Keeler: USC, UCLA bailed. Pac-12 promises were lies. CU Buffs have to ask themselves this: Who do we want to be as a football program?
You’re on your own now, CU. Conferences? Conferences don’t matter. Contracts don’t matter. Tradition doesn’t matter.
Geography? More than 1,500 gorgeous miles sit between Memorial Stadium in Lincoln and Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. Geography is so 2010.
The only thing that matters is television. And whether a network armed with billions wants your football team featured on theirs.
“I do know this, though — that just sitting around thinking what could have been or looking longingly into the past is not going to help (the Buffs) in their current state,” former CU quarterback and current FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt said by phone.
“They’re going to have to work really hard to map out and carve out a future that will allow them to return to a prominent place within the spot which we all know that they can get to.”
The Pac-12 was a Ponzi scheme, with former commissioner Larry Scott its Bernie Madoff. CU chancellor Phil DiStefano got his university duped, for too long propping up a television channel and a figurehead in Scott while Limousine Larry laughed all the way to the penthouse.
USC and UCLA last week jumped from Scott’s burning plane to the Big Ten, to Mel Tucker Country, on parachutes made of cashier’s checks. Everything promised to CU 12 years ago is slipping downstream the way a flaming dumpster fire does in a flood.
You’re on your own now, CU.
As the new fiscal year dawns, DiStefano and his peers have to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves some serious questions. Starting with these:
Is Folsom Field the university’s front porch? Or the attic, where old memories and past glories gather dust? Where Ralphie runs and the football limps?
“Those who have been reactive have consistently fallen behind,” Klatt stressed. “Proactive movers are generally rewarded, although not all the time. And I would not leave anything, or any stone, unturned.”
Unless you’re in the Big Ten or SEC, the money’s not coming. Not the silly money, anyway. The Power 5 are now the Big 2 — the SEC and the Big Ten, Coke and Pepsi, iPhone and Android — followed by a gap … then followed by everybody else.
What dollars are left for what’s left of the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC are going to be incrementally smaller in their next TV deals. ESPN wanted to sweeten up its stranglehold on the SEC as far as eyeballs and ad money, so it poached Texas and Oklahoma. FOX Sports, a majority stakeholder in the Big Ten Network, is based in Los Angeles, with a SoCal world view.
You’re on your own now, CU.
The Pac-12 can spin ‘til Christmas, but the party’s over. Oregon and Washington, two football brands far mightier than UCLA’s and the biggest fish left in what looks like a small pond, feel rightfully scorned. If the Ducks and Huskies want to stick around — and let’s be real, they don’t — they’re going to want a bigger slice of what’s coming in terms of league revenue, relative to their stature within it.
Like Boise State and the current Mountain West lineup, the Pac-Whatever is going to have to basically bribe Oregon and Washington to stay.
DiStefano has stressed repeatedly in interviews how much he liked the Pac-12’s NFL-style, equitable revenue sharing over the tiered, rich-get-richer deal Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska used to lord over the old Big 12. The Pac-10 used to give USC and UCLA more of the TV pot, too, before the Buffs and Utah entered the picture.
“The challenge moving forward for CU is to find some stability, and in particular, from an economic standpoint,” Klatt said. “(But) I don’t know where that is for them.”
Ring the ex and crawl back to the Big 12? Maybe. Klatt said he could picture a super-conference merger, made up of the best of the remains of the Pac-12 merging with the Big 12, having an appeal to programmers and advertisers. The Mountain West? Not if the Pac-12 decides to poach Boise and/or San Diego State, the cream of The Little Brothers Club.
In a perfect world, the Big Ten would stop waiting on Notre Dame to get up off its echoes and call the Buffs. CU is a longstanding member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), the academic consortium that’s considered the gold-standard for Big Ten association. The Buffs are the flagship program of the Mountain Time Zone. They’ve won a national football title within the lifetimes (1990) of most of today’s critical decision-makers, even if that title is coming up on its 35th birthday. There’s a natural, beautiful, deep-seated rivalry with Nebraska that, unlike Utah, wouldn’t feel artificial, or a forced marriage of contractual necessity.
CU rests in a top 20 media market, even if its share in said market, over the last generation, has been shoved further down by the addition of Major League Baseball and the NHL, where the Colorado Avalanche are celebrating their third league title in 26 years.
The Buffs are standing at a crossroads, now, in more ways than one. Some boosters are embarrassed and borderline furious over what they felt was the athletic department’s slow jump on Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) opportunities, especially on the football side. One told me a few months back, voice aching with frustration, that watching some of the Buffs’ stars transfer to the likes of USC, Oregon and Michigan State made him feel as if CU was a “triple-A team” within the Power 5, “a feeder school” for the bluest of the bluebloods.
Given that, the most recent edition of Athlon Magazines’ college football preview probably won’t help any uneasy feelings. Or perceptions.
In one of the best wrinkles of any football magazine still kicking, Athlon asks anonymous rival coaches for each Power 5 team to assess programs from a distance. If you’re like me, and you want the unvarnished truth about your favorite program, and coaching staff, you usually zip to that section first.
Well, when asked about CU in 2022, an opposition coach offered this:
The trick with Colorado is that from the outside, the expectations are unclear. Coaches talk in this league, and there’s a rep out, that they’re not interested in pressing to be great again, that they’re just going to be focused on academics.
And therein lies the rub. You can excel in academics and in football, sure. But it’s hard, and expensive, to be great in both consistently. Greatness involves a financial commitment — to the best coaches, the best recruiters, the best recruiting budget, the best facilities, and on down the line.
With the exception of scenery and quality of life, which is pretty much Boulder being Boulder, CU doesn’t rank among the top 4 in the Pac-12 in any of those categories — with or without the L.A. schools in the fold.
“As it stands,” Klatt said, “we’re hurtling towards two super conferences that will shake and rule college football for the foreseeable future. Being outside of that conversation will be akin to being in a boat without a rudder.”
You’re on your own now, CU. When the next storm comes, will you sink or swim?