Immediately after the Pac-12 football championship game in late November, an on-screen interview with commissioner Larry Scott at Levi’s Stadium was interrupted by a chorus of boos. Attendees, it seemed, weren’t too fond of the leadership of the “Conference of Champions.”1
For nearly six decades, the Pac-12 managed to emulate its ostentatious slogan across the collegiate sports landscape. The Pac-12 has finished an academic year with the most total national championships of any conference in 52 out of the past 58 years, including the past 13 years.
The conference has no shortage of star power on the women’s side: Sabrina Ionescu is piling up unprecedented stat lines on the court with the Oregon Ducks; Ella Eastin is breaking records in the pool for the Stanford Cardinal; and Katelyn Ohashi of the UCLA Bruins recently stole the collective heart of the country on the mat. Last year, women collected nine of the conference’s 12 national titles. The Pac-12 women have already won two titles this year, in volleyball and cross-country, with the men claiming only water polo.
But when it comes to the two high-profile men’s sports of football and basketball, the Pac-12 is falling short. Months removed from Scott’s boo-inducing interview, as the college basketball season winds into its final stretch, the conference’s vertiginous fall in the top two revenue-generating sports is unmistakable.
While the Pac-12’s performance in football has been steadily declining since the College Football Playoff was introduced, the conference’s decline in men’s basketball seems more abrupt. Two years ago, the Pac-12 featured three 30-win teams for the first time. Three teams reached the Sweet 16, and Oregon punched the conference’s first ticket to the Final Four in nearly a decade. The abundance of talent was confirmed when the conference produced three lottery picks in the NBA draft — including Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, the top two overall selections.
The Pac-12 saw the top overall pick in the NBA draft again last season, in Arizona’s Deandre Ayton. But the conference face-planted at the NCAA tournament. Each of the three teams to reach the tourney failed to get out of the first round, including Ayton’s Arizona.2 Not since the Big 12 was formed in 1996-97 had one of the six major conferences3 failed to send a team to the second round of the tournament. No Pac-12 team finished inside the top 25 of KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin metric, either. Of course, this came after three UCLA Bruins were arrested for shoplifting on international soil in the days preceding a game meant to showcase the conference, and the FBI’s investigation of corruption in college basketball led to the arrests of assistant coaches from USC and Arizona4 before the season even tipped.
But that didn’t curtail the enthusiasm of the commissioner heading into this season. “Really excited about what our teams look like,” Scott said at the Pac-12 media day. “Feel like we’ve got a very, very strong conference.”
On paper, he wasn’t wrong. The conference accounted for seven of the top 40 recruiting classes, with UCLA and Oregon pulling in two of the top five. Three teams were ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll. But as the calendar year came to a close, the Pac-12 was mired in the worst December by a major conference in 20 years. By January, UCLA had fired head coach Steve Alford, and Oregon had lost Bol Bol, the conference’s most marketable player and the crown jewel of the 2018 recruiting class, for the year to a foot injury. Dana Altman’s Ducks, which checked in at No. 14 in the preseason poll and were considered an early favorite to reach the Final Four, are now longshots to even reach the tournament.
Cal is one of the worst teams in any conference and in the midst of its worst season in program history. Washington is the highest-ranking team in the conference by KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin metric and checks in at No. 35. No other Pac-12 team ranks in the top 50.
The conference has hardly proved itself against top-notch opponents. In any Quad 1 games,5 the Pac-12 is 11-51. The ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC each have at least three times as many wins over that caliber of opponent.
As it currently stands, the conference would be lucky to receive two bids to the tournament, with the Huskies projected to be a No. 9 seed and Arizona State possibly squeaking in as a 12 seed. It’s been a quarter-century since a major conference produced a one-bid campaign.
According to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, the Pac-12 collectively is just 7.31 points better than an average Division I team this season. That’s on track to be the conference’s worst single-season mark since the 2011-12 campaign and the third worst in the past three decades. The last time a major conference produced a worse SRS was 1997-98, when the Big 12 put up a 7.17 in its second season of existence. You have to go back at least 30 years to find a worse mark produced by the Big East, Big Ten or SEC.
If recent history serves, next month’s tournament will reinforce what many already know: The Pac-12, which hasn’t won a national title since Arizona cut down the nets in 1997, has fallen off considerably in terms of prestige.
Over the past decade, the Pac-12 has made two Final Four appearances and failed to reach a national championship game. Every other major conference has been to at least twice as many Final Fours and made at least two title game appearances. The Big East has won more national titles in the previous eight years than the Pac-12 has in the past 45. In particular, the performance of the Pac-12 in the 2016 tournament, relative to seeding, was the second worst performance by any conference since at least 2000. And over the past three years, no conference has underperformed more than the Pac-12 when it matters most.
The Pac-12 is also struggling in college football. Over the past two seasons, the conference is a combined 4-12 in bowl games, with three wins coming by a combined 4 points.
If this feels like a sudden drop, it’s because it is. The Pac-12 has won a single national title in the past 20 years, but you only have to go back three years to find an ESPN segment debating whether it was the best conference in college football. Since the playoff was introduced, the Pac-12 has made two appearances — going 1-2 — and failed to appear in three of the five seasons.
In total, the conference was 3.53 points better than the average FBS team in 2018-19, the lowest mark by a Power Five conference6 in six years. Since 2010, the conference has produced three of the seven worst seasons, two of which came in the past two seasons.
Oregon State has arguably been the worst Power Five football team for two consecutive years, and programs like Oregon, Stanford and USC, which traditionally have been competitive on a national level, have fallen off considerably. Washington’s good-but-not-good-enough seasonal cadence seems to have run its course, too. This offseason, perhaps the conference’s biggest story was that Kliff Kingsbury almost became an assistant coach at USC.
Arizona State is the lone Pac-12 school with a Division I hockey team,7 and there’s a reasonable chance it will end up ranked higher at season’s end than any team the conference fielded in football or men’s basketball.
Living up to the standard established by John Wooden, who won 10 national championships over 12 years at UCLA, would be impossible. But falling to the bottom of the major-conference barrel in the two sports most scrutinized is a disastrous turn for a conference literally branded around dominance.
To some, the Conference of Champions® has transformed into the Circle of Suck. This may be the bleakest moment in the illustrious history of the Pac-12, as the conference continues its stroll away from relevancy.
CORRECTION (Feb. 22, 2019, 12:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said the Pac-12 had no football teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at the end of the 2018 season. Two teams were ranked: No. 10 Washington State and No. 13 Washington.