More than four months ago, the Pac-12 unveiled its Football Alumni Council, a first-of-its-kind advisory board stocked with big names and a momentous task: Assist the conference in upgrading a football product that has lost relevance and face challenges there are multiple fronts.
Since that ballyhooed start, the group of 23 former players and one ex-coach has gone quiet — like an offense that scores on its first drive, then experiences a barrage of three-and-outs.
But behind the scenes, there is action. The group has met once in person and several times remotely. Individually, members are in frequent contact with the project’s steward, Pac-12 senior associate commissioner Merton Hanks, the chief of football operations.
“There has been quiet planning on how to move the football product forward,” Hanks told the Hotline earlier this week.
“The council is giving us ideas on marketing and messaging. It has paid tremendous dividends. I get a call or a text every day from someone with an idea.
“People from one school are willing to do things at other schools. I have a lot of friends from USC. Do you know how hard it is to get them to do something for UCLA? But they are. And that’s an example of how much people care.”
The council is playing the long game, in part because of lingering uncertainty over College Football Playoff expansion and the Pac-12’s next media rights agreement — critical pieces to the shape of West Coast football for the next decade.
But the group has offered a slew of ideas for product enhancement in the near term, and a public reveal of actionable items could come as soon as this summer.
“It’s like a think tank,” said Brandon Sanders, a former Arizona defensive back.
“Guys are saying, ‘This is what we’ve done; what do you do? Is Pac-12 After Dark working? How can we get more exposure for our guys? How can we put something together for all the schools to share?’
“There’s a desire to have a real discussion about how to make our product better, so all of us end up benefitting.”
According to those familiar with discussions, near-term areas of focus include, but are not limited to:
— Increasing year-round interest.
“There’s an emphasis on making spring football a significant event, a big deal for fans,” Hanks said. “We’re looking at it like the start of the football season, a way to build hope, sell tickets and rally alumni.”
— Using alumni as a resource to boost recruiting, especially with elite West Coast prospects.
“Everything is about the pipeline,” commissioner George Kliavkoff said following the creation of the council.
NCAA recruiting rules prohibit the former players from making phone calls, sending text messages or reaching out to prospects via social media. But they are allowed to have in-person contact with recruits on campus when visits take place.
— Creating campus events connected to football Saturdays.
“The gist I’ve gotten from people is they want very famous alumni to lend a presence to recruiting and functions surrounding the game,” said Oregon’s Mike Bellotti, the only former coach on the council.
“One suggestion was to tie home games to concerts the night before or after the game, ways to get people to the games so that when they’re watching on TV, it’s rabid. We have to make the games more impactful, so the excitement level translates to recruits and to the players.”
Much as they are willing to help, the Pac-12 alumni see the landscape clearly.
They are keenly aware of the challenges around every turn — many of them rooted in the nature of college football on the West Coast.
“It was shocking to me doing SEC and Big Ten games,” Bellotti said, referring to his years as an ESPN broadcaster.
“Autzen Stadium is the place to be on six or seven Saturdays a year. The problem is the other 358 days. But in other areas of the country, people think the same way about college football every day. On the West Coast, we don’t do that. The enthusiasm level and commitment are not the same.”
The less-than-rabid mindset existed for decades but has deepened in recent years because of a deteriorating on-field product, especially in three areas that matter most to the five-star recruits the conference hopes to retain:
* The Pac-12 hasn’t placed a team in the College Football Playoff in six years and claims just two of the 32 semifinal slots over the history of the event.
* The conference hasn’t produced a Heisman Trophy finalist since Stanford’s Bryce Love in 2017.
* The Pac-12 is lagging in the number of first-round NFL Draft picks produced: From 2019-21, it generated just nine Day One selections, compared to 36 for the SEC, 19 for the Big Ten and 16 for the ACC.
“We have fine universities,” said Lincoln Kennedy, a council member and former Washington offensive lineman.
“But we can only rest on our laurels so much. Ohio State, Alabama — they talk about putting kids in the NFL. We have to figure out how to make ourselves as popular as other conferences. We are losing young men to the SEC and Midwest schools.”
A fourth piece of data lends insight into the tepid game-day atmosphere: The number of teams included in the end-of-year Associated Press top-25 rankings.
After all, nothing draws fans to the stadium like winning, and winning seasons are reflected in the final AP rankings.
— From 2012-16, the Pac-12 placed 23 teams in the final AP rankings.
— From 2017-21, it placed just 10.
Over five years — not a small sample size for this issue — an average of two teams have produced seasons successful enough to crack the top 25.
“What’s happened the past couple years is the Pac-12 has been somewhat irrelevant,” said Kennedy, a Pac-12 Networks game analyst.
“It pains me to say that, but when you look at the SEC and the Big Ten, 100,000 people are going to Michigan Stadium because they want to see Michigan football. Same thing at Rocky Top to see Tennessee, or Georgia. They want to see that team. But West Coast fans are different. They come out when the team is doing well.”
The era of name, image and likeness exacerbates the Pac-12’s challenge and has been discussed repeatedly by the alumni council, according to its members.
As written, NIL rules allow college athletes to be compensated by businesses for product endorsements. The cash isn’t supposed to be used as a recruiting inducement, but that quickly became its primary purpose as a booster pool resource offering millions of thousands, if not millions of dollars to lure recruits to a particular school.
It’s not NIL as intended, and it feels unseemly to many in major college athletics. But there is no enforcement process.
“NIL has created the wild, wild west,” Bellotti said. “Recruiting is tied to what kids can get.”
The more passionate the donors, the deeper the coffers from which cash can be funneled to recruits.
Legally, the donor collectives aren’t tied to the universities. In reality, they move in lockstep with the football team’s recruiting efforts.
“Let’s be honest,” Kennedy said. “We can try to sell people on the quality of the degree in the Pac-12, but that’s not good enough all the time. I love the Pac-12. I’m a proud Washington alum, and I would do whatever I can to benefit the conference. It’s top-notch.
“The council can be good for bringing more awareness to the conference.
“But at some point, when you talk about the way college sports is today with the transfer portal and NIL, the Pac-12 has a lot of work to do.
“We have to put out a more popular product — that’s just dealing with the facts.”
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