Editor’s note: First installment in series on CU’s move to the Pac-12 a decade ago. Today: Has it been worth it?
In early August, with the college football season dangling by a pinkie, nearly a dozen Pac-12 players emailed a letter to conference commissioner Larry Scott. In it, they offered up a list of demands, pleaded for systemic change in how the conference operated and accused it of putting student-athletes “at needless risk.”
It was a watershed moment in the history of the conference, a landmark in the push for NCAA reform. The letter had 11 signatures, endorsed by a player from every program in the Pac-12.
Every program, that is, except one: CU-Boulder.
A decade after the Buffs decided to call the Pac-12 home, you still get … moments. Moments when CU, situated nearly 1,250 miles from Pac-12 headquarters in San Francisco, comes off as an afterthought to its league brethren, a distant mountain cousin.
The #WeAreUnited letter from August felt like one. So did the conference’s announcement of a return to fall football on Sept. 24 — a declaration made, awkwardly, on the same day Boulder County announced a ban that kept CU from practicing for two weeks.
Back in 2010, the Buffs’ move to the Pac-12 promised stability. Prestige. A partnership with like-minded universities. And more money than the Big 12 — where the University of Texas pulled the strings — could ever dream of. But the reality has played out differently, with the Buffs an outlier in their new home, unseen by a large swath of the country and trailing their former Big 12 peers in terms of revenue and resources.
“We feel really entrenched in the Pac-12,” CU athletic director Rick George told The Post. “We’ve been there, we feel good about the strides that we’re making. Have we won as many games and contests as we’d like? No. But we’re getting there. Our best days are ahead of us.”
From an academic and cultural standpoint, the Buffs are — and always were — a natural fit within the Pac-12. The past decade has also shown the new league to be less of a boon than it was made out to be 10 years ago. Especially for CU football, which has gone through two head coaches this calendar year and five since 2010.
Last week, the Buffs embarked on their 10th football season as a member of the Pac-12. And what was universally praised as a good idea in June 2010 — fleeing the Big 12 Conference, the spiritual successor to the old Big Eight — has more than a few critics now.
“I wouldn’t say I like it. I think it remains to be seen,” said Fox Sports college football analyst Joel Klatt, a former CU quarterback. “And part of the Pac-12 (concern) is that your exposure is just so poor. They have executed their conference network so poorly that it makes it hard … so it remains to be seen, for me. And I trust (the Buffs) and I want it to work for them, but the conference as a whole, I think, has some real struggles.”
And some grounds, even the higher ones, aren’t always secure. Especially as universities try to navigate the financial blows levied by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Challenges were not obvious”
Mike Bohn was a child of the Big Eight. He could also smell a brush fire from 40 yards out. And the Big 12 in the spring of 2010 kept giving off all the wrong smoke signals.
Missouri wasn’t hiding its disdain for the league. Nebraska was, but everyone behind closed doors knew the Big Red had grown tired of the Longhorns calling the shots.
Bohn, CU’s athletic director in 2010, is a graduate of Boulder High School. And the University of Kansas. The old Big Eight felt like family. And that family was coming apart at the seams. This wasn’t about relations anymore.
It was about survival.
“I began to think about, ‘Well, we’re an outlier ourselves, and this is an opportunity for us to possibly look at something different,’” Bohn, now the athletic director at the University of Southern California, told The Post. “Chancellor (Phil) DiStefano gave (senior associate athletic director) Tom McGrath the autonomy to begin exploring a potential move to the Pac-10. It really was spurred by Missouri. And ironically enough, Mizzou is now in the SEC.”
Hindsight is 20/20, except when it comes to 2010. You ask Bohn to ponder this: What if you knew then what we know now? That CU football, thanks to the Pac-12 Network, would be invisible to two-thirds of the country? Would you still feel, in 2020, that jumping from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 was the right call?
“I do,” Bohn replied. “I really believe, with all my heart, that with the number of (CU) alumni that live in the Pac-12 footprint and the number of potential students in the Pac-12 footprint versus the Big 12 footprint, it’s dramatically different.”
The shot to CU’s coffers, pre-COVID, was dramatic. (Conversely, not having fans at football games will cost the Buffs an estimated $12.8 million this fall). From 2006 to 2018, the Buffs’ athletic department revenues, adjusted for inflation, went up 60%. Donations to athletics increased 90%. And the Buffs’ annual distribution from television rights deals and postseason events shot up a whopping 164%, according to the Knight Commission database.
But those figures also come with one big caveat: Context. While the Buffs’ cash flow had climbed for 13 years, the jumps aren’t nearly as high as those seen by the Big 12 schools they used to compete against. Former CU rivals such as Iowa State and Kansas State received $38.2 million to $42 million in revenue from the Big 12 for the 2019 fiscal year, compared to the $32.2 million the Pac-12 distributed to the Buffs, based on tax filings acquired by USA Today.
In the arms race for coaches and recruits, those financial gaps add up. So, too, do the gaps in television eyeballs. The Buffs’ football program since August 2017 has been seen by a TV audience of more than 3 million people only three times — and two of those games were against Nebraska, according to SportsMediaWatch.com.
The Pac-12’s football reputation, meanwhile, has continued to slide. In the six years since the College Football Playoff was instituted, the “Conference of Champions” has placed its champion in the four-team bracket just twice.
Since beginning league play in 2011, the Buffs have produced one season with a winning record — a 10-4 mark in 2016 — while finishing in the South division basement six times.
“The challenges of the Pac-12 in football were not obvious at the time,” said ESPN’s Chris Fowler, a CU graduate. “Maybe people had expectations … I think there’s concern for every team in the conference that the gap in revenue is real, and it has an impact on the school’s ability to compete. We saw that in The Mel Tucker Situation, among other factors.”
Ah, yes. The Mel Tucker Situation.
This past February, CU became the latest epicenter for growing frustrations over the conference’s direction under Commissioner Larry Scott. When Tucker, the Buffs’ football coach, resigned after only 14 months on the job to take the same position at Michigan State, it underscored the limitations for Pac-12 football programs in comparison to the rest of major college football.
Despite being the fourth most-prestigious program in the Big Ten’s stacked East division, the Spartans were able to more than double Tucker’s 2019 CU salary (from a reported $2.4 million in Boulder to $5.5 million in East Lansing) in a far less expensive market.
Even the conference’s old-money club came away embarrassed. During an interview with CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd in late February, just a few weeks before COVID-19 hit, Bohn described the state of the Pac-12 as “really tender.”
The former CU athletic director has since walked that comment back. But the sentiment, that tenderness, still lingers.
“Geographically, it makes a lot of sense”
Bohn now swears that CU’s best Pac-12 days are waiting on the other side of the pandemic, whenever that day comes.
That the change in leagues wasn’t just about safety. It was about identity. Getting the Buffs closer to where their fans — and those fans’ dollars — called home.
“Your out-of-state students that were attending Colorado, 15% were from California,” Bohn said. “It was never about any disrespect to any member of the Big 12. It was more about that fundamental positioning and the profile of CU in the West.”
And the Buffs’ arrow has pointed west for decades. According to university data, roughly 42% of undergraduates who enrolled during the fall semester of 2019 hailed from another state. In 2020, one out of every nine CU undergrads were California natives.
“Geographically, (the Pac-12) makes a lot of sense,” said George, who was hired as Bohn’s successor in 2013. “Los Angeles is an area that we recruit consistently, as we do in San Francisco. And now Arizona is becoming such a hotbed from a recruiting standpoint. So I think from that perspective, it’s been really good.”
CU had nearly taken the plunge before, when the Pac-10 invited the school to be its 11th member back in 1994, but the switch was rejected by the CU Board of Regents a few days before Christmas.
“There was a poster when I was in school,” recalled Alex Passett, Class of ’86 and now president of Forever Buffs Kansas City. “This poster showed the state of California as this huge (caricature) on this map. And it showed all of the different UC schools in California. And then it showed this huge (caricature) of Colorado. And underneath Boulder it read, ‘The University of California at Boulder.’”
Even though he’s at the epicenter of CU’s old conference home in greater Kansas City, Passett understands full well where Bohn and George were coming from. The Buffs alum recalled suggesting out loud, that CU should consider jumping to the Pac-10 during a 2009 meeting of alumni chairs at the Koenig Alumni Center.
“I said, ‘This is going to sound stupid coming from a guy running the Kansas City club, but (CU) should take a look at moving to the Pac-10,’” Passett recalled. “We’d said, ‘We know that it’s going to potentially hurt our club, but (the Buffs) ought to look. It might be a good thing.’”
For a few years, it was a great thing.
The Pac-12 held all the cards. CU and fellow newbie Utah bridged the Front Range to the coast. The league’s 12-year, $3 billion television rights deal signed in 2012 was the largest in college sports at the time. And those television revenues were being distributed equally, which hadn’t been the case in the Big 12. On the academic and research side, the Buffs were going from a conference in which few institutions were also members of the prestigious Association of American Universities to a league in which nine out of 12 schools, including CU, boasted membership to the AAU.
“We did get what we were promised,” Buffs’ chancellor Phil DiStefano told The Post.
The perception was that the Buffs had hit the trifecta: They’d found stability. They’d found financial security. They’d even found their tribe.
“My feeling is that public institutions should be linked to conferences that are in the region where they a) get their students; and b) their alumni live and work,” offered former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, who was running the league when some of its most critical members were running away from it. “And Colorado is maybe the only (Big 12 defector) that really did that. That Colorado left the Big 12 makes sense.”
It just hasn’t added up to as many dollars and cents as other major college football conferences have enjoyed. According to the USA Today report on 2019 fiscal year tax data, the average league payout of $32.2 million per Pac-12 school trailed the Big Ten ($55.6 million), the home of ex-CU rival Nebraska; the SEC ($45.3 million); and the Big 12 ($38.2-$42 million).
The Pac-12’s current broadcast deals — the ones that got lapped by the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC — expire in 2024. Conference officials are stoked for another turn at the trough, another chance to set the bar. And, at CU, to set the Buffs up for generations to come.
“This next round of television negotiation is critical for everyone, including CU,” Bohn said. “And I think that a 10-year look at the decision is probably not as revealing as being able to (look) back at it over the next 25. And the next 50.”
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