The Birth of the Pac-12

The addition of two schools to the Pac-10 conference may or may not make it better — but will definitely make it richer

Sports fans and Tucson Weekly readers: Be it known that henceforth, 12 is the new 10.

It's been a third of a century since the University of Arizona and Arizona State joined with two schools each in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Oregon and Washington to form the Pac-10 Conference, the most successful (in terms of national championships) conference in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

But, apparently, there was more money to be had out there for a 12-team conference than for a 10-team conference, and so last month, the University of Utah and the University of Colorado joined the Pac-10 schools to make the new Pac-12.

To be sure, there are those who question the importance of college athletics. But it is hard to ignore something that generates (and spends most of) tens of millions of dollars every year, prompts ostensibly normal people to wear red T-shirts to work, and, on certain autumn evenings, gathers one out of every 10 Tucsonans in one place to communally scream their lungs out.

Still, it will take some work to get used to this "Pac-12" thing. "Pac-10" used to just roll off the tongue; "Pac-12" gets stuck in the epiglottis. It may take some time to embrace the change, but it does appear that 12 is a much-more-profound number than 10.

Jesus had 12 apostles. In Revelations, there are 12 gates to the Celestial City. (In fact, the number 12 shows up in the Bible 189 times.) There are 12 signs of the zodiac and 12 months in a year. Hercules had 12 tasks to complete, and the Chinese calendar has 12 lunar years (although none is named for a wildcat). There are 12 principal gods and goddesses in Greek mythology, and 12 imams in Islam. There are 12 districts of the Federal Reserve, 12 inches in a foot, 12 men who have walked on the moon, 12 people on a jury, 12 days of Christmas, 12 volts in a car battery, 12 tribes of Israel, and exactly 12 hours of daylight every freakin' day of the year in Quito, Ecuador!

And now, there is the Pac-12.

One good thing about the new conference: Its name is truth in advertising. This is refreshing in an era when the Big 10 has 12 teams, and the Big 12 has 10 teams. (Neither conference wants to surrender its old name because of brand loyalty and name recognition.) Yeah, I want my alma mater to be a part of a conference that's up to 20 percent off when dealing with simple, two-digit numbers.

Then there is also the Atlantic-10, which has 14 schools, including Saint (not St.) Louis, which is almost 900 miles from the Atlantic; and the Big East, which recently added Texas Christian University, which is a whopping 1,400 miles from the East Coast.

By those standards, the Pac-12 is the Isaac Newton of conference names.

It has actually been a good couple of years for Arizona and the conference. The UA got a new, energetic athletic director in Greg Byrne, who immediately set out to mend old fences and build new bridges, an impressive feat, considering that neither project was shovel-ready when he took the position. Fundraising shot upward, and work started on modernizing and adding to the venerable Arizona Stadium.

Not quite a year before Byrne arrived on the UA campus, Larry Scott was hired to be the commissioner of the (then-) Pac-10. If Byrne is a whirlwind of activity, Scott is an absolute hurricane. Within months, he had the sports world abuzz with plans of adding not just Utah and Colorado, but also several Texas schools (including the University of Texas) to make the Pac-16. When it settled back into the Pac-12, Scott set out to score a huge TV deal for the historically underperforming conference.

Television-rights revenue is crucial to university athletic budgets. Thanks to careful spending and lots of basketball revenue, the UA has managed to break even or turn a small profit in recent years.

Meanwhile, Arizona State has been awash in red ink, partly because its cavernous basketball arena is a place where students would go to study when it got too loud in the library.

Playing various media concerns against one another, Scott negotiated a deal that is the salvation for most Pac-10 programs and the envy of every other conference in America. Whereas most conference schools used to receive in the area of $6 million to $8 million per year from TV rights, the new contract will reportedly pay each school in the neighborhood of $22 million a year, and will greatly expand national exposure for the conference.

At a press conference, Byrne said, "It is a historic deal for our conference and our university. It gives us a much-needed revenue stream and at the same time increases our ability to compete on a national level for many years to come."

Among the features of the deal are six mini-networks on cable TV, one for each pair of schools (Oregon-Oregon State, Utah-Colorado, etc.) and one big Pac-12 Network, fashioned along the lines of the successful Big 10 Network. It also gets Pac-12 games featured coverage on the ESPN family of networks.

Adds Byrne, "This deal dramatically increases our exposure, both locally and nationally. I couldn't be happier with the deal."

Dave Sitton is entering his 23rd year of announcing Arizona Wildcats football and basketball on television. Before that, he did 10 years as a Wildcat baseball announcer, and before that, he was a UA student and the founder of the highly successful UA rugby program. He's one of the few people with a connection to McKale Center who was actually around when the Pac-8 admitted the Arizona schools and became the Pac-10.

"You know, it's really amazing that the Pac-10 lasted as long as it did," says Sitton. "Just look at all of the other conferences and the changes they've gone through in just the past couple of years."

While many people questioned the wisdom of joining the Pac-8 in 1978 (the consensus put the Arizona schools' chances of successfully competing against the West Coast schools somewhere between iffy and disastrous; some also claimed that the UA, in particular, had sold its Southwest soul for a few extra Pacific time zone bucks), Sitton didn't agree.

"I'm from L.A. I grew up watching USC football and UCLA basketball. These were perennial national powerhouses, but I still didn't think there was this insurmountable gap between the L.A. schools and the UA. We had good facilities and good coaches, and Arizona is a great school to attend.

"Plus, at the time, the Oregon schools were down; Washington was so-so; and the Bay Area schools were inconsistent. I honestly thought that if the UA was willing to go all-out and not be tentative, the Wildcats would do just fine."

As it turns out, Arizona did better than just fine. The football team made several runs at the Pac-10 title in the 1980s and became a national power in the 1990s. The men's basketball program, under coach Lute Olson, became the national face of the Pac-10 Conference, winning 12 conference championships and reaching the NCAA Tournament 25 years in a row.

While Arizona had won only one national championship (the 1976 men's baseball title) before joining the Pac-10, it has won 16 since then, including titles in golf, swimming and men's basketball, and a handful in women's softball.

Seventeen national championships might seem like a lot, but that number puts Arizona eighth in the Pac-10, and 10th in the Pac-12. (Only Oregon State, with three, and Washington State, with two, trail Arizona.) The Pac-10 has always billed itself as the Conference of Champions, and with good reason. A couple of years ago, UCLA won its 100th national championship and now stands at 107. Stanford is hot on UCLA's heels with 101, and USC has 93. California is next with 30, and then the next six are all bunched together between Arizona's 17 and Arizona State's 23.

So dominant is the Pac-10 is that its teams won nine NCAA titles last year, almost double the number won by the runner-up Big 10. It marked the 11th time in the past 12 years that the Pac-10 has led (or tied) in the number of national titles won in a school year. (The conference also had 10 runner-up finishes.)

In addition, Stanford won the Learfield Sports Directors' Cup, which goes to the nation's top overall athletic program, for an astonishing 17th straight year. Joining Stanford in a show of overall conference strength were Cal, which finished third, UCLA at 11th, USC in 14th, and Arizona in 16th place.

Overall, the Pac-10 schools have won more than 400 national championships, a total that is more than 60 percent greater than that of its closest competitor, the Big 10 (the one with 12 teams). Colorado brings along 22 national championships (including a tainted one in football), and Utah has 20 titles (including a legendary one in men's basketball), but those things don't really make the new Pac-12 even more of a Conference of Champions.

Why, then, the addition?

Says Sitton: "I know that a lot of fans have kinda shrugged at the (addition of Colorado and Utah), and at the same time, the conference wants to make it a big deal. For me, it's somewhere in between. The addition of the media markets of Denver and Salt Lake City is certainly a big deal. Those are two big, and growing, cities." (The University of Colorado is actually in Boulder, about 45 minutes from Denver, which has no major colleges of its own.)

"Both cities have major-league sports teams, so those schools joining the conference works out well for them and for the new conference."

Conrad Ramos disagrees.

"I think it's a step back; I really do," he says. "The Pac-10 was perfect, especially in football. Everybody played everybody else. You knew where your team stood at the end of the season. Now you could possibly have a 6-6 team playing in that 'championship' game at the end of the year."

Ramos is the type of fan any major university would want. (They all need the big-money people with the skyboxes and the priority-ticket surcharges, but they want the rabid, support-the-team-year-in-and-year-out nuts like Ramos to make up the vast majority of the fan base.) He'll show up at a women's soccer game on a brutal September afternoon or a men's baseball game on an equally brutal May evening. He'll watch a couple dozen men's basketball games on TV during a season (and maybe even finagle a ticket every now and then). And he'll plan his entire fall schedule around Wildcats football.

He even bought and refurbished a used motor home just so he could use it six days out of the year for tailgate parties. "What can I say? It's fun."

While he has a certain misguided allegiance to the USC Trojans (perhaps owing to the fact that he used to ride his motorcycle without a helmet), he considers himself a big UA fan. "I was pretty young when the Wildcats joined the Pac-10, but I remember people in my family being worried that we wouldn't be able to compete. They would use that 'it's better to be a big fish in a small pond' line. But I pretty much came of age—as a person and as a sports fan—with Arizona in the Pac-10, and I think it has worked out great.

"But this move to the Pac-12, I just don't get. Those schools don't make our conference better or deeper or anything. People talk about how Utah is this powerful football team that has a great record every year, but look who they play. They used to be in a conference where they'd have two or three tough games every season. How hard is it to go 10-2 under those circumstances? Just wait until they have to play Arizona one week, then USC the next, then Oregon and ASU and Stanford. We'll see how many 10-2 seasons they have after that.

"I understand the stuff about the media markets and the big new TV contract, but this doesn't even feel like a lateral move. It feels like a step back."

Ramos acknowledges that, as a sports fan, he's pretty adaptable, and realizes that, in a couple of years, he might change his mind.

"Sports fans have short memories of unpleasant things," he laughs, "and long memories of the good times. It's possible that I'll end up thinking it was a good move, and I'm always going to be an Arizona fan, no matter what conference they're in. But I just think it's a lot to go through just so they can have that one game."

That one game is the new championship football game that will be played on the first weekend of December. In the sports landscape populated by the occasional cash cow, this thing could turn out to be a cash herd.

The concept began in 1992 in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), where football is king, and education is apparently the court jester. With the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina to its previous 10-school roster (sound familiar?), the SEC split into two divisions of six teams each, with the winners of those divisions meeting up for the overall conference title. Over the years, that game has attracted sellout crowds to the neutral-site Georgia Dome, raked in millions to the conference coffers, and given the conference a huge national TV audience. The Big 12 (the one that now has 10 teams) added a championship game in 1996, followed by several other conferences.

Finally, this year, the new Pac-12 and the Big 10 (you know) will be joining the parade. The Big 10 will be playing its game at a neutral site in Indianapolis, while the Pac-12 game will be played on the home field of the team with the better record. Fox TV will pay the Pac-12 $14.5 million to televise the Dec. 3 game.

With the addition of the two new schools, the Pac-12 will have a North Division, consisting of Stanford, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State; and a South Division, made up of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, USC, Arizona State and UCLA.

The championship game has prompted a complete overhaul of the modus operandi: Instead of a 10-team conference with everybody playing everybody else (along with three non-conference games each, often against lesser opponents), there are now two six-team divisions. Each team will play all of the other teams in its division, as well as four teams from the other division, on a semi-rotating basis. This is a critical sticking point that led to heated debate when the divisional format was being debated.

Other conferences with similar breakdowns have each team play five divisional games and three games against teams from the other division (on a rotating basis). That accomplishes several things: It allows a team to see every team from the other division in each two-year period, and to play every team from the other division home-and-home in each four-year block.

The eight conference games also allow for four non-conference games, which is often crucial in securing enough victories to qualify for a post-season bowl game. The NCAA (thank God!) doesn't allow teams with losing records to play in a bowl game.

Just to show that in all facets of life, including—and perhaps especially in—sports, some animals are more equal than others, the Los Angeles schools dug in their heels and refused to OK any plan unless they were allowed to play the Bay Area schools (Stanford and Cal) every year. This results in an unbalanced rotation and, much more importantly, forces the Pac-12 teams to play nine conference games and only three non-conference games.

Last year, with every team playing only three non-conference games, the Pac-10 missed out on two bowl opportunities. With USC busted for cheating and ineligible for postseason play, the Pac-10 could only muster four teams with winning records to fill the six potential slots allotted to the conference in the bowl-game pecking order. The conference probably didn't lose out on a whole lot of money, as the lower-level bowls generally just pay enough to cover the teams' enormous expenses, but what was lost was the opportunity to have more teams out there in the national football consciousness. It also reinforced the weakness of a nine-conference-game/three-non-conference game schedule.

Both Colorado and Utah have more national championships than Arizona, but 27 of the 42 combined titles came in skiing. (Colorado won the 2011 national title and Utah finished second.) Colorado shared the 1990 national "championship" in football with Georgia Tech, but it's largely discounted among fans, because the Buffaloes scored the winning touchdown at Missouri on a mistaken fifth-down play.

Utah's one glory title is much cooler. Playing in Madison Square Garden, the Utes won the 1944 NCAA basketball championship a few months before D-Day with a Japanese-American in their starting lineup.

(Google the story of Wat Misaka. Most of it will make you proud to be an American. And if you're not an American, most of the story will make you want to be.)

Arizona won't be taking on the two new schools in alpine skiing any time soon, but one area where the competition will be intense is in women's gymnastics. Under Coach Bill Ryden, Arizona has vaulted (don't say it!) onto the national scene, but if the Cats want to reach the top of the heap, they're going to have to get past the new bully on the block. Utah has won 10 NCAA championships in women's gymnastics, and has been the runner-up seven times.

UA senior gymnast Katie Matusik looks forward to the challenge.

"The Pac-10 has always been great in gymnastics," she says, noting that UCLA has won six national titles in the sport since 1997. "Stanford is always good, Oregon State, UCLA. ... We're used to dealing with great competition. Utah just makes us better as a conference."

Matusik is aware that the move was made almost solely with football and basketball in mind, but she thinks it will invigorate competition across the board. "I think the Pac-12 is going to be exciting."

Pac-12 play begins later this month with competition in women's volleyball and soccer, followed on Sept. 3 by cross country and, of course, football. We'll know soon enough if 12 is indeed a magic number.