Pac-10 commish Hansen opens up as he steps down

July, 1, 2009
7/01/09
11:21
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

For 26 years atop the Pac-10, commissioner Tom Hansen has been an advocate for change as well as a defender of tradition.

Both qualities have earned him admirers and critics.

During his tenure, the conference has become an all-sports powerhouse that annually piles up national championships, though some argue at the expense of the sport that pays for it all: football. 

Hansen steps aside today, and Larry Scott, former chairman and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, takes over.

 
  AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
  Pac-10 commisioner Tom Hansen is stepping down Wednesday after 26 years at the helm.
Ahead for Hansen: golf, travel and quality time with grandchildren.

But before he does that, he looks back, looks forward and assesses the Pac-10 present.

Think back to when you started 26 years ago: Did you imagine then that college football would look like it does today?

Tom Hansen: I probably hoped it would because I think it looks wonderful today. But I really didn't envision it being as important as it is, as good as it is, holding its TV ratings as well as it has during the fragmentation of the television audience. The in-stadium attendance -- I don't have these numbers exactly -- but I saw recently that in 1979 that attendance was 26 million and today it's 38 million. And the attendance at bowl games last year was very good and bowl game ratings were very good. I think that back in 1983, none of us was really sure what television would do. There were uncertainties with what the future would hold.

If you could change one thing about college football -- across the entire landscape of teams and conferences -- what would it be?

TH: As always, you'd want to make it safer for the student-athlete. That's something we constantly seek. It is a violent game and unfortunately participants get hurt. Beyond that, I like a lot where it is. We probably have too many bowl games but teams and players who get to participate probably have a good time and feel like it's a reward for 12 months of hard work.

There was a report in the Seattle Times about the Pac-10 talking to the Alamo Bowl: Where does that stand?

TH: We've talked to quite a few bowls in the last six months, particularly in the West. This is the last year of the current [non-BCS] bowl cycle. We tried to move quickly this year for a number of reasons having to do with bowls' television agreements and bowls' sponsorship agreements. We would certainly be interested in the Alamo Bowl, if we could fit it into our bowl lineup. We had two games there [1993 and 1994] and had an excellent experience and people love to go to San Antonio. It would be a very attractive destination for Pac-10 fans.

Do you imagine significant changes in the Pac-10 bowl arrangements over the coming years?

TH: Not very significant because we know from history that the Florida bowls, the Southeast bowls, are not interested in our teams because of the travel distances for fans and our probable inability to sell tickets in that area. So we are pretty well restricted in where we would have opportunities.

The SEC and Big Ten are making a lot more money than the Pac-10 and other BCS conferences: Are we developing have- and have-not conferences within the BCS?

TH: I think that is a possibility and a danger and we are going to be studying our opportunities to step up in television to try to keep pace with those two conferences. We need to try to find ways to match what those two conferences are doing. Our athletic directors have been studying the television marketplace for the last year with an eye on that.

Is a Pac-10 network a sure-thing for increasing revenue?

TH: I think if we were to decide to do that, yes, revenue would definitely increase over what we have now. Whether that's the best approach for increasing revenue is something that the directors will be looking at in the next year or two. We have TV contracts -- ABC/ESPN in football and Fox Sports Net in football and basketball -- through the 2011-2012 academic years. So our contracts are not concluded through three more years. So there is time. Also, the formation of a network is a complex undertaking and would take quite a bit of time and energy and attention.

What advice would you give incoming commissioner Larry Scott?

TH: The first thing I've already told him is he's extremely fortunate to be involved with 10 great universities and the people on the campuses. I think it's a very positive thing that he's acquired this job. I wish him the very best. I think he'll be a fine leader.

What would you rate as your best memory during your tenure?

TH: That's hard. I think winning the NCAA basketball championship, which happened twice. And winning any Rose Bowl game. And plus USC's football national championship in the Orange Bowl.

What about your biggest accomplishment -- what most satisfies you when you look back on your tenure?

TH: That the conference has been so successful while approaching intercollegiate athletics in the best possible way. It's had a balance with the academic element of our enterprise, which has been very important to the Pac-10. And yet we've been so successful on the field. I think that's a thing I can be proud of. The other thing that I think stands out is the magnificent programs for women that we have developed since I arrived and how successful they've been. And the creation of the television [broadcasts] that we've had to do, starting in 1983, that we had to do with football.

Every leader gets criticized. You've received your fair share. Did the criticism get to you?

TH: Not in a general sense. The criticisms of the BCS I find are mostly from people who really don't understand the negatives of a playoff. All they want to do is see a playoff, like the basketball tournament, and they completely fail to understand how different football is from basketball. Probably some of the criticism of officiating when people don't understand how difficult it is, particularly in basketball, and don't appreciate how well they do, given the difficulties. Sometimes those criticism, particularly when the fan really doesn't understand the rule or how it was applied, those rankle. But generally if you are confident you made the best decision you could, given the information you had, then I think you feel good about what you did. I also have said to people that you are criticizing me, but you have to understand that almost every time I've expressed a position, it's been that of the conference, not my own personal viewpoint -- even though, philosophically, I am very, very compatible with the philosophy of the Pac-10. But I don't adopt positions. The conference does. I just express them and explain them the best I can. So to personalize it is a mistake.

For the final time, can you say to fans what is the biggest road block to a college football playoff?

TH: The fact that members of the Football Bowl Subdivision, by a wide majority, prefer a bowl system
where 6,800 young people get to have a post-season experience and the aversion to a playoff that would quickly go to 16 teams. People talk about a one-game playoff or a four-team playoff -- it can't happen. We were forced in the BCS from political pressure to expand from eight berths to 10 berths. Were there to be a playoff, you'd have to have 11 automatic berths [for every conference] and you'd have to have a berth for Notre Dame, and that would cut you down to just four at-large berths. Most years you'd have an argument about that. Then, with that many games, you'd have to play on the campuses of the higher seeded teams. You couldn't possibly travel teams week by week to a neutral site -- the NFL doesn't even do that. And no one really stops to reflect upon the fact that the NFL has all the playing slots through December and January [on the weekends]. So finding attractive playing times and dates and television availability would be a great challenge. So there are so many negatives to a playoff, to say nothing of probably the most important one which is the presidents do not want football being played into the second semester. It's not just missing class. It's the impact it has on the academic program of the institution. There's a long list of reasons these institutions favor having one game per team in the post-season and stopping it at that.

Has USC's dominance been good for the Pac-10? Or has their seven-year run atop the conference hurt the national perception?

TH: I think that's a two-sided question. On one hand, the fact that a member of the conference has been very much a part of the national championship picture for these seven years and has played in the national championship game twice and shared it another time, I think that's very good for the conference. You have at at least one team as good -- and I think we've had others through the years -- that is as good as any team in the country. On the other hand, the era in the 1990s when we had seven different teams win the championship and play in the Rose Bowl was very good for the conference from another aspect because it showed we had many teams that had good programs and it was quite obvious nationally that we had that kind of depth. One of the things that I think has been a strength of Pac-10 football is that we have not very frequently had non-competitive teams. Usually, it's been pretty competitive from top to bottom. So it's both good and unfortunate because during this run by USC some of our other teams haven't been recognized as having been as good as they are. Yet USC, I think, by in large has had a more difficult time winning its conference games than it has had winning its bowl games.

Do you have any feeling when the NCAA and Pac-10 will announce its findings in the USC-Reggie Bush case?

TH: It is still an active case and that is the extent to which I can comment on it.

Perception -- how a team or conference is viewed by the nation -- has always been a huge part of rating college football programs. The BCS has transformed those perceptions into a high-stakes game. Have other conferences been better are controlling -- or manipulating -- their national perception?

TH: I think that's hard to judge. I don't think anybody's manipulated that particularly. I think the SEC has been quite good at extolling its own virtues. I think our people do that too, but perhaps we don't have it carried to the East Coast as much as some of the others. I think we've done fine that way. When our teams are good, I think they get well-recognized and well-rated.

I ask that because round-robin scheduling, while the most equitable way to determine a champion, seems to have hurt the conference as much as helped it?

TH: I do think it can be hurtful. We see in the other conferences when a team may miss the two other best teams in that conference, just by happenstance. I think it happened with Kansas two years ago when it didn't play either Texas or Oklahoma when those were two of the top half-dozen teams in the country and Kansas emerged as a [highly rated] team. It's been very good for the conference for two reasons. First of all, you really do want to play and settle on the field who is the best team and who should be the champion. And the other thing is, our conference games are much more attractive than what probably would be the team on the schedule if you played [a fourth nonconference foe]. It's increasingly difficult to find quality opponents, particularly in the West, because institutions that are willing to accept a road game for a payout are primarily located in the Midwest or the Southeast. They don't need to to travel to the West at great expense to do that. Scheduling is a real challenge for our members. That's been another positive in having nine conference games. The puzzle to me is it doesn't seem like the BCS system has penalized the teams that play very poor nonconference schedules in addition to a lesser conference schedule. I'm puzzled by that.

If you were going to predict, what will be the next tweak to the BCS?

TH: First of all, we're going to go through the 2011-14 cycle without any changes as of this time. I think the next change may well be expanding the board -- the presidential oversight committee that sets BCS policy. Expanding that to include all 11 conferences plus Notre Dame is probably the next tweak, which isn't a tweak to operations but it's an important internal change.

It's the fall of 2025: If you were to guess, will college football be using a playoff?

TH: That's too far out to predict with any sense of confidence or accuracy but it's going to be quite a while, if ever, for that to happen, just because of all the negatives that I mentioned earlier. When people talk about a playoff, they don't talk about the details or the structure, or participation. They just say, 'Let's have a playoff because we have a playoff in every other sport.' Well, every other sport isn't football. We've looked at all the playoffs in America, pro and college, and any playoff that ever started has grown exponentially, including [NCAA] basketball, NFL, hockey, NBA and Major League baseball. All of those playoffs started relatively small and grew because the pressure to include more teams is so great that the organization can't withstand the pressure.

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