Corruption and chaos: Pac-12 commish Larry Scott feeling the heat as scandals abound

SAN FRANCISCO — For a drowning man, Larry Scott was rather upbeat.

The commissioner of the Pac-12 conference stood at a podium welcoming everyone to a basketball media day that may be the new gold standard for awkward timing. While Scott was trying to tread water, drumming up enthusiasm for an underachieving league, here’s what is pulling his credibility under:

* His league office was under direct fire for massively undercutting its own integrity after a Yahoo Sports report Wednesday tied a conference administrator to interfering in officiating replay review decisions. The revelation calls into question the Pac-12’s commitment to player safety, to fair play and to an officiating process that is free of meddling.

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* Half of the 12-team conference now has been name-checked in the ongoing federal investigation of college basketball — more than any other league. (The Southeastern Conference is the current runner-up at five.) Assistant coaches at USC and Arizona were fired after being indicted, and will stand trial in 2019. During the ongoing trial in Manhattan, four other Pac-12 schools have been pulled in: Oregon, UCLA, Utah and Washington.

Attorney questioning, testimony under oath and evidence obtained by the FBI has steeped the league in scandal. Among the allegations and revelations: former Utah star Kyle Kuzma was paid through a third party by a financial adviser; former Washington star Markelle Fultz was paid through a third party; Oregon offered an “astronomical amount” of money to land Brian Bowen II, and assistant coach Tony Stubblefield paid $3,000 to the Bowens on an unofficial visit; UCLA offered money to the Bowens through an AAU coach; and all kinds of shenanigans pertaining to Arizona. Thus far the Wildcats have faced allegations involving head coach Sean Miller, former assistants Emanuel “Book” Richardson and Joe Pasternack, and former players DeAndre Ayton and Rawle Alkins — in addition to allegedly being part of the Great Brian Bowen Bidding War.

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott speaks during the Pac-12 NCAA college basketball media day Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott speaks during the Pac-12 NCAA college basketball media day Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Those are the headlines in the self-proclaimed Conference of Champions. It’s so bad off the field that nobody is even talking about the league’s swooning football product, 21-year streak without a basketball national title or the Pac-12 Network distribution debacle.

That’s a lot of lousy on the plate of the guy who has been the highest-paid commissioner in college athletics. Scott made $4.8 million in 2016, according to a USA Today report from May. Not only that, but nine other Pac-12 staffers made more than $450,000 in 2016, USA Today reported.

The league is trailing well behind its conference competition in revenue and revenue-sport performance. But not in salaries for execs.

Scott did his best to fall on the football officiating grenade Thursday morning, about 13 hours after it went off. The problem pertains to the intrusive role of Woodie Dixon, the general counsel and senior vice president of business affairs for the Pac-12 — with oversight of football and officiating — in replay reviews in the command center at the conference headquarters. An officiating report from the Washington State-USC game Sept. 21 said a third party basically overruled a targeting call against a Cougars linebacker — a third party Yahoo Sports identified as Dixon.

Anyone with a shred of knowledge, a shred of objectivity and a shred of concern for player safety would label that play targeting. Same with the hit later in the game by USC linebacker Porter Gustin on Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew. To rule otherwise invites legitimate and highly accusatory questions about Dixon’s agenda — and why he was ever involved in the first place.

That’s why Scott knew he had to jump on this scandal Thursday morning. He acknowledged “a mistake” in having Dixon at all involved in replay review, and terminated that arrangement effective immediately.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve made mistakes in terms of our procedures involved with replay review in the command center,” Scott said. “We mixed administrative oversight and leadership with realtime replay review calls made by our experts on the field, in the stadium, and in the command center. Moreover, we’ve allowed for ambiguity about who’s got the final call and who makes the ultimate decisions in replay review, and what’s very important in any replay or any rule-making decisions is that there be clarity about who makes those decisions, and it’s a mistake that we’ve allowed ambiguity in who makes those decisions.

“We’re immediately changing procedures so that conference leadership responsible for football and responsible for officiating, while they’ll continue to play their important oversight role in those functions, they will have no involvement in the realtime decision making behind replay review. Those decisions will be solely in the purview of our replay officials at the stadium, in the command center, and on the field.”

That should have always been the case. The damage done to the league’s credibility will be hard to undo with a reactive ruling, but it’s the only move the Pac-12 could make other than the outright firing of Dixon. (Scott is adhering to the stance that the officials incorrectly interpreted Dixon’s opinion as a directive, believable or not.) For a conference that has long been ridiculed for officiating errors, this further erodes faith in those charged with enforcing fair play.

That lack of faith extends to basketball recruiting, now more than ever. Other conferences were long believed to be home to more hoops renegades than the Pac-12, but the league may have closed that gap.

Not that Scott was willing to acknowledge that Thursday.

“I’ve got no reason to believe that there’s a systemic problem,” he said. “Allegations have been made about a lot of schools nationally. We are eager to see what comes out of the trial, what comes out of NCAA investigation, as are our schools.”

Careful what you’re eager for, Larry.

Scott, like every other commissioner, had no interest in attending the trial in New York and hearing firsthand what’s happening in college basketball. Nobody in authority positions wants to know. They just want to cash the massive conference revenue checks and then feign surprise and disappointment when the corrupt enterprise is blown up.

Same with the millionaire coaches. This wasn’t exactly a group ready to stand tall in the face of scandal Thursday.

Response to questions ranged from stubborn silence (Arizona) to bland expressions of confidence (Oregon) to some saltiness (Utah). This was the first part of my exchange with Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak on Thursday:

Me: There was testimony in the federal investigation about an associate of Kyle Kuzma being paid by a financial adviser. What have you been able to learn about that about what may have happened, and what’s the school doing to investigate?

Krystkowiak: I’m not going to talk at all about Kyle Kuzma. That’s a silly question. I wish I could help you, but today’s not the day to talk about that. I can’t comment much on anything I don’t know, and I’m 100 percent clueless about anything that’s going on and leave it at that.

Me: All due respect, I don’t think it’s a silly question. Half of the schools in the league have been implicated.

Krystkowiak: With all due respect, you don’t think it’s a silly question?

Me: No.

Krystkowiak: OK.

Me: Half the schools in the league have been implicated in one form or fashion in this investigation. Is there a problem in the league or any concern about the league from a compliance standpoint?

Krystkowiak: I’m not going to comment. You kind of know where I stand. We’re focused on our team. We’re not a part of any federal investigation, and I haven’t been informed of it. I think there’s different investigations and people in different positions. This is not – I don’t believe Kyle Kuzma is in the same category as some of those in the federal investigation, so we’ll leave it at that.

In response to a different reporter’s question later, Krystkowiak underscored the commonplace nature of the corruption that has gripped college basketball. For all the sport’s apologists and cheerleaders who desperately want to believe that these are unsubstantiated allegations from sketchy characters, inaccurately smearing the game, hey, plenty of coaches will tell you this is how the system worked for a long time.

“I don’t think it’s any big secret,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s not blowing anybody away. It’s public for the first time. I think there’s a lot of understanding of things that have been happening for a long time.”

People like Brian Bowen Sr. and Christian Dawkins and T.J. Gassnola may be con artists — but that doesn’t mean they’re lying about their roles in getting college basketball players paid. What they’re saying under oath, or on wiretap, carries more weight than the no-comments or vague denials heard here at Pac-12 media day.

The weight of those words in Manhattan, plus the anvil that is the fresh officiating scandal, plus the lack of performance on the football field and basketball court, might be enough to sink Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. No matter how upbeat he tried to sound Thursday.

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