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The marching band played the University of Utah's fight song and red and white balloons filled the sky above the Capitol on that July afternoon in 2011, when Pac-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott took the stage and received a rock star's welcome.
Five years ago, when administrators from Pac-12 schools not only Utah were describing Scott as "brilliant" and "dynamic," it would have seemed crazy to think that his future with the conference ever may come into question. Yet that's the case lately, amid issues with the league-owned television network and the way he's viewed by some of the conference's athletic directors and many of its fans.
The Pac-12 position always seemed unlikely to become Scott's last career stop. He's 51, Harvard-educated and ambitious. But I never thought he would have to look for another job, as conceivably could happen.
With two years remaining on the second contract he has signed with the Pac-12 since arriving in 2009, Scott has some work to do in an effort to keep up with the revenue machines of the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference and restore the belief that once made him a celebrated figure in the Pac-12's footprint and beyond.
That's true even in Utah, where I view him as one of the biggest influences in the state's sports history. When you think about these people, imagine how different the landscape would look without their impact around here:
Larry H. Miller? Picture this town without an NBA franchise. LaVell Edwards? BYU football was nowhere near even regional relevance before he took over the program. Chris Hill? He built an athletic department worthy of Pac-12 membership. Gary Andersen? The idea of eight Utah State players in five years being drafted into the NFL would have seem silly, as of his arrival in Logan.
And Larry Scott? He belongs somewhere in the middle of my top five. Regardless of how it happened or exactly where the University of Utah fit into his original expansion plan, Scott brought the Utes into the Pac-12. That's historic, and that's why Utah will always give him the highest approval rating of any Pac-12 market.
But even a visionary leader can make mistakes, and nobody gets a lifetime exemption from being questioned or criticized. Nationally, Scott has gone from being considered ahead of the game to trying to catch up with the Big Ten and the SEC. Regionally, his athletic directors are wondering when the big money is coming from his Pac-12 Networks innovation. Locally, I want to know why I can't watch Pac-12 baseball games from other markets this spring.
That's how this stuff works, right? Our views of any leaders are shaped by how their work directly affects us. In my case, I've become an expert about the Washington Huskies, because seemingly every time I tune into my Pac-12 channel, the "60 in 60" replay of last November's Utah-Washington football game is being shown.
That's the effect of the Pac-12 Networks' regionalization, with the conference's national programming generally now available only on another cable tier. And that issue must be addressed prior to the 2016 football season for the sake of fans, even if a DirecTV deal has to be considered hopeless at that point and late kickoff times apparently are a permanent tradeoff for living in the West.
Scott's immediate task is mending relationships with the league's athletic directors, after he publicly criticized UCLA's Dan Guerrero for his handling of the Pac-12's recent vote on satellite football camps. Scott is employed by the conference's presidents, who seem happy with his overall impact, but the level of dissatisfaction may be rising among ADs who need all the Pac-12 money they can get to administer their programs.
Driving home the need for donations, Washington State's Bill Moos recently wrote to his boosters, pointing out how Pac-12 Networks revenue is far short of projections, according to the Seattle Times. Utah's published athletic budget lists more direct funding from the university itself than from the networks' $1.4 million. Scott eventually must decide whether or not to sell all or part of the networks, modeling the Big Ten and SEC examples.
In March, Scott received boos when he walked onto the court in Las Vegas with members of the conference's All-Century basketball team. That probably wouldn't have happened in Utah, where he has served the Utes by speaking at the athletic department's kickoff event for a $150 million capital campaign, among other appearances. The move of the Pac-12 men's basketball tournament to Las Vegas also has benefited Utah fans. They've responded well, and should show up next March in bigger numbers at the new T-Mobile Arena, with more tickets available.
Scott has done a lot of good things for Utahns, but like anyone else, he's always subject to re-evaluation. His legacy here is both permanent and conditional, if that's possible.
In advance of the tournament semifinals of Oregon vs. Arizona and Utah vs. California at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Scott correctly predicted everyone would "feel an energy and see a fervor in the crowd that is amongst the best atmospheres anyone ever could hope for."
That's also what the scene looked and felt like at the State Capitol five years ago, when he was introduced to raucous cheers. Inevitably, such adulation wears off as the years go by. Larry Scott can earn it back, but it will take some effort.
Larry Scott timeline
July 2009 • Becomes commissioner of the Pac-10 Conference after six years as chairman and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association.
June 2010 • Announces the expansion to 12 schools, adding Utah and Colorado, after pursuing other schools from the Big 12.
July 2011 • Appears at a "Utah Pac-12 Day" rally at the State Capitol, drawing big cheers from several hundred fans.
August 2012 • Launches the Pac-12 Networks, lacking agreements with Dish, which soon would be added, or DirecTV, which remains unsigned.
March 2013 • Moves the Pac-12 men's basketball tournament to Las Vegas, where the event is well received after having struggled in Los Angeles.
November 2013 • Receives a contract extension from the conference's presidents, through the 2017-18 school year.
December 2014 • Stages the Pac-12 football championship game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., after formerly using campus sites.
March 2016 • Announces the move of the basketball tournament to the new T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, beginning in 2017.