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A Year to Forget for Pac-12

2017 was a disastrous year for the Pac-12 Conference.

The conference suffered through one embarrassment after another, due in large part to inadequate television coverage—both from its national TV partners and its own minor league network.

But the lowlights also included pointed criticism from member schools, criminal activity by coaches and players, cringe-worthy comments in the media, and poor performance on the field of play.

The year ended, appropriately, with the worst post-season by a conference in college football history, as Pac-12 teams, after being snubbed by the College Football Playoff, posted a 1-8 record in bowl games. The Big Ten, by comparison, was 7-1, and the SEC has two teams in the national championship game.

So much for complaints about an East Coast bias.

For the record, the bowl losers included USC, UCLA, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Arizona and Arizona State. USC was embarrassed in the Cotton Bowl and WSU humiliated in the Holiday. Only Utah, a recent addition to the league, managed to win the Heart of Dallas Bowl, a game that’s not officially tied-in with the conference.

To make matters worse, on the same day (Dec. 30) Washington absorbed the Pac-12’s eighth bowl loss in the Fiesta, the conference's marquee basketball game—No. 3 Arizona State vs. No. 17 Arizona—was televised to less than 20 million homes on the Pac-12 Network, while a poorly-played game between two teams with losing records (Stanford vs. Cal) aired nationally on FS1.

Earlier in the year, as the old rock 'n roll deejays liked to say, the hits kept comin’. Here’s a quick recap:

  • Assistant basketball coaches at USC and Arizona were among 10 men arrested by the FBI for bribery, fraud and illegal payments to recruits.

  • Several Pac-12 coaches, including Washington’s Chris Petersen, Stanford’s David Shaw and Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez—complained about the preponderance of late football kickoffs and the impact they were having on attendance, recruiting and exposure for their programs.

  • Several TV commentators—including ESPN’s Chris Fowler and CBS’s Rick Neuheisel—ripped the inadequacy of the Pac-12 network.

  • Other ESPN talking heads defended the late kickoffs and dissed Petersen’s personality and “cupcake” scheduling. (In this case, ESPN came off even worse than the Pac-12; the network later apologized to Washington Athletic Director Jen Cohen).

  • Washington State's President and Arizona's Athletic Director criticized the conference for disappointing revenues and television exposure.

  • Cal Chancellor Carol Christ lambasted the league for a questionable revenue model, “jerking around” game times to satisfy television, and bloating the league office “rather than seeing yourself as basically a service to the members.”

  • A high-profile football matchup between two ranked Pac-12 teams—Washington vs. Stanford—was bumped from FS1 for a truck race. A truck race.

  • Three UCLA basketball players were arrested in China for shoplifting. The father of one of the players then pulled his son out of UCLA and arranged for him to play basketball in Lithuania.

  • Commissioner Larry Scott called the shoplifting incident “unfortunate”, issued a gratuitous statement of appreciation to the Chinese hosts and sponsors, and boasted that UCLA athletes would enjoy “lifetime memories” of their experience in China. Indeed.

  • Arizona State fired head coach Todd Graham, who had restored discipline, academics and winning to the Sun Devil program and replaced him with a man who hadn’t coached in nine years but was a former client of the ASU athletic director.

  • ASU then unveiled an “NFL model,” in which the AD would serve in a general manager role, the head coach would be a CEO-type motivator, and the offensive and defensive coordinators would be retained from the previous administration. However, the coordinators didn’t get the memo and departed immediately.

Commissioner Scott and his colleagues have some work to do to turn things around in 2018. More subscribers to the Pac-12 network (including Direct TV), more clout with Fox and ESPN, better football scheduling, and less grandstanding would be a good start.

Passing Is Over-rated: Two of the more intriguing games of the post-season featured the service academies. Army beat San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl, 42-35. The Cadets ran the ball 87 times, gaining 440 yards, and completed one pass for six yards. In the Military Bowl, Navy crushed Virginia, 49-7. The Midshipmen ran the ball 76 times for 452 yards and attempted one pass that fell incomplete. The good news is that these two games were the shortest of the post-season.

Foster Farms Bowl: Another great game for the folks down in Santa Clara, with Purdue edging Arizona in the final minute, 38-35. Last year Utah followed a similar script to trim Indiana, 26-24.

Playoff Semi-finals: One thriller, one dud. In one of the classic games in recent college football history, Georgia beat Oklahoma in double overtime, 54-48, in the Rose Bowl. Alabama beat Clemson in a dreary Sugar Bowl, 24-6, a game that confirmed how special former Clemson QB Deshaun Watson is. We like Georgia for the national championship.

We also think the presence of two SEC teams in the title game—and the fact that neither the Big Ten nor Pac-12 had a team in the playoff—will re-ignite discussions about an eight-team tournament.

Harbaugh grumblings: Something no one expected … Jim Harbaugh getting some heat for disappointing results at Michigan. His Wolverines blew a 16-point lead in the Outback Bowl and finished 8-5. In three years, Harbaugh is only 1-5 against Ohio State and Michigan State. His main problem: no quarterback. That will change with the arrival of Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson, although it’s still unclear whether Patterson will be cleared to play in 2018. In the meantime, the Michigan types will continue to mutter, and Harbaugh's name will be mentioned in connection with every open NFL job.

Bowl Attendance, TV Viewership: Recent trends continued, with disappointing crowds and strong television ratings. Thousands of empty seats (sometimes tens of thousands of empty seats) were visible at most non-New Year’s Six bowl games, despite noble attempts by TV crews to utilize tight shots that didn’t show the sparse crowds.

Unfortunately, this trend isn’t likely to change anytime soon due to several factors: the national obsession with the playoff, which has diminished all other bowls; late team selection (first Sunday of December), which impacted fans' travel planning, hotel and airline costs; the proliferation of bowl games and 6-6 teams, which has made the post-season seem less “special”; and the high quality of the home viewing experience, which has influenced many fans to stay home.

Meanwhile, bowl TV ratings, especially on ESPN, remained strong. The simple, incontrovertible fact is that during the holidays, people still like to watch football games on TV. ESPN’s ratings were up over 10%, and the New Year’s Six bowls posted their best ratings in the four-year history of the current system.

Fox and FSI games were not so fortunate. The Foster Farms Bowl on Fox was up slightly (from 1.6 last year to 1.7 this year), but still rated well below ESPN’s competing Pinstripe (2.3) and Texas (2.1) bowls. The once-proud Holiday Bowl, in its first year on FSI, pulled an embarrassing 1.26, attracting less than half as many viewers as the competing Alamo Bowl on ESPN.

We’ve commented on this before, but it bears repeating. Over the years, it’s been proven time and again that the built-in college football audience and constant promotion on ESPN delivers higher ratings for a bowl game than going it alone on another network. While it’s true that the Fox folks are currently paying a little more in rights fees in an effort to pilfer some of ESPN’s bowls, the audiences will inevitably be considerably smaller than on ESPN, unless and until Fox can corral a critical mass. And that fact will not be lost on bowl sponsors seeking high ratings and extensive promotion to justify their investments.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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