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Larry Scott leaves Pac-12 in need of another makeover: 'I undoubtedly could have handled things better'

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In the first interview Larry Scott did as the commissioner of the Pac-10 conference back in 2009, he made an observation that both trumpeted his arrival to college athletics and foreshadowed his exit. “I’ve picked up on the sense that some people feel that the Pac-10 may not be boxing at their appropriate weight,” Scott told me hours after he was announced as Tom Hansen’s replacement.

At the time, Scott provided a jolt of much-needed energy for a conference that lagged behind its peers in revenue, exposure and relevancy. He brought in unprecedented cash, pushed for the College Football Playoff and ushered in an uptick of national buzz.

For a spell, Scott provided the conference a distinct upgrade in leadership and vision. He flirted with Texas and Oklahoma in realignment before adding Colorado and Utah. He helped broker a historic television deal that developed an innovative model to hoard huge sums of money from both FOX and ESPN. He also started a conference television network. He took a lemonade stand and ushered it into an e-commerce world.

But after helping the Pac-12 punch up for a half-dozen years, Scott leaves the league facing a similar dilemma than when he took it over 11 years ago. The Pac-12 isn’t punching at the weight Scott helped it reach in his first few years. News dumping the commissioner’s departure during a presidential inauguration will be an appropriate way to remember how overtly the Pac-12 wanted people to forget Scott’s final few years.

By his own admission in a phone interview, Scott’s progress halted. He said his energy waned as opportunities for innovation stagnated. And the Pac-12 has again become dogged by similar stigmas to those he discovered back in 2009 — financially and reputationally behind its peers around college athletics. And, notably, behind them on the field as his salary rose to unjustifiable heights of more than $5 million.

Scott readily admitted he’ll leave with regrets. “Absolutely,” he said. “Over 11 years, with the myriad of issues that we’ve dealt with, I undoubtedly could have handled things better.”

In a way, Scott’s tenure unfolded like a lot of Bay Area ventures of the past generation — innovation creating a boom of money, quickly followed by a wave of positive publicity and goodwill. Eventually, the boom quieted, money lagged and the buzz wore off. Soon enough, Scott’s Pac-12 was Napster, Netscape or MySpace. Everyone forgot all the early wins and focused on the failures to adapt and evolve. Now, they’re on to the next thing.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott speaks to reporters during the Pac-12 women's college basketball media day on Oct. 7, 2019. (AP)
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott speaks to reporters during the Pac-12 women's college basketball media day on Oct. 7, 2019. (AP)

One of Scott’s basic failures was an inability to win the hearts and minds of those around him. To paint Scott as an aloof ogre would be unfair and one-dimensional. As would blaming all the league’s on-field issues, as USC should be guilty of two negligent AD hires (Pat Haden and Lynn Swann) that led to more federal investigations than College Football Playoff appearances.

But for many years, Scott’s arrogance chaffed the league’s athletic directors, as he courted the presidents who controlled his contract and failed to connect with campuses. Former Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne once famously summed up Scott’s handling of Pac-12 ADs this way in a radio interview: “When we would raise questions, it was challenging because there wasn't a lot of concern with what we had to say.”

As the years passed and the long-term television deal that catapulted Scott’s momentum inevitably became old news, Scott lost his good will. There was a consistent failure to figure out officiating, a comical over-spending on rent and the Pac-12 Network’s inability to become a revenue generator in the same universe as the Big Ten or SEC Network.

“In hindsight, which we have the benefit of it now, I didn’t appreciate all the short-term pressures our campuses felt while planting a flag on a long-term strategy,” Scott said by phone on Wednesday. “I didn’t realize it would become so painful for our schools in the short term.

“If I could wave a magic wand, we’d have made different trade-offs, we’d have taken less money. Wouldn’t it be nice to be renegotiating television deals this year instead of 2023?”

To translate, that means that Scott took a 12-year deal back in 2011 — historic at the time — when a 10-year deal would have been smarter. But the Pac-10 had never smelled billions with a B, so that was hard to turn down. They got a bit drunk on that money, overpaid in rent and never developed a successful plan to play catchup when it became apparent they’d be falling behind on the backside of the deal.

What backfired worst for Scott was the decision to not have FOX or ESPN partner with the Pac-12 Network. That would have created annual income to address that “short-term pressure” that Scott mentioned, siphoning off much-needed millions to the financial have-nots like Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State.

As those short-term pressures grew, Scott’s popularity shrunk in the league. “The network was an exposure play for Olympic sports,” he said, tracing back to the original plan. “In hindsight, people don’t look at it that way. I’d have done things different knowing what I know now.”

Scott added: “No one credits the importance of [televising] 100 women’s basketball games. Had I known that at the time, I’d have done it different. I’ll own up to that. At the time, it was kumbaya. Let’s do it, do it for exposure. It doesn’t need the payoff.”

Along the way, as Scott’s career careened from innovator to being nudged aside, he did little to help himself publicly. But after he christened himself a media executive and bumped his salary to over $5 million, the long-term gamble of the Pac-12 Network becoming a financial boon appears to be a bust. The old spokesman line to justify Scott’s salary — “The Pac-12 isn’t just a league, it’s a media company” — eventually had to be accompanied by a laugh track. Scott put himself in charge of media and failed, which led to his failure and much criticism because of the salary bump that came with it.

After years of promoting the league having complete ownership of the Pac-12 Network as some sort of Willy Wonka golden ticket, it’s hard to see that cashing in significantly. You can see the eyes rolling in the media space as Scott holds out to monitor whether the Pac-12 can still cash in. Scott and his senior leadership team failed at building the network into something that would be coveted and valued in the marketplace.

“I think the strategy of not bringing in a partner, people will look back in 2023 and 2024 and may say that was the smartest thing they ever did,” Scott said Wednesday, repeating a trope that becomes more unlikely the closer those dates become. Maybe Apple or Amazon proves him right with a Hail Mary, but that seems more like prayer than strategy.

Much of where the Pac-12 has backslid to financially is Scott’s fault, same as he deserved the credit for the league jumping ahead a decade ago. Could he have survived had he made less money or if USC didn’t faceplant in football? Perhaps. But in the end, a rotating cast of Pac-12 presidents overpaid Scott, rubber-stamped him too much power and then extended him as the controversies began outshining the performance.

Scott’s arc as a commissioner from an asset to a liability went unchecked by Pac-12 leadership for too long. From 2018 to today, Scott was rendered ineffective by controversy, but the Pac-12 presidents were attached via the golden handcuffs they’d linked with him contractually. So they left him bumbling around as an overpaid target, failing in officiating controversies and stepping in mess after mess of his own creation.

Scott’s total salary at this point in his tenure is an estimated $40 million, judging from the league’s income tax filings. If he’s paid in full through June of 2022 as per his contract — he’s stepping down formally this June — that number could be close to $50 million.

When asked if he justified that money, Scott said, “I’m not going to comment. That’s for our presidents and chancellors to answer.”

The progress Scott made shouldn’t be ignored. He helped broker a television deal that boosted conference media revenues by nearly $300 million annually and improved individual school revenues by nearly $25 million annually. Even with that progress, as his term sputtered to the finish, the short list of people who’d say Scott was worth his full salary would nearly all have the surname of Scott.

Scott entered with a burst of energy, surge of success and being hailed as a potential change agent. He left amid the cover of inauguration anonymity, a news dump long considered overdue and inevitable.

And Scott left the league right where he found it — waiting for someone to give it a jolt of energy and help it once again punch above its weight.

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