I can totally see the Zipper divisions now -- Red division vs. Blue division
First Football Season: 2011
And then the Willie Lyles story came out.
What was supposed to a momentous and joyous day across the West quickly soured for one school in the Pacific Northwest and in league offices in Walnut Creek. No matter what others may tell you, the sordid affair in Eugene for the past few months reached its ugliest point yet that put a pock mark right in between the 1 and the 2 of the shield of the Pac-12. As Crimson Tide fan Kleph commented over at CGB, the Pac-12 managed to expand to 12 teams and get hit with a scandal on the same day.
Meanwhile, for those of you who like to check the interwebs for your daily college football news, you know that some of the loudest (and perhaps most pompous) fans that aren't in the SEC to comment on anything and everything college football-related are Oregon fans. Suddenly, the boards and the comments section went quiet, eerily similar to a lull in activity after Stanford defeated them in 2009. What Oregon fans that remained continued to assert that Oregon had done nothing wrong and was still within the confines of legal NCAA actions to Lyles being out to get revenge against them after feeling maligned by the Ducks to that not being Chip Kelly's signature on the thank-you card that Lyles received (all three arguments fascinatingly debated over at AtQ and Ted Miller's blog). Ted does a good job of gathering up some local and national opinions of the whole thing today as well.
But in relation to the Pac-12, none of that really matters. At least not yet. As much as it might pain me to write this, Oregon hasn't been officially charged with anything by the NCAA, and there's no timetable for when or even if the NCAA might make a move. But the most important thing for the Pac-12 here is the PR nightmare that Oregon has created for our conference. Just as we all were getting out from under the Fiasco at Figueroa, the Ducks go and open themselves, and by extension the rest of the conference, up for criticism.
Perhaps the worst things that happened to this conference in the past 20 years were the 2003-07 USC Trojans football teams. While we're at it you may as well throw in the round robin football schedule as well, for reasons you'll see in just a second. Unlike the early '90s Washington Huskies, who dominated their competition and went undefeated for their '91 championship, the Trojans inspired much resentment across the entire conference for a variety of reasons. While the Huskies were only spectacular for a few years (and then, coincidentally, hammered with NCAA violations and punishments), the conference was able to do something remarkable after the Huskies run -- every team in the conference for the next 15 years won at least a share of the football title. Washington's success had helped propel every team to make themselves better. There were no multi-billion dollar media deals that would hamper success at some schools over others because of uneven sharing scenarios. Everyone got better the old-fashioned way -- good coaches, good (legal) recruiting, and luck. The one school who arguably did things the "wrong way" was Cal, and they appropriately got put on probation and sent their head coach packing shortly thereafter. But they came back only two years after probation and were able to challenge USC for conference supremacy.
The Huskies, and for that matter, every team that won the conference after them until 2006, had an amazing ally on their side, though -- an eight-game conference schedule. No team played all nine other schools in one year, meaning that for some schools, winning a championship and getting the opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl was substantially easier in some years (Stanford, 1999) than for other schools (Arizona, 1998). Didn't play Washington? That's ok, you could still make it to the Rose Bowl. That all changed in 2006 when the conference went to it's nine-game round robin. Now, in order to win the conference, you had to win against every team.
How does this play into USC's dominance? Well, no longer was there a "free game advantage," as I like to put it, over any other team. In order to win the conference, you had to win against USC. For this reason, the perception that Ducks have put out there in the rest of the country is that the only way to defeat a team full of cheaters was to cheat yourself, or if not that, cheat the system. Were the Ducks the only ones who thought this may be the solution? Who knows. There are certainly some conspiracy theorists out there (albeit very, very few, and most of them found here) who question how Jim Harbaugh was able to take a Stanford team that went 1-11 in 2006 to Orange Bowl champions just four seasons later, and who knows if there are any other questions circling other programs in the conference. The point is that the dominance of one team so one-sided against the others coupled with the celebrity of college football success spurred an arms race that wasn't there in the 1990s.
USC helped define the conference the last decade as "USC and the nine dwarfs" in part because they could compete (and beat) almost any team in the conference, save for the occasional game they lost that they shouldn't have. Would that kind of comparison have been made with Washington in the decade previous? We don't know for sure, but if I were a betting man, I'd say no. College athletics have fundamentally been altered by the BCS. The prospect of millions of dollars in revenue and national prestige have taken over athletic departments, stemming all the way from football down to the non-revenue (re: Olympic) sports. Washington State cannot compete today, and they won't be able to compete in the near future, because they are inherently at a disadvantage in terms of money.
The new Pac-12, it's "everyone is equal" financial mentality when it comes to TV and bowl money, and the multi-billion dollar media rights deal should help alleviate the combined pressures of athletic departments to stay in the black and still win. Going forward, the Pac-12 needs to improve its image in any way that it can. In the 13-year history of the BCS, the conference has only sent two teams to a BCS bowl a measly three times. The Big 12? Five times. SEC? It's sent an at-large team seven times. The Big Ten? A whopping ten times. We know how competitive it is out here for our football teams, but it seems the rest of the nation doesn't.
That's why its disappointing to hear about Willie Lyles and Oregon. In the image-is-everything world of college football, Oregon has unfortunately made the new Pac-12 seem like a cesspool of cheating and scheming. Even if that's not true in the slightest and Oregon did everything by the book and within the confines of NCAA rules, the perception is there for some people. Want to know why the Big Ten sent so many at-large teams? They were seen as a quality football conference with fans who could (and would) travel. With the Pac-12, that perception isn't there. It is the onus of the 12 fanbases to change their perception, but as Stanford pointed out this past year, even that can be overcome. None of those Big Ten teams, save for Michigan three years ago and Ohio State the past few months, had the stink of NCAA investigators on its campuses investigating major violations. They were able to get quality football "the right way," as Chip Kelly likes to claim he does at Oregon.
In order to become one of the monarchs of the BCS and overtake the three conferences viewed as better than them right now, the teams of the Pac-12 need to be able to compete not only on the field, but on the television screens and internet message boards in America. They need to be able to show that teams other just one can win a conference title. Even if it's just two teams that become dominant powerhouses, that may be enough (OU and UT do just fine, and for a while there Michigan and Ohio State were head and shoulders above everyone else in the Big Ten). The Pac-12 needs to show the country that it is an elite football conference, and it needs to do it without giving reasons to have the fans, the alumni, the media, and the NCAA breathe down their backs.