Conference-based taunting in college sports is the most socially acceptable way to ridicule entire swaths of the country. SEC fans love to brag about their league’s football success, and the rest of the country hollers back that they’re cheaters. People make fun of Big 12 teams for not playing defense, and Big Ten teams for not playing offense. Football fans mock the ACC for prioritizing basketball above all else, and basketball fans mock the SEC for preferring football over hoops.
Unsurprisingly, insults thrown at entire leagues—10 or 12 or 14 schools playing a variety of different sports—often fail to live up to scrutiny. A lot of non-SEC programs cheat at college sports. Some Big 12 football teams are good at defense, and some Big Ten football teams are good at offense. The current FBS national champion is an ACC team, and the SEC’s Kentucky owns plenty of basketball titles.
Right now, the go-to insult against the Pac-12 isn’t particularly creative: It’s just that the league stinks. But unlike many questionably sourced sports zings, there’s really nothing Pac-12 fans can say in the conference’s defense, as it seems to have abdicated its status as a power conference in football and men’s basketball, the two most prominent collegiate sports. This year’s Pac-12 men’s hoops season is perhaps the worst by any major conference since “major conferences” became a thing.
The league has no teams ranked in the AP poll and just one, Washington, in the “also receiving votes” category. It has no teams ranked higher than 30th in the NCAA’s NET rankings, and none among the top 40 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. In Pomeroy’s ratings, the league’s best team, Washington, ranks below 11 Big Ten teams, nine ACC teams, seven Big 12 teams, seven SEC teams, three American Athletic Conference teams, two Big East teams, two Mountain West teams, two West Coast Conference teams, and teams from the Atlantic-10, MAC, and Southern Conference, respectively. The Pac-12’s worst team, Cal, was making a case to finish as the worst major-conference team ever before winning its last three league games. As a whole, the league went 4-31 against “Quadrant 1” opponents in nonconference play, won less than a quarter of its nonconference matchups against other major leagues, and managed a losing record against the decidedly non-major WCC.
If Washington wins this week’s conference tournament, the Pac-12 could become the first major conference to send just one representative to the men’s NCAA tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Arizona State has a chance to get an at-large bid to the tourney, but that’s far from certain—of 118 bracket projections listed on The Bracket Matrix, 88 have the Sun Devils in and 30 have them out. With an early Arizona State loss in the conference tournament, the league would probably make the bad type of history.
Things weren’t much better last year, when the conference placed only one team in the 64-team bracket—UCLA and Arizona State squeaked into the First Four in Dayton, but lost to St. Bonaventure and Syracuse, respectively. That one team, Arizona, lost by 21 points to 13th-seeded Buffalo in the first round.
The Pac-12’s football outlook isn’t any rosier. The league has missed the past three editions of the College Football Playoff. It registered the worst average S&P+ rating of the five power conferences in 2017, and was fourth in that metric last year—the league in fifth, the ACC, also produced the national champion. The Pac-12 is responsible for six of the 11 teams with the biggest drops in S&P+ over the past five years—yes, half of the league found its way onto a list of college football programs in steep decline. The Pac-12 also had the worst bowl season ever in 2017-18, losing eight of nine games.
All told, the Pac-12 hasn’t produced a football national champion since the Matt Leinart–Reggie Bush mini-dynasty for USC in 2003 and 2004. It has not produced a men’s basketball national champion since Jason Terry and Mike Bibby led Arizona to a title in 1997. In both sports, the Pac-12 has the longest championship drought of any Power 5 conference. And it’s not like the league is getting close. The Pac-12 is responsible for just two of the 20 teams selected to the College Football Playoff since its inception (Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2015) and just one of the 40 Final Four teams in the past 10 basketball tournaments (Oregon in 2017).
Normally, I’d want to chalk up these failures as two surprising and unusual flukes. We’re talking about 24 teams in two sports at 12 schools. It’s hard to make the case that Washington State’s basketball team is in any way related to Colorado’s football team—unless there’s a meddlesome athletic director, the football and basketball programs at the same school have often little in common. (Do you think Herm Edwards and Bobby Hurley talk regularly? Do you think Mike Leach even knows what basketball is?)
But the Pac-12 also happens to be spectacularly mismanaged, which might help explain why the conference’s teams are struggling.
The Pac-12 has embarked on a variety of comically misguided endeavors since Larry Scott took over as commissioner in 2009. While other leagues have turned their conference cable networks into perpetual cash cows, the Pac-12 Networks have struggled to find distribution and are doling out annual payouts of about $2 million per school. That’s far below estimates that were as high as $10 million when Scott pitched the networks. The league is as far as $20 million behind other power leagues in per-school revenue distribution. No Pac-12 team ranked among the top 10 of athletic department revenue in 2016-17, the most recent school year for which such data is available.
Meanwhile, the league accounts for six of the bottom 16 major-conference programs in revenue, with Washington State ($64.3 million) lagging nearly $20 million behind the lowest-earning major-conference school not from the Pac-12 (Georgia Tech, at $81.8 million). (Private schools aren’t included in the database.) Things have likely gotten worse since 2017, as the gap in TV revenue has grown as the schools’ on-field performance has worsened.
To raise money, the league has considered selling equity to investors, an unprecedented move for a college conference. And the league showed massive flaws on its sports operations side within the past year, as the Pac-12’s general counsel and senior vice president of business affairs overruled the league’s designated replay official on a critical targeting call in September’s Washington State–USC game. All this while the league pays Scott a higher salary than any other league’s commissioner and pays more in rent than any other conference, just so it can have a shiny San Francisco HQ. The most recent embarrassment: On Tuesday, it was reported that Scott will stay in a $7,500-a-night Las Vegas hotel room during the Pac-12 tournament, with 24-hour butler service, a private elevator, and a marble Jacuzzi. Sure, that’s only a few thousand dollars out of each school’s pocket in the grand scheme of tens of millions of dollars ... but for the poorest major conference, it’s probably worth considering whether the commissioner guiding the league to ruin can be replaced by somebody who won’t do that while asking to perform his job from inside a marble Jacuzzi.
It’s worth noting that the Pac-12’s struggles do not spread to all sports. In fact, the league dominates the so-called Olympic or non-revenue sports: Pac-12 teams are currently national champions in baseball (Oregon State), beach volleyball (UCLA, with USC winning the two years prior), women’s indoor volleyball (Stanford), women’s golf (Arizona), rowing (Cal, which has split the past three championships with Washington), women’s gymnastics (UCLA, watch Katelyn Ohashi!), men’s and women’s water polo (the league has won 41 of 45 all-time men’s water polo titles, and all 18 of the women’s titles), women’s swimming (Stanford, the Cardinal’s second championship in a row, because allowing Katie Ledecky to compete in college was a bit unfair), and women’s track and field (USC). Stanford has won the NACDA Directors’ Cup—which equally weighs performance in every varsity sport—24 years in a row, with UCLA and USC typically not finishing far behind. (Things apparently aren’t great with every Olympic sports program in the conference.)
I think the Pac-12’s notable flops in football and men’s basketball reveal the effects that top-down mismanagement can have on a conference. Pac-12 teams aren’t struggling because Larry Scott calls them up and says, “Hey guys, time to be bad at sports.” They’re struggling in part because schools from other conferences are making twice as much money as they are. In non-revenue sports the Pac-12 remains dominant, because its members have histories of success and also because it doesn’t cost $3.7 million to retain a good college gymnastics coach. But it costs a lot to be competitive in football and basketball. There isn’t a 100 percent correlation between wealth and on-field success—friends, Texas is by far the most profitable athletic department in the NCAA, and look how that’s gone over the past decade—but it’s harder to compete in football and men’s basketball with less money. So much more has to go right, and over the past few years, it hasn’t for the Pac-12. The wider the gap grows, the more that will happen.
This shouldn’t be happening. The Pac-12 has the most successful college hoops program of all time in UCLA, as well as a variety of football programs with rich histories. It has negotiated itself into a position of power, as the Pac-12 is one of the Power 5 conferences that control the College Football Playoff and boasts a mandatory spot in New Year’s Six bowl games. And yet, we are watching the on-field ramifications of the league’s financial separation from those other four conferences. We’re watching the Pac-12 become have-nots, even if the commissioner’s hotel suite says otherwise.