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It’s called the Power Five — the five biggest conferences in college athletics in general, and college football (which pays the bills) in specific. The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
Increasingly, and without an end in sight, that characterization sounds like a polite form of inclusion than anything based in reality.
The Pac-12 has a big problem — Big Ten for one. SEC, for another. The gap between the financial resources of those conferences (and to a lesser degree the ACC and Big 12) and their western “peer” is so great that equal footing appears to be a fleeting mirage.
In theory they are considered equals. Out in the streets, this is high-majors and mid-majors, bullies and victims.
Tuesday brought the starkest example yet, when Michigan State went and hired Colorado’s head coach, Mel Tucker, when he reportedly agreed to more than double his salary of about $2.6 million. Moreover, at MSU, his pool of money to hire assistant coaches is expected to be double the $3.2 million he had to allocate at CU. MSU is even paying $3 million to Colorado to take care of Tucker’s buy-out. It’s basically raining Spartan green everywhere.
In many ways you could look at leaving Colorado for Michigan State as a lateral move. And that may be generous because the Pac-12 South doesn’t have the Big Ten East buzzsaw of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State waiting for him. Tucker may have had a better path to winning games in Boulder. He went 5-7 in his first season there.
Yet this isn’t about Tucker getting back closer to his Ohio roots. And this isn’t about jumping to a program that can legitimately compete for a national title. A conference crown is essentially the ceiling in East Lansing.
This was about money. And when it came to money, this was a high-major program robbing a mid-major. This was the oldest coaching search playbook in the game. Coach looks promising at one school and a bigger school throws enough cash at him, so he moves up the ladder without hesitation.
Except Michigan State isn’t supposed to be bigger (or that much bigger) than Colorado.
Turns out it’s a $3 million salary bump bigger. Historically, when you think of a mid-pack Big Ten school dropping a 100 percent-plus raise on a coach, you figure that coach was in the Mountain West or Mid-American Conference. Not the Pac-12.
Yet here we are. The Big Ten distributed what is believed to be just over $50 million to each school in revenue in 2018. The Pac-12 was about $30 million. That’s a tough gap to overcome once. Repeat it year after year and this is what you get.
Tucker isn’t even the only Pac-12 coach to jump this year. Mississippi State gave Mike Leach $5 million a year to go to Starkville and the SEC. That’s $1.25 million more than he was making at Washington State. Mississippi State is also allocating $4.7 million for assistant coaches, a million-dollar upgrade from Washington State.
“It’s part of it,” Leach told John Canzano of the Oregonian when asked about what role finances played in the decision to switch jobs. “It definitely plays a part. You’ve got more resources yourself too. That was a factor to a point.”
The Pac-12’s problem is trying to figure out how to even stop the gap from growing, let alone close it. The West Coast was never going to be as football mad as the Midwest or South, but things keep getting worse. The league lacks a cash machine such as the Big Ten or SEC Network. The College Football Playoff has frozen out its teams in four of its six years of existence, depressing excitement and donations.
One sign of trouble is the increasing number of elite West Coast high school recruits, especially in California, heading east to play ball, which just compounds everything.
Meanwhile, commissioner Larry Scott hasn’t proven nearly as innovative or creative as he was once hyped.
The league isn’t pushing for playoff expansion to hold its place among the top five and make its regular season race matter nationally, let alone regionally. He isn’t advocating for name, image and likeness reform, which would make business opportunities in large markets more important and institutional things such as assistant coaching salary pools less important. He certainly hasn’t found some hidden revenue stream.
Instead it’s just been treading water and redesigning the offices in San Francisco.
There are no easy solutions. But the Pac-12 looked a lot like the Mountain West or Mid-American this offseason, coaches getting poached with resource-rich offers that their old schools couldn’t dream of matching, let alone beating.
If alarm bells aren’t going off yet ...
Mel Tucker to MSU isn’t likely to knock college football off its competitive axis, but then again, that may already have been done. These days, the Power Five is just a name.
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