SALT LAKE CITY — Larry Scott arrived in the press box shortly before Friday’s Utah-Arizona kickoff, looking as upbeat as a besieged conference commissioner can. He managed to deliver a fair measure of optimism. That’s how he rolls.
He could make a dumpster fire look like a marshmallow roast.
That’s not to insinuate the Pac-12 is toast. The “Conference of Champions” continues to outstrip all others in total national championships. If gymnastics is your sport, this is your conference. It’s also the main reason he was at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday. His purpose was to promote an agreement to bring the conference’s gymnastics championship to the Maverik Center for the next three years.
Meanwhile, if it’s track, cross-country, volleyball, swimming, golf or tennis titles you’re looking for, go West, young man. Too bad only football and men’s basketball resonate on a large scale with sports fans. But there hasn’t been a national champion in football from the Pac-12 since 2004, or a title in men’s basketball since 1997.
The biggest focus will always be football, which accounted for the healthy crowd at Rice-Eccles. Win on the gridiron and an athletic department has a chance to balance the books. Lose and your athletic programs will go the way of Blockbuster.
So it stands to reason that every time Scott shows up for a media event, somebody is sure to ask about the College Football Playoff — something the conference missed last year.
True to form, Scott acknowledged that three Pac-12 teams are ranked, led by No. 7 Washington, and followed by Oregon (17) and Colorado (19). Washington State, Stanford and Utah are teams receiving votes.
Colorado is among 11 teams nationwide that hasn’t lost a game this year. Washington could run the table and make a strong argument for the playoffs.
This season the Pac-12 is 3-0 combined against the Big Ten and ACC, 0-3 against the Big 12 and SEC. Already there is speculation the conference will be dismissed when playoff invitations roll around. It is tied with the Big 12 for the fewest appearances in College Football Playoff history.
The standard answer Scott uses is that winning is cyclical. At the same time, parity within the conference almost always takes its toll. Washington and Colorado are undefeated in conference, though both stand a fair chance of losing on Saturday. Washington is at Oregon, while Colorado plays at USC.
“There’s a lot of football left to be played,” Scott said. “You never know what’s going to happen in the next few weeks. Every single year there are upsets and things people didn’t predict would happen. We’ve got teams that are very much in the (playoff) running.”
Regardless of whether stories about the conference’s decline are accurate, there’s one inarguable point: the time zones are a buzz-killer. Utah’s game against Arizona started at 10 p.m. on the East Coast.
Nobody in Hoboken wants to stay up until tomorrow to watch that.
But there are problems beyond bedtimes for the conference. Pac-12 athletes’ names — including ex-Ute Kyle Kuzma’s — came up this month in a college basketball corruption trial.
Meanwhile, Yahoo! Sports is reporting an unauthorized third party intervened on a targeting replay during last week’s USC-Washington State game, casting the conference in a bad light.
In recent months, Scott has been publicly criticized by some of the conference’s presidents for spending and other administrative issues.
Under his watch, the Pac-12 got into each of the above situations. It’s now his job to get out.
“There are going to be issues that arise,” he said.
Through it all, Scott always projects an air of confidence, pointing out the conference champion will go to the Rose Bowl if not the playoff.
“You never like to see controversy,” Scott said, pointing out “a lot of great things are happening in the conference.”
Friday’s press conference originally focused on gymnastics. The Pac-12 has won 16 women’s national championships in the sport, counting the nine Utah won before joining. UCLA, last year’s champion, has won seven titles since Utah’s most recent (1995).
At the same time, everyone’s meal ticket — football — is again eating its own. Given truth serum, Scott might admit things are scary. On the bright side, the titles keep coming in volleyball and track and such. But the titles that matter most?
Like TV viewers in the East, those seem to have gone to bed.