On March 24, 2009, the Pac-10 announced the hiring of Larry Scott, then the head of the Women's Tennis Association, as commissioner. Across the college football nation, folks shared the same thought: "Who the heck is Larry Scott?"
The deputy athletic director at Kentucky at that time admits he raised an eyebrow. "The only thing I can recall is there were some whispers of 'a nontraditional hire,'" Rob Mullens said.
Interpretation: Those geeks on the West Coast don't know what they're doing.
In another SEC outpost, Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne, who grew up immersed in West Coast college athletics, exchanged a bemused look with his wife, Regina.
"Oh, yeah, I was surprised," Byrne said of learning of Scott's hire. "My wife was like, 'What are they doing hiring a guy from the professional tennis tour?'"
The feelings about Scott are different these days in all college football outposts, and Mullens and Byrne, now the athletic directors at Oregon and Arizona, respectively, are particularly happy with Scott.
"He's transformed the Pac-12," Mullens said. "He took an undervalued, underexposed asset and shined a light on it with these incredible TV deals."
The TV deal Mullens refers to is the $3 billion, 12-year contract Scott signed with ESPN and Fox, the richest deal in college sports. It will more than quadruple the conference's old, much maligned TV deal, with each league school averaging about $21 million a year over the life of the contract.
Mullens and Byrne are pertinent here for another reason: As former administrators in the SEC, they know the Joneses the Pac-12 needs to keep up with.
That's the next issue. Scott has led the conference to water. Now will it drink? He's enacted monumental change -- expansion to 12 teams, a split into North and South divisions, establishment of a championship game, the huge TV deal and upcoming Pac-12 national and regional networks -- but it all was done in the name of one thing: staying competitive with the richer SEC and Big Ten.
"I feel extremely good about where we are, from an exposure standpoint, from a revenue standpoint and from a competitive standpoint," Scott said.
So how does all of that make football better and help win national championships? That's up to the school presidents and athletic directors to figure out.
"At the end of the day, only performance matters," Mullens said. "We're going to have the opportunity to put ourselves on a level playing field with exposure and with resources. Now we have to perform when that opportunity presents itself."
Scott has seemingly transformed something else in the Pac-12. He's steered the presidents toward a new way of thinking, of seeing their entire athletic departments through the prism of football. Want to have resources for women's and Olympic sports? Football. That's the answer. Football -- and, to a lesser extent, men's basketball -- creates the gravy that spills onto nonrevenue teams and provides them nourishment.
The previous thinking in the Pac-10 was, "We're not like that. We love all our sports equally." But the counterintuitive truth is that failing to properly prioritize football does long-term harm to an athletic department, at least one playing in an automatic qualifying football conference. That's not a political position. That's the marketplace. (Should universities be involved in massive business enterprises? Folks, that train has left the station.)
That means the athletic directors need to invest the new revenue in facilities. And they need to start paying their coaches and assistant coaches elite market value.
Again, as much as it might pain some Pac-12 fans to hear it, you have to look at the SEC. There are many reasons the conference has won five consecutive national titles in football, but it's hard to believe the league having its pick of coaches isn't a major one of them.
"Again, it's back to the investment," Mullens said. "They attracted a set of exceptional coaches. You're talking some elite coaches. And I'm not just talking about head coaches. Look at the assistant coach salary pools."
In 2010, using figures compiled by USA Today, four of the top 10 and seven of the top 24 highest paid head coaches were in the SEC, topped by Alabama coach Nick Saban, who made approximately $6 million. Two Pac-12 coaches ranked in the top 25: Oregon's Chip Kelly ($2.4 million) and California's Jeff Tedford ($2.3 million).
But the disparity, believe it or not, is even more stunning when you consider assistant coach pay. Thirteen of the 26 assistant coaches paid $400,000 or more were in the SEC. Among the 40 highest-paid assistant coaches in the nation, the Pac-12 had just two: offensive coordinator Norm Chow (at UCLA in 2010, now at Utah) and Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt. (Private schools such as USC and Stanford don't provide salary data. It's likely that Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin and his father and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin would figure into these rankings.)
The raw numbers also don't tell the whole story. Just about every Pac-12 city is more expensive to live in than just about any SEC city. If UCLA were to hire Saban away from Alabama, it would have to pay him $8.65 million to match his standard of living in Tuscaloosa. The $206,000 California defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast makes in the Bay Area is like making $124,285 in Auburn, Ala. That's certainly not what Gus Malzahn and Ted Roof, Auburn's two coordinators, are making ($500,000 and $407,000, respectively).
That salary gap needs to close.
Of course, even a big media deal isn't going to transform the Pac-12 culture into the SEC culture. The SEC averaged 76,719 in attendance last year. The Pac-10 averaged 53,819. No team in the Pac-12 averaged over 80,000 in attendance last year. Six did in the SEC.
It's hard to imagine the Pac-12 will significantly catch up in attendance figures in the near-term -- if ever. That's a revenue source that the conference can't match.
"That is a significant challenge," Mullens said. "There is a correlation -- I don't know if it has to be considered a direct correlation -- between resources and sustained success. When folks are packing 100,000-seat stadiums with donations for every seat, it's a game-changer."
But Mullens pointed out that sometimes creativity can help. Consider Oregon. It's carved out a specific niche. In a sport that has long emphasized tradition, the Ducks adopted a philosophy of seeking the new and, yes, sometimes outrageous.
"We need to stay true to what got us here," Mullens said. "We need to remain innovative. We need to remain hungry and be true to what has worked for us -- being cutting edge, willing to take some risks, whether that be uniforms or facilities."
Has that helped Oregon catch the elite of the SEC? After a late field goal by Auburn beat the Ducks in the national title game, they'll get a second go-around with the conference, on Sept. 3 against LSU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The winner instantly becomes a leading national title contender. And fans from the winner's conference likely will be pretty obnoxious about the result.
Whether Scott's savvy business-related moves help the conference end the SEC's stranglehold on football national championships remains a question. But what doesn't remain a question is the wisdom of Scott as a "nontraditional hire."
Said Byrne, "He's a dynamic leader."
Ted Miller covers Pac-12 football for ESPN.com. Check out the Pac-12 blog for all the latest on the conference.