Larry Scott’s volatile 11-year tenure as Pac-12 commissioner is in its final month. The conference announced in January he would be stepping down June 30.
He came to the then-Pac-10 from the Women’s Tennis Association as an outsider to college sports and led a vital transformation of the conference with expansion from 10 to 12 members and a record-setting, billion-dollar media rights deal.
But the Pac-12 also struggled to keep up with some of its Power Five conference peers in high-profile sports — most notably football —- and in revenue generation for its members during Scott’s time. He has also been criticized for being out of touch with campus-level administrators and fans. During his time in the conference, there have been 28 full-time athletic directors at the 12 member schools, with each having at least two.
Scott spoke to The Associated Press on Monday in a 25-minute telephone interview about his time with the Pac-12:
Q: When you look back on the goals laid out when you took the job, where do you see missions accomplished?
Scott: I’m proud of much of what our team’s accomplished. There was a lot of alignment around a bold and innovative agenda when I arrived in 2009 and at the highest level, we’ve modernized the league, which is now operating at a much higher level than where it was before.
Highlights include a five-fold increase in revenue; significant improvements in student-athlete welfare and involvement; expansion of the conference; creation of our own media company, which is well-positioned for the future as evidenced by very high valuations we’ve received from private equity firms and interest from companies like Apple and Amazon; modernization of our championships in Las Vegas; and other things.
Q: The flip side of that is where do you see failures or goals left unaccomplished?”
Scott: The biggest regret is that we didn’t have teams performing better in football during our 11 years. Certainly, we’ve got some brands that traditionally would be making the College Football Playoff and competing for a national championship. It didn’t happen. For a variety of reasons. Thankfully, it has happened in our other sports where we won more championships than any other conference every year, including what was the best overall conference in basketball, men’s and women’s, this year. But competitively, teams not reaching their traditional potential was a real regret.
Secondly, hindsight is 20/20, but I didn’t anticipate the amount of change amongst our leadership, presidents, chancellors and athletics directors that were really aligned about a long-term vision. And as we had change in leadership on our campuses, the focus became much more on short-term pressures.
And in hindsight, if we had done shorter TV deals, even if it meant leaving some money on the table, I think our members would have appreciated being able to redo our TV contracts a little bit sooner. But I think the long-term, bold nature of our strategy will pay off handsomely for the league when it re-does the deals in 2024.
Q: What do you think the Pac-12 could have done under you leadership to help better position the conference’s football programs to be more successful?
Scott: I’m sure looking back we could probably identify some small things we would have done differently, but all the strategies around football and other sports were in alignment with all of our schools and our football coaches. USC, Oregon, Stanford, Washington not getting to the playoffs more often or winning has very little to do with the conference office. Between compliance issues, coaching changes and other things, some of our traditional powerhouses have struggled the last few years, and that’s hurt the league overall.
Q: In what ways did not having a background in college sports help you do this job?
Scott: When I was hired by 10 presidents and chancellors, they were very much looking for a fresh approach, a bold and innovative transformation and outside-the-box thinking. That was appealing to me coming from professional sports, where I had been for over 20 years. And I think we delivered on that vision, taking a big swing for a Pac-16, ultimately expanding to 12, being the first conference to add events in China, creating our own wholly owned media company, being a leader when it came to student-athlete reform and welfare, doing more than other conferences here during that space. So there was a lot of alignment with what our presidents and chancellors wanted at that time. So there were some significant advantages.
And lastly, taking a fresh look at postseason college football and being part of the group that led the change from the BCS to the College Football Playoff. All those things happened in the first few years when I was there with the group of presidents that hired me.
Q: Do you feel as if you should have publicly advocated for expansion of College Football Playoff sooner and more aggressively?
Scott: It’s always tempting to grandstand and say things just for the benefit of fans. But I take seriously my responsibility being on the board for the College Football Playoff.
It’s never been my view that as a board member and a person responsible for decisions, you should be sharing details of what you discuss internally with the media and the public, when you agree with your colleagues you’re not going to. So I know fans across the country can be frustrated they don’t see more posturing about playoff expansion, but everyone that’s been involved knows the strong advocacy I’ve played for us to consider it. And we are considering.
(The College Football Playoff management committee, which Scott is a member of along with the other FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director, will meet next week at the Big Ten offices outside Chicago. Scott said he and incoming Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff plan to attend).
Q: In what ways was not having experience in college sports a hurdle to overcome?
Scott: I’d say being an outsider it’s hard to fully appreciate the complexities and bureaucracy of the NCAA and the ability to get things done nationally. I didn’t fully appreciate the challenges in the turnover on our campuses and how many times presidents and athletic directors and coaches changed in the 11 years that I was here. And when you go through challenging times, not having been someone that’s been on a campus is an easy shot for people to take. Like any strong leader, you try to complement yourself with skills and experience. So when I started, I hired Kevin Weiberg, one of the most experienced commissioners out there to be my deputy. When Kevin moved I hired Jamie Zaninovich (former West Coast Conference Commissioner) to be my deputy.
Q: Was the Pac-12’s decision to go it alone on its conference networks — and not have a established network partner the way the Big Ten, Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference do — a mistake?
Scott: I think short term it’s been challenging in many respects. Long term, I think it will prove to have been a great decision for the league and that will be coming down in 2024. We’ve received very, very significant offers from private equity companies. We’ve brought Apple and Amazon to the table and we will have more valuable rights coming to the market than other leagues that partnered with outsiders who are going to have to wait until the 2030s. So not not to minimize some of the challenges of tougher distribution when you’re don’t have the leverage, being an outside media company. The creation of the Pac-12 Network was the number one mission based to provide exposure for Olympic sports. And we’ve done that more than any other alternative. And secondly, to preserve the long-term value in an industry that’s rapidly changing and moving more and more to digital and direct to consumer. The Pac-12 is the best positioned of all the conferences to take advantage of those trends in 2024. So I think it’s too early to create the scorecard, but I look forward to seeing how people feel about it in 2024 when the Pac-12 is able to do its next deals, which I think will be outstanding.
Q: You have been criticized for the shortcomings of the Pac-12 Network, along with moving the league offices to a pricey San Francisco space and your own salary, which surpassed $5 million annually. In what ways was the criticism you received unfair?
Scott: When I was hired it was very much with a vision to professionalize the leadership management operations of the league and run it more like a business than it was before on many, many levels. I think we’ve accomplished that. But leadership comes with criticism, and especially if you’re going to take bold swings and do things differently than others. And that’s certainly happened. And also, I’ve never been afraid to take risks. That’s what the group that hired me was looking for. Some things worked out better than anyone could have hoped for, like in our TV deal, which was the biggest in college sports history, and other things didn’t perform as well as people would have hoped.
But the idea of the Pac-12 needing to box above its weight level, we absolutely have. When you look at our fanbase, the passion of the fans, the time zone challenges, there’s no doubt the Pac-12 has closed the gap in most respects and is boxing above its weight level. Whereas, people would not have said that about the Pac-12 in 2009.
Q: Do you believe some of the criticism was warranted?
Scott: I think over an 11-year history with a lot of big swings and bold ideas and given the very public nature of what we do, there are certainly some re-dos I’d like. We had a couple of scandals in officiating, some of which we could have avoided. There were some optics issues, around expenditures that we made that people were sensitive to.
As examples, if I could hit the rewind, it would have been shorter TV deals if I had a crystal ball and knew the short-term pressures and the reactions people would have to the SEC and Big Ten redoing their deals a few years before us. There were absolutely some adjustments I would make. But the big strategic swings where we were in complete alignment with our presidents at the time, and our ADs at the time, I feel very, very good about it. And I think history will prove the wisdom of the steps that we’ve made.