Stamping out bias
Pac-10's 2000 success has East Coast media taking notice
By Ted Miller, Special to CNNSI.com
The image is this: Pasty-skinned, soft-bellied, bleary-eyed Tony Sopranos waddling out of the press box, yawning at their Sunday Newark Star-Ledger that doesn't contain the score of the Oregon-USC game played the previous night.
So who's going to be their made guys when they cast their AP votes? The Ducks or Trojans? Or some team from, say, Florida?
At least that's the perception held of the East Coast media Mafia out here in the land of mountains, the Pacific and out-of-work dot-comers.
But perhaps that image is changing after three Pac-10 teams earned Top 10 perches in the final national polls last season, including two in the Top Five.
Four Pac-10 teams -- Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and UCLA -- are consensus Top 20 preseason picks this year.
And get this: Venerable Sports Illustrated picked Oregon State No. 1. Yes, those same Beavers who were losers for nearly three decades before Dennis Erickson arrived two seasons ago.
SI even featured Oregon State running back Ken Simonton and Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington on its cover as Heisman Trophy hopefuls. Has the West Coast made the aforementioned Mafia an offer it can't refuse?
"I think it's because we beat them over the head with it," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "Our victory over Texas [in the Holiday Bowl] and Oregon State's victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl changed people's perceptions of football nationally.
"Now, that was last year. We've got to follow that up and back it up. I do think it helps to make people aware that there was and is some type of bias."
The predicted resurgence may prove timely. With the Rose Bowl playing host to the BCS national title game this season, few are expecting the West Coast's 100-year relationship with the Granddaddy of Them All to continue. Since 1946, the Pac-10 and Big Ten have faced off every year in Pasadena.
If neither conference boasts a No. 1 or No. 2 team when the smoke clears, then that tradition goes kaput.
Some have noted that the last national champion from the Pac-10 was Washington in 1991. But that team was crowned only in the coaches' poll, the AP voters going with Miami. The writers haven't voted a Pac-10 team No. 1 since USC in 1972.
Moreover, a Pac-10 player hasn't won the Heisman since USC's Marcus Allen in 1981.
That goes a long way toward explaining why Oregon boosters decided to spend $250,000 this summer to post a 10-story billboard of Harrington in Manhattan. If the nation won't come to Oregon, bring Oregon to the nation.
"I think people all around the country now know about the University of Oregon and people know about the Northwest," Harrington said. "People are starting to realize the Pac-10 can play some football, too."
The whining about a perceived bias can become a bit paranoid. Heisman voters are divided evenly among six regions, with the Far West and Southwest receiving as many votes as the South, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
As for the 72-member AP poll, California has four votes, which more than balances out Florida's three.
If the media could be blamed for anything, it's for something as neutral as the deregulation of college football television rights in 1984, which turned most televised games into regional rather than national events. This caused the Pac-10 to be shut out of many of the major East Coast markets. Late afternoon or evening West Coast games also frequently miss out on prime spots on national highlight shows because of the time difference.
"When people go to bed before we finish a game and don't know whether we won or lost, there's no question there's going to be a lack of interest or attention," Bellotti said.
Yet former ESPN analyst and new Arizona coach John Mackovic said there was a consistent effort to address this problem.
"We went out of our way to get West Coast stories when we could," Mackovic said. "It's a timeframe matter more than anything else. I believe we did as good a job as we could."
There also is a quasi-free market issue. The media respond to demand and conventional wisdom. In other regions of the country, most clearly in the South, college football is the big show and consequently receives more attention. That feeds a perception that players in the SEC -- not to mention the Big 12 and Big Ten -- are tougher than those out West because they care more.
"Football in the South is more important -- not necessarily to the kids," said Erickson, who won two national titles at Miami. "But to the people down there, it's like a religion. But I don't think the kids are any tougher."
Of course, the Pac-10 shares some of the blame for any potential bias.
When Washington beat Purdue in the last year's Rose Bowl, it was the conference's first victory in five years and second in nine seasons. In 1999, the conference fell flat, with No. 19 Oregon the only team ranked in the final AP poll.
With seven different Rose Bowl representatives over the past seven seasons, no conference team has established the sort of dominance that forces itself consistently onto the nation's headlines. Familiarity breeds respect -- see Florida State.
The recent floundering of USC and UCLA -- the only two conference teams ranked in the Top 15 of the composite AP poll since 1936 -- has left the nation's No. 2 media market devoid of a presence that East Coast voters typically look for.
Media bias or no, a West Coast renaissance, particularly in the exotic Northwest, has a newness to it that almost feels like 15 minutes of fame. Without consistent success, the West Coast could once again sleep with the fishes.
"I think maybe [the media attention this year] is an overreaction to what happened two years ago when we were cast off as not even being worthy of being considered among the major conferences," said Washington coach Rick Neuheisel. "[The story was] the demise of the Pac-10 and what was wrong with West Coast football.
"We responded to that by having a pretty good year. Now, as the reaction to last year, everybody is saying, 'Wait a minute. Let's pay more attention to the West Coast.' Hopefully we'll have another good year to take advantage of the attention."
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post Intelligencer. His "This Week in the Pac-10" column will appear weekly during the season.