Pac-12 entering prime thanks to dynamic coaches, TV dollars
New coaches Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Jim Mora Jr. add spark
USC and Oregon could both contend for the 2012 conference and national titles
Commissioner Larry Scott helped usher in the game-changing Pac-12 Networks
This essay originally appeared in the Sports Illustrated Presents Pac-12 Preview.
Some conferences may be better, but none will be more entertaining than the Pac-12 in 2012. That will happen when you bring Mike Leach into the mix. In May, five months after he was hired to coax Washington State football out of its coma, Leach bagged a 7½-foot black bear on a hunt in Canada, then tweeted a picture of himself, posing beside his trophy/victim. Thus did he manage to antagonize the Cal Bears, UCLA Bruins and PETA, all in one blast. Leach did not shrink from the inevitable blowback, speculating on Seattle radio that if he really "got to know" the animal rights activists who disapproved of his hunting, "I'm sure I could find plenty of things that they do that I disagree with." His olive-branch takeaway: Life would be "pretty boring" if everyone had the same opinion.
On the same segment, Leach offered advice on celebrating wedding anniversaries. He and his wife, Sharon, "always go kinda simple"-- dinner and a movie -- "because if you plan too much, you put too much pressure on each other, then it wrecks the whole experience, and by the end of the night you're wishing you weren't married."
Such off-field festivities aside, Leach will revitalize Washington State. He built an offensive juggernaut at Texas Tech with undersized, overlooked athletes, and those are the kind of underdogs who'll fill out his roster in Pullman. For this promising hire, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott would be well within his rights to stand before Cougars fans and say, "You're welcome."
Leach would not have moved to Pullman if Cougars athletic director Bill Moos hadn't delivered a big-boy, BCS-caliber offer: $2.25 million a year. Moos wouldn't have had that kind of cash if Scott had not so greatly increased the value of the Pac-12's TV rights. The conference's previous deal with ESPN and Fox paid it $60 million a year; over the next dozen years the Pac-12 will pull down some $3 billion from those networks, in addition to revenues rolling in from its stand-alone television network(s), conceived and spearheaded by Scott.
The renaissance isn't limited to the Palouse. Optimism is high in Tucson, where Arizona agreed to pay nearly $10 million over five years for coach Rich Rodriguez. While defense has always seemed a nuisance to RichRod, and he's shown a predisposition for gaffes and foot-in-mouth moments, a constant has characterized his career: His offenses are exciting, entertaining and prolific. The Wildcats will score, and if RichRod's past is prologue, they'll yield points by the bushel. That adds up to fun to watch.
Arizona's in-state rival made a smaller splash with its hiring of Todd Graham, who had abandoned his previous employers, the Pitt Panthers, after 338 days. But again, thanks to the Scott-engineered windfall, Arizona State didn't skimp on his salary. Graham will average $2 million a year.
Meanwhile, new coach Jim Mora is in the process of performing an intensity transplant at UCLA. Even a scribe as hard-boiled as veteran Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke was taken aback by the brimstone and adult language Mora trained on his new charges in their first full-pads spring practice. In front of several hundred fans "whose jaws need to be scraped off Spaulding Field," Plaschke wrote, "the new coach lit a fuse under the traditional Bruins culture and blew it to blue bits." That's a good start, but UCLA needs more than sharp intensity. The Bruins got whupped by Oregon 49-31 in the Pac-12 title game, after ending the regular season with a 50-0 humiliation at the hands of USC.
Which brings us to the Trojans, who have also undergone a dramatic transformation. Banned from the postseason for the past two years, they're finally out of the NCAA's hoosegow. The question is not whether the 2012 Trojans will qualify for a bowl. It is, rather, which BCS bowl will be lucky enough to get them?
The sky became the limit last Dec. 22, when USC's latest golden-boy QB revealed in a nationally televised news conference, with a Christmas tree behind him, that "I know in my heart I have not yet finished my journey as a Trojan football player." In a nice bit of stagecraft, Matt Barkley was flanked by USC's six Heisman trophies. Yes, the school used to have seven but gave Reggie Bush's back a couple years ago. Of course, if Bush hadn't committed the violations that led to those NCAA sanctions, Barkley might not have felt such a powerful desire to come back.
While the conference's first title game was a borderline travesty, this year's could have the makings of a de facto national semifinal, a play-in to the BCS title game. If Oregon and USC win their respective divisions, as expected, the conference title game will also be a rematch of a piquant rivalry. Oregon visits the L.A. Coliseum on Nov. 3 in what could be a matchup of top five teams.
The Ducks have won the conference three years running, and coach Chip Kelly continues to hold his own in recruiting battles with Lane Kiffin. Kelly threw a scare into Duck Nation last January when he nearly went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Late in the game, Kelly opted out, echoing Barkley's caveat about "unfinished business." Now one of them is likely to be the person most responsible for preventing the other from finishing his business.
Kelly's appeal -- aside from his winning, his rapid-fire elocution and his wise-guy persona -- is that his teams have so much flair. His playbook synthesizes an array of zone reads, play-action and, when needed, straight power, all executed at a tempo that often leaves opposing defensive linemen bent over, hands on knees, in some cases rasping to Oregon's hogs, "Slow down." Not a chance.
The biggest reason the Pac-12 is blowing up is that Kelly isn't the only against-the-grain innovator. Not long after he was hired, Scott alarmed some of the conference's fans by making a run at nearly half the teams in the Big 12 and burbling about his desire to "super-serve fans in a hyper-local way."
What the commish was talking about became clearer at Pac-12 media days. Those on hand expected the announcement of a Pac-12 network, which would have meant keeping up with the Joneses -- in this case, Scott's Big Ten counterpart Jim Delany, the brains behind the hugely successful Big Ten Network. But instead of one network, Scott established seven: the Pac-12 Network, and the Pac-12 Networks: six dedicated channels, one for each of six areas pairing two conference schools. Pac-12 Arizona comprises Arizona and Arizona State; Pac-12 Mountain is Colorado and Utah ... and so forth. The regionals will carry some national football and basketball games, plus Olympic sports.
Scott, say colleagues, is tethered to his iPad: He envisions a world in which fans watch Pac-12 Networks on their laptops, smartphones and tablets. That's where Ooyala comes in. The online video company specializes in delivering, as it says, "personalized, interactive and customizable video experiences for fans on the web, tablets, smartphones and connected TVs."
What it means is that if you're flying from L.A. to Singapore with a connection in Hong Kong, and you're bummed because your daughter's a libero on the Cal volleyball team and you're missing the match, you can get a code from your cable provider, punch it into your phone and watch while sitting at the gate.
Just as it's going to be fun seeing what Leach, Rodriguez, Graham and Mora can do in their new league, and just as it'll be most interesting to see how Oregon's Nov. 3 trip to the Coliseum unfolds, it's intriguing to think about what Scott will do next.
Thank goodness for unfinished business.