FORT WORTH, Texas — It was an improbable plot line: A former tennis player and executive — who went to Harvard and played on the grass courts at Wimbledon — was almost responsible for turning college football upside down.
Some might say that close counts only in horseshoes, but you can't help but feel that the bold expansion plan that Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott saw fall apart at the 11th hour Monday is just postponing the inevitable. It was, if you will, a peek at how the "super conference" concept will likely re-emerge at some point in the near future, perhaps with new alliances, but with the same underlying purpose of maximizing revenue for college athletics.
Scott, 45, represents a new wave of conference commissioner. He is not a football lifer, but a sports executive whose primary function is to "market and grow the game," the catchphrase that was prevalent at the ATP Tour in the 1990s, where Scott was a regional vice president overseeing Australia and Asia when he was only 24 and later became chief operating officer of the men's game. He eventually moved on to become chief executive officer with the WTA Tour, where he negotiated the most lucrative sponsorship and TV deals in the history of women's tennis.
I worked with Scott at the ATP, as vice president of communications from 1992 to August 1998. It was his marketing skills and big-picture view that prompted the presidents of the Pac-10 schools to hire him as commissioner in July 2009. The conference is a stalwart academically and does well across the board in athletics, but it was deemed in need of a more aggressive marketing approach.
In an era when funding for public institutions is being cut, endowments are shrinking and universities are demanding that the athletics department pay its own way, any source of new revenue is welcomed to help pay for all sports, from lacrosse to women's field hockey.
In the Pac-10, football coaches, and to some extent basketball coaches, felt that they were at a competitive imbalance with their schools earning about one-third of the TV revenue from its network contract than the Big Ten and SEC were getting.
But little did anyone suspect that, in an attempt to create a TV windfall through expansion, Scott almost initiated a college football revolution.
Of course, the first shot was fired by the Big Ten, which talked about expanding to 14 or 16 schools. As one college football insider said, "That's when all hell broke loose."
Missouri and Nebraska of the Big 12 (now 10) were reportedly interested in moving to the Big Ten, and there was speculation about Big East schools such as Rutgers and Pitt joining that conference, too.
That prompted Scott to come up with a new, more aggressive approach by inviting almost the entire South Division of the Big 12. That would keep rivalries intact and also generate more interest and TV revenue in a new "Pac-16," where Texas and Oklahoma would play the original Pac-10 schools such as USC and UCLA on a rotating basis every four years.
While the Pac-10, Big Ten and SEC all stood to profit from expansion, some schools in BCS conferences would be left out in the cold. And some conferences would crumble. There have been published reports that this prompted some college officials, politicians and influential alumni to lobby Texas against leaving for the Pac-10.
And although Texas president Bill Powers was enticed by his school becoming affiliated with some academic powerhouses such as Stanford and Cal-Berkeley, you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief across the college football landscape when Texas decided to remain in the Big 12 with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas A&M, after a six-month courtship with not only the Pac-10 but even having discussions with the Big Ten and the SEC.
"In the background of it all was, 'We're happy where we are,'" said DeLoss Dodds, the Texas athletic director. "Our coaches are happy where we are. In the end, it seemed like this was our best option."
Joe Castiglione, the Oklahoma athletic director, told The Oklahoman, "The value of the remaining members is strong and compelling. If it wasn't, we wouldn't have received the response we did from those in the sports business that wanted to see this league go on."
For his part, Scott said he doesn't have any resentment toward Texas. "Certainly, there is a sense of disappointment that a lot of people feel because we were so close to realizing a very exciting and compelling vision," he said. "But we went into this with our eyes wide open because of the boldness of it and we knew there could be all kinds of reasons why it wouldn't be possible."4 comments on this story
On Wednesday, the Pac-10 completed its original and more modest expansion. Colorado had decided to leave the Big 12 for the Pac-10, and Utah was officially invited.
"We've been working on parallel tracks with multiple plans, and adding Colorado and Utah is a logical step for us, academically, athletically and geographically," Scott said.
Order has been restored to college football, but for how long?
"The only constant is change," Scott said, "so I wouldn't rule out the super conference idea. I think that it's been proven in this process that it is a compelling concept for the TV networks and schools."