with a grin, but it sums up the general reality. On Tuesday, things seemed a bit icy at times. But on Wednesday, when the coaches were forced into close quarters together during a two-hour bus ride from New York to Bristol, Conn., and then were split into groups of five for charter flights from Hartford, Conn., to Los Angeles, the chill warmed and things grew far more cordial.

Fact is, these are adults with more in common than not. Hard feelings between them (mostly) aren't personal but are based almost exclusively on the colors their teams wear. As the hours went by, more conversations were struck up. By the end, there was plenty of the proverbial ball-busting, which, of course, is how men show they like one another.

Washington and Oregon fans hate one another, but Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian and Oregon's Chip Kelly chatted amiably multiple times, particularly during the bus ride to Bristol. Oregon and Oregon State? Kelly spent plenty of time talking with Oregon State's Mike Riley, who hitched a ride back home to L.A. with Kelly on one of the Ducks' private jets. Arizona's Mike Stoops and Arizona State's Dennis Erickson clearly had a grand old time on the charter flight back west to L.A. UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and Washington State's Paul Wulff and their spouses seemed to enjoy one another's company on their flight.

In short: There were no arguments or trading of notable barbs, at least within earshot. When media day in the Rose Bowl on Thursday ended around 2 p.m., Stoops and Kelly shared a high-five at the thought of heading back to their posh digs at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.

[+] EnlargePac 10 Coaches
Dhon Santos/Pac-10 ConferenceThe Pac-10 coaches built up a rapport during their road trip.

That said, it's not unfair to make some general observations about their interactions.

No, Neuheisel and USC's Lane Kiffin don't appear comfortable in each other's company. Although they produced no fireworks, seeing them perched together on stools in front of TV cameras multiple times seemed to carry an amusing potential for contentiousness.

They were asked to do a countdown for a microphone check: Neuheisel went 5-4-3-2-1. Kiffin countered 1-2-3-4-5.

Neither, in fact, was terribly social. Kiffin, who searched out the back of the buses, mostly talked to Sarkisian -- the two were USC assistants under Pete Carroll -- and Cal's Jeff Tedford, who coached him at Fresno State. But, of course, he's new and doesn't really know many of his colleagues.

Harbaugh spent most of his time -- understandably -- with wife, Sarah, who is pregnant with their second child. Wulff and his wife, Sherry, laid pretty low. (Wulff to me in Times Square: "This place is the exact opposite of Pullman.") Tedford, typically reticent with the media, was surprisingly outgoing -- he apparently challenged all comers to a passing contest. Sarkisian seemed comfortable with just about anyone, not unlike Riley. Kelly, Stoops and Erickson warmed up as things went along.

But just because a brawl didn't break out doesn't mean things weren't interesting.

Walking the walk

"What I'd really like to do is dress two friends up in Cub Scout uniforms and have them walk out with me." -- Oregon coach Chip Kelly when asked at ESPN about the state patrolmen who typically escort coaches off the field after a game.

Scott and the coaches rang the bell at NASDAQ on Wednesday morning. Kelly, perhaps wanting to make sure the coaches didn't start to get too big for their britches, noted that the infamous Snooki and the cast from "Jersey Shore" had rung the bell at the New York Stock Exchange the day before.

[+] EnlargePac 10 Coaches
Dhon Santos/Pac-10 ConferenceThe Pac-10 coaches didn't attract too much attention on the streets of Manhattan.

It quickly becomes clear that New York is not a college football town, or at least not a Pac-10 town. The coaches passed mostly unmolested while walking down the street. There certainly were no paparazzi -- or even autograph requests. While the Tuesday news conference was going on, the four quarterbacks who joined the East Coast tour -- Washington's Jake Locker, Stanford's Andrew Luck, USC's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Nick Foles -- went to Times Square to watch the new Pac-10 video on the giant display. A single Arizona fan met the limo with a sign that said, "Foles for Heisman."

The representative from NASDAQ who spoke before the ringing of the opening bell stumbled through his remarks, clearly unfamiliar with the coaches who surrounded him. When Neuheisel and Kiffin were preparing for an interview, a cameraman yelled at Neuheisel, "Hey, blue shirt, can you move in?"

Things, of course, were different at ESPN, where the coaches went through the "car wash," which is a series of interviews on a variety of ESPN platforms.

Travel log

"We're not on a delay. So no profanity. It's worth mentioning." -- An ESPN rep before the coaches arrived on campus

I tag along with Kelly, who denies he's the one who wrote "Oregon # 1" on my legal pad. Kelly can be a grump, but he enjoys himself. He and Riley do a TV interview together with Chris Fowler. Kelly runs into Herm Edwards in the hall, and they talk about "Tony's son" -- Eric Dungy, son of former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who signed with Oregon this past winter. He cuts up on ESPN radio with Ryen Russillo. He does an insightful interview with ESPN Rise on recruiting. He eats a plate of rare roast beef with a Diet Coke in the dining hall.

Although they obviously were growing tired of posing for photos, the coaches -- to a man -- saw the East Coast swing as worthwhile.

[+] EnlargeRiley/Kelly
Dhon Santos, Pac-10 Conference Mike Riley, Chip Kelly and the rest of the Pac-10 coaches recognized the value of the East Coast swing.

"I think it was very productive," Tedford said. "I think to promote the Pac-10 and be a little bit more aggressive -- I think Larry Scott is right on task there. It was very well-put-together. First class."

Still, the coaches were ready for the day to end. So it was off by bus to the airport for a pair of charter flights to L.A. We shall call one plane "Serious." It carried me, Kelly, Riley, Harbaugh, Neuheisel and Wulff. We shall call the other plane "Festivus." It carried Scott, Kiffin, Stoops, Sarkisian, Erickson and Tedford.

All I can say about the "Festivus" flight is that the Kiffins and the Tedfords played a highly competitive game of Uno, according to sources.

On the "Serious" flight, Riley read the latest Scott Turow novel, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer Kevin Weiberg read the Financial Times, Harbaugh tapped away on his laptop working on his practice plan and Kelly toiled on his iPad. Later, Kelly told moving stories about his offseason tour of military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he, Weiberg, Pac-10 chief marketing officer Danette Leighton and I solved all the problems in college sports from poor officiating to parasitic agents to the challenges of social media to the treatment of athletes in the media.

Hey, it was a six-hour flight.

Before the bus ride to the Peninsula Hotel, another group photo is proposed. Stoops, speaking for all the coaches, colorfully shoots the idea down.

Comfort zone

"That place is like San Quentin." -- Washington coach Steve Sarkisian to California coach Jeff Tedford on the guest locker rooms at Cal's Memorial Stadium

The bus to the Rose Bowl for Thursday's West Coast media day departs at 7:30 a.m. That bus ride shows how everyone grew more comfortable with one another.

Riley, Tedford and Sarkisian talk about their CFL days: "Beer in the locker room!" and "Calling your own plays!"

Washington State fans who wonder what new athletic director Bill Moos means for the embattled Wulff's status should know this: Moos and Wulff appear to enjoy each other's company, talking football and trading amusing stories during the 45-minute ride to the stadium.

Speaking of amusing: "Hey, Jeff," Sarkisian says to Tedford. "With your stadium renovation, you guys going to renovate the visitors locker room?"

The question draws hoots from other coaches. The visitors locker room at Memorial Stadium is notoriously bad.

An amused Tedford replies: "Ah, no. Maybe that's part of Phase 3."

It's then decided that Cal has the worst visitors locker room, Arizona's is second-worst (mostly because of the ridiculously thin passageway to the field) and Oregon State's is the best.

And then to media day.

Recipe for success

"I think it was a big success." -- Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott on the bicoastal effort

[+] EnlargeLarry Scott
Dhon Santos/Pac-10 Conference Larry Scott succeeded in getting increased exposure for the conference.

But did it work?

That's the big question. The Pac-10 spent a lot of money to hit both coasts -- Leighton refuses to say how much -- and ultimately, the 10 conference schools are picking up the tab.

"We generated a lot of interest in what is happening in the Pac-10," Scott said.

Beyond marketing, a lot of business is ahead. The conference must decide how it wants to distribute revenue. It must decide how it will split into six-team divisions when Utah and Colorado come aboard.

But the raison d'etre for the unusual promotional trip is the same for all other aspects of the "new" Pac-10, including expansion: generating more revenue.

So, again, did it work? This week it did. But check back in 2011 when Scott announces the new TV and media contracts.

Ted Miller covers Pac-10 football for ESPN.com. Check out the Pac-10 blog for all the latest on the conference.

Ted Miller | email

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