Remember when Utah used to fly all those Pac-12 flags, expressing such pride in being part of an elite association, one that was not just a cut above the Utes’ previously dreaded mid-major designation, but also a cut above other power conferences?
To do so anymore is to raise the tattered banner of a kind of halfway house between P5 prominence and Group of Five desperation.
It’s one thing for Pac-12 schools to be competitively sagging in sports that are outside the far-reaching, large-and-lofty realm of swimming, softball, tennis, golf, beach volleyball, lacrosse, rowing, fencing, sailing and water polo.
The league is, as we’ve heard again and again, the conference of champions … in sports that most of the public doesn’t pay much attention to or really follow all that closely, in sports that don’t generate the lifeblood of the greater endeavor — money.
It’s another for the conference to become a feeder outfit, a bush league, a steppingstone for more prestigious leagues in the major sports.
In football and basketball, the Pac-12 has turned itself into the fast-food chain of P5 leagues. It is the Denny’s, the Wendy’s of the big conferences. And make no mistake, there’s a use and a place for that. It’s just not winning championships, at the head of the power-league table.
Wednesday’s development — Colorado football coach Mel Tucker leaving the Buffs for the head coaching position at Michigan State, on the heels of Mike Leach leaving Washington State for Mississippi State — is a further indication of the Pac-12’s slide. Or is it just a matter of perspective? There are a couple of ways of looking at that.
The first is that Colorado cheaped out, unable to retain its coach after just one season because Pac-12 schools can’t keep up with members of other leagues, such as the Big Ten and the SEC, on account of the fact they aren’t rewarded with as much money from conference media deals, and other streams of revenue. It is an undeniable truth that the Pac-12 as a whole is falling behind in the area that not always but most often determines, when properly applied, competitive success in football and basketball — tall stacks of Benjamins.
And so, its teams are losing the power race against the other guys.
Its teams are losing its coaches to the other guys.
Its teams are losing the recruiting battles to the other guys.
The Pac-12 is becoming a laughingstock among its so-called peers, a kind of Hot Dog On a Stick mid-major conference dressed out in a goofy hat and a striped uniform, masquerading as a P5, attempting to compete against fine dining. It is a McDonalds to the SEC’s and the Big Ten’s Ruth’s Chris, the ACC’s and the Big 12’s Fleming’s. It is busy flipping and grilling cheeseburgers while the others are searing prime cuts of ribeye and filet mignon.
The second is that CU wasn’t all that impressed in the first place with Tucker, whose team conjured a mediocre showing in his single season at the helm, going just 5-7 as the Buffs paid him $2.4 million. No way were they going to match MSU’s offer of $5.1 million per year.
That alternative explanation, however, sounds like an excuse. Colorado didn’t want to disrupt the rebuild Tucker was in the primary stages of undertaking in Boulder, but it either would not or could not come up with the money necessary to sustain consistency in the rebuild.
Complain all you want about that amount being paid to a yet-unproven head coach, but that’s the reality of modern college football. There are outliers, but that’s generally the way the game is played and won nowadays.
The point is, Michigan State, butterflying through Big Ten cash, easily had the resources needed to attract the coach, Colorado not so much.
There may be extenuating circumstances with Leach leaving Washington State for Mississippi State, but, once again, it is more than mere perception or exception that an SEC program can rob one in the Pac-12. Even Leach admitted as much, saying resources played a role in his departure. Pullman may not be a garden spot, but neither is Starkville. At least in Starkville, more of those resources are available not only to pay the head coach more, but to pay his staff more, as well. That leads to additional financial commitment, better facilities, better recruiting budgets, better results.
Bad decisions made by poor leadership in the Pac-12 have led to a decline in both revenue streams from and competitive success in the biggest sports. That’s why the best football coaches in the league — David Shaw at Stanford and Kyle Whittingham at Utah — gain only a fraction of the winning and the remuneration as the best coaches in the SEC — Nick Saban — and the ACC — Dabo Swinney.
It must be embarrassing to the Pac-12 that its teams are getting lapped by the other P5s, that its best teams in recent years do not get included in the college football playoff.
Each school in the SEC receives from media deals in the neighborhood of $45 million annually, while Pac-12 schools get $30 million. Big Ten institutions receive $50 million.
As the years roll by, those deficits and disadvantages grow.
It’s not doable for the Pac-12 to keep up when that kind of margin exists.
Granted, some wealthy schools do not choose to invest as much into the success of their sports as others, so they do not enjoy the same success. But if conscientious schools and conferences are in the freaking game, shouldn’t they work to win it? Money doesn’t always equal huge amounts of winning. But it usually helps.
And right now, the Pac-12, its tattered flags flying upside down, is not getting the help it needs to stay competitive.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.