Pac-12 commissioner candidates to replace Larry Scott have Arizona ties
Larry Scott is on the way out.
The Pac-12 commissioner will not depart his post in June with the best of reputations. He will be known for failing to get his expensive, self-run network on DirecTV, a major distributor of television. Scott also took criticism for his large salary and expensive move of the conference offices into downtown San Francisco.
As he departs, the “Conference of Champions” from a revenue standpoint is comparatively far from other power conferences. Part of it has been about a lack of exposure with late-night football and men’s basketball games.
In terms of the on-field competition, those two most important sports have not come close to building championship programs. In terms of men’s hoops, it’s even arguable if the Pac-12 is a top-six or top-seven conference as of a month ago.
Washington State University president Kirk Schulz, University of Washington president Ana Mari Cauce and University of Oregon President Michael Schill will head a search for the Pac-12’s new leader, whose biggest job will be negotiating a media rights deal after the 2023-24 academic year.
And three commonly mentioned candidates have direct ties to the Arizona State Sun Devils and Arizona Wildcats.
Ray Anderson, Arizona State AD
The Sun Devils vice president for university athletics doesn’t have the traditional path to his current role, his first in a collegiate athletic department.
But he’s a candidate nonetheless and according to The Athletic’s Matt Fortuna interviewed for the ACC commissioner job filled in December.
Anderson, a Harvard law graduate, worked as a sports agent and eventually worked his way up in the NFL. He served in the Atlanta Falcons front office on the business side and later became the NFL executive vice president of football operations.
Since becoming AD at ASU in 2014, Anderson has replaced football coach Todd Graham with the then-criticized hire of former NFL coach Herm Edwards. The football program is trending up despite a 2-2 season in 2020, and the massive football facility upgrades under Anderson’s leadership are a part of that.
Anderson also moved on from the Herb Sendek men’s basketball era and hired head coach Bobby Hurley away from Buffalo, legitimizing a basketball program that previously struggled to consistently field NCAA Tournament teams.
One ding on Anderson’s record is his involvement in a booster’s alleged sexual harassment of three women with close ties to the ASU athletic department, including Hurley’s wife. Hurley said his relationship with his AD remains strong.
Anderson has proven himself as an out-of-the-box thinker in his coaching hires as well as the Sun Devils’ business practices. His involvement in college athletes, relative to the field, is limited. You could easily argue that doesn’t matter as much as commissioner of a league.
Pac-12 presidents would have to determine if taking such a risk again — Scott worked only in professional tennis until he became the Pac-12 commissioner — would pay off.
Then again, Anderson already has relationships with those presidents considering his involvement in playing through a pandemic. And he’s got a beat on the dynamics of the Pac-12 and what’s gone wrong in the last several years.
Greg Byrne, Alabama AD
Byrne, the son of former Texas A&M AD Bill Byrne, is a more traditional candidate. The 49-year-old has a full understanding of athletics in the state of Arizona and in other Pac-12 markets.
The former Arizona Wildcats athletic director (2010-17) has a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State.
Byrne inherited head men’s basketball coach Sean Miller when he took the Arizona job in 2010. He was involved in the firing of Mike Stoops and 2012 hiring of Rich Rodriguez for the football program.
Byrne oversaw the north end zone upgrades of Arizona’s football facility and saw the university’s baseball team win an NCAA title in 2012. That came after the AD helped the Wildcats move from their on-campus baseball stadium to Hi-Corbett Field.
Byrne departed for the Alabama AD opening in 2017 before Rodriguez was fired amid sexual harassment accusations and before the basketball program’s current recruiting scandal came into public view. It’s hard to say what of those controversies fall on him.
What we do know is that Byrne has intimate knowledge of the Pac-12 and beyond, as he also worked at the athletic departments in Oregon and Oregon State from 1995-2002 and then with Kentucky (2002-05).
Now he has the perspective of leading the clear-cut college sports giant in Alabama.
Mostly, Byrne has earned a reputation for hiring the right coaches: Before his UA tenure, he hired current Florida Gators football coach Dan Mullen as Mississippi State’s head coach. Rodriguez did make four bowl games in five seasons at Arizona. And Byrne’s recent grab of men’s basketball coach Nate Oats from Buffalo — Oats took over Buffalo’s program after Hurley left — has gone very well for Alabama midway through his second season.
Gene Smith, Ohio State AD
Where Byrne is a still-rising star, Smith is the old head whose resume is hard to beat.
He oversaw Arizona State’s athletic department from 2000-2005. In football, he took over in the transition from head coach Bruce Snyder to Dirk Koetter. Under Koetter, ASU was at least ranked at some point each season from 2002-05 and made a bowl game. Head men’s basketball coach Rob Evans held his position throughout Smith’s tenure.
The 61-year-old’s reputation improved with a move to Ohio State in 2005. Smith oversaw a rocky transition from Jim Tressel’s recruiting scandal to the eventual hire of Urban Meyer, then a smoother move from Meyer to current coach Ryan Day. The Buckeyes have four football national championship game appearances over his tenure.
In basketball, Smith oversaw Thad Matta’s 12-year run leading the men’s hoops program that included nine NCAA Tournament appearances. He then inked Chris Holtmann away from Butler; Holtmann has since won 67% of his games since being hired in 2017.
Though Gene Smith also took blame for his role in OSU’s handling of a domestic abuse case involving then-assistant football coach Zach Smith (they are not related), he has built a wealth of experience that makes him a top candidate.
Running one of the most powerful brands in the country, he has also served on NCAA committees regarding the College Football Playoff, college basketball reform and compliance.