Pac-12 facing uncertain future after losses to Big Ten

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The Pac-12 can make a case as the most successful conference in collegiate athletics, amassing more than 500 NCAA championships while leading the nation in titles 56 of the past 62 years.

But when it comes to the biggest moneymakers, football and men’s basketball, the “Conference of Champions” has come up short for years.

The lack of success, particularly in football, combined with the conference’s media rights missteps have put the Pac-12 on shaky financial footing, opening the door for two of its marquee schools to jump ship.

Now, with the loss of UCLA and USC to the Big Ten in 2024, the conference and its remaining member schools face an even more uncertain economic future.

“You have exploding costs on one end and your revenue sources are being decimated, which is a tremendous pressure,” Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist said. “On the other hand, what do you do? Well, something pretty radical I think is going to have to happen.”

The Pac-12’s dilemma has been building for years.

Once a powerhouse football conference, the Pac-12 has been a bit player in the national championship conversation of late.

Since Oregon was blown out by Ohio State in the 2015 championship game, the Pac-12 has had one team play in the College Football Playoff: Washington in 2017. Oregon has fallen off since Chip Kelly left for the NFL in 2013 and Southern California, once the conference’s marquee program, never fully got back on track after the NCAA sanctions of the Pete Carroll era.

The Pac-12 has been just as quiet in men’s basketball, getting two teams – Oregon in 2017 and UCLA in 2021 – through to the Final Four.

The lack of success made the Pac-12’s football games maybe-watch TV, which in turn has made it more difficult to lure top coaches and recruits away from rival conferences – particularly the football juggernaut SEC.

“In the old days, USC and UCLA would be right up there at the top of the national football heap every year, and they’ve fallen way down,” Zimbalist said. “And so you need some fill up, some boost to get them to a point where they can really be a strong, strong franchise again – and I just don’t see that.”

The Pac-12 drop-off was compounded by its media rights deals.

As TV packages began to bulge, former Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott pushed for the conference to build its own network instead of partnering with ESPN, Fox or another network. A self-sustained network would allow the Pac-12 to control programming, showcase its highly successful Olympic sports and reap all the financial rewards.

The Pac-12 Networks never soared like Scott envisioned, bogged down, in part, by an inability to reach an agreement with DirecTV, which prevented the conference’s sports from reaching millions of homes.

The Pac-12 did work out a lucrative deal to have some of its games shown on ESPN and Fox, but the networks often wanted those to fill late-night time slots on the East Coast.

The deals left the conference in a “Pac-12 After Dark” hole. The Pac-12 had the lowest distribution number among Power Five schools, paying its member institutions $19.8 million in 2021.

By contrast, the SEC distributed $54.6 million to each of its member schools in 2021 and the Big Ten $46.1 million.

Finances mean stability in the world of college sports, so the lure of more money was a big driver in the departures of USC and UCLA, which said it faced cutting sports if it didn’t leave for the Big Ten.

The moves in turn will hurt the Pac-12’s bottom line; not only did the conference lose two big programs, its foothold in the nation’s second-largest media market is going away.

“When you see the rich get richer, people are going to grab for their share,” said Tom McMillen, president and CEO of Lead1, which represents Football Bowl Subdivision athletic directors and programs.

The loss of UCLA and USC puts the Pac-12 at a crossroads.

The conference announced last week that it is pursuing all expansion avenues and pushed up negotiations for its next media rights deal; the current one is set to end in 2024.

The Pac-12 could form a partnership with another conference in need of a lift, like the ACC, which would possibly cause travel problems for smaller sports. It also could add members from a smaller conference like the Mountain West or convince schools from the Big 12 to defect, like Colorado and Utah did in 2011.

The conference also may have its hand forced if several schools bolt for another conference to find stability, perhaps to the Big 12 to form another super conference with the SEC and Big Ten.

“I think you’ll see more consolidation,” McMillen said. “This is not new. This is economics 101. There’s a lot of efficiencies. Think about all this: we have 32 conferences. There’s probably $1 billion of overhead and when you merge conferences, you’re obviously streamlining some of that.”

More conference realignment is coming. The fate of the Pac-12 is still to be determined.

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.