"A breath of fresh air!"
That's how athletic directors around the Pac-12 Conference have characterized new league commissioner Larry Scott, a man who has changed the landscape of college sports with his vision and audacity. He's the one who engineered the addition of the Utah Utes to his league, negotiated a record-breaking television deal never mind the innovative Pac-12 Network announced last week that will include regional affiliates with programming tailored to specific fan bases and basically remade an illustrious but stodgy conference into arguably the driving force for the 21st century.
In other words, fans don't have Craig Thompson to kick around anymore.
The commissioner of the Mountain West Conference was the man local fans loved to hate as the physical manifestation of everything that ever went wrong with the league that the Utes (and Brigham Young Cougars) departed last month.
Scott, on the other hand, received the loudest cheer of all when the Utes held a celebration at the Capitol to commemorate their entrance into the league, and he has clearly been hailed as the patron saint of aspiring football powerhouses for finally opening the door to the big time.
"He's doing a fabulous job," Utah athletic director Chris Hill said.
Of course, Hill would think so.
It's his school that's enjoying a remarkable leap into a lucrative and prestigious new realm.
But Scott has won praise from seemingly all corners so far, establishing himself as a modern sports pioneer promoting ideas that some might never had dared to even dream such as getting a record $3 billion from ESPN and Fox for television rights to the league for 12 years.
"I think it's fair to say we exceeded expectations significantly," he said recently. "And I'm really as charged up as when I started."
He started barely two years ago, hired to replace longtime commissioner Tom Hansen.
Hansen had endured criticism from some quarters for relatively weak television deals with Fox and the league's football bowl connections. There was also a lingering sense around college sports that the league then still just the Pac-10 was idling and conservative, while its peers were roaring off ahead.
"My sense was the presidents wanted to be pretty ambitious," Scott said, "and that was music to my ears."
Sitting for an interview in his office at the conference headquarters, Scott hardly looked the part of a high-powered executive. Dressed casually, with no necktie and his shirt collar open perhaps just a bit too much, he projected the easygoing serenity of a man who has been there and done that.
And he has.
A native of Long Island, N.Y., Scott played a variety of sports as a boy but grew into an All-American tennis player at Harvard (which he attended on an academic scholarship). He played professionally for three years, but his career singles record of 1-18 on the ATP World Tour his lone victory came against former University of Utah star Greg Holmes at Wimbledon in 1987 soon made it clear "it wasn't going to be a career for me."
By then, though, he had been "corralled" into volunteering as a representative on the board of the players union, and he found himself intrigued by the politics, logistics and administration of the tour. So when the head of the ATP World Tour later offered him a job, Scott quickly ditched his plan to attend Columbia Business School and went to work.
"I gave it a try and never looked back," he recalled.
Scott worked a decade for the tour before leaving to take charge of the Women's Tennis Association in 2003.
All along, he and his family (he's married, with three young children) lived around the world two years in Sydney, two years in Monte Carlo, seven years in London where he dramatically increased sponsorships and revenue for the women's game and successfully lobbied for women to be awarded the same prize money as men at all Grand Slam events.
"He's like a great chess player," said Andrew Walker, the WTA's chief marketing officer. "He sees many moves ahead."
Which would explain his success in forming the Pac-12.
When Scott left tennis to become commissioner, he knew the league was suffering from a stagnant reputation. However good its teams were on the field, they were underexposed, undervalued and falling behind their rivals.
Yet while many saw stagnancy, Scott saw "big upside potential."
"There was a lot of value you could unlock," he said. "That was exciting to me, professionally, in terms of what I like to do. I have a bit of an entrepreneurial bug. I like to reshape things, I like to unlock value, compete aggressively."
He sure did that.
In fact, his first move wasn't for the Utes at all.
Rather, he tried to raid the Big 12 Conference to form a 16-team super-league, a plan derailed only when Texas decided to stay put. Even then, though, he pulled together an impressively strong Plan B luring the Utes and Colorado to form a 12-team league that would allow him to stage a league championship football game for the first time and give him more leverage to negotiate a new television contract.
Three billion dollars later, the Pac-12 is the talk of college sports.
"He's brilliant," Arizona State athletic director Lisa Love said. "We have the right guy at the helm. … You don't sit out here and win championships year after year after year and not find a way to market and present that power."
Scott has focused not only on the revenue, though.
He's working to launch the new Pac-12 Network in time for the 2012 football season, seeking new places and formats to present league tournaments and has come out in support of studying whether to pay a stipend to college athletes. All which will help contribute to one of the things he likes most about his job.
"There's a sense of winning and losing, like you have as an athlete," he said. "You can keep score on how you're doing, and I kind of like that."
Commissioner Larry Scott has three long-term goals for the Pac-12:
1 • To claim a position as the leading conference in the country "in every respect."
2 • To enhance collaboration between its schools off the field in such areas as academics and research.
3 • To increase its exposure globally, particularly in neighboring countries and the Pacific Rim.
Five questions for the Pac-12 commissioner
Q • Why were the Utes an attractive choice for the Pac-12?
A • "It was pretty clear from all the work we did in the analysis that the reputation of Utah is absolutely on the rise. There's a real commitment to being a research university. There's a broad-based commitment to sports they sponsor a good amount of sports and putting athletics in the right context, having a commitment to the values of integrity, doing things right. Obviously, strength in football and basketball is important. The strength of the market, important. But that all really came after, 'Are the schools going to be a good fit as institutions?' "
Q • Do you think the Utes will be competitive immediately?
A • "It's hard to generalize. It's probably a sport-by-sport scenario. But my sense is they will be very competitive, very quickly. Right away. We know some of the sports are competitive, and the question has been, week-in and week-out? We've been very impressed with what we see, and it's going to make the first season very fascinating. I believe they will be very competitive right from the get-go."
Q • What will the Utes bring to the league?
A • "I think Utah will bring a newness, a youth and exuberance and fun to the conference. I know there's kind of a sense of, you know, new kids on the block, eager to prove that they can compete, week in and week out. I think that's a very fun, competitive dynamic that it brings to the league right away."
Q • What kind of identity do you see the Utes having in the league?
A • "Every one of our schools has their own personality and character. But I've been really impressed with the passion of the fan base. Really passionate. I think the school will infuse a lot of energy and excitement into the whole conference. I suspect the fan base will travel well. I think there will be a lot of fascination with some of these new matchups and destinations, so I think that will create some real energy and excitement."
Q • What else stands out to you about the Utes?
A • "One of the things I've been most impressed by when I visited the school … wasn't just the impact that being part of the Pac-12 would have on the athletic programs. I was really inspired by the feedback from the faculty, from the alumni. And it will be interesting to see over time, being associated with these West Coast universities with different cultures, what impact that has on the university."