Pac-12 Media Days 2014: Top Quotes, Reaction to Day 1
Optimism, if nothing else, defines media days.
Commissioner Larry Scott opened Pac-12 Media Days from Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California, with the positivity expected at the start of every conference’s football season.
However, in the case of the Pac-12, Scott’s highlights were not empty rhetoric.
“Last season highlighted just how far we’ve come,” Scott said. “We had the most nonconference wins in our history with 31. We posted a 6-3 record against Big Ten, ACC and SEC.”
Prior to Scott’s hire in 2009, the conference had a reputation for being USC and the other guys. While the Trojans were competing for and sometimes winning national championships, other members of the league failed to make much of a mark nationally.
Since the 2010 season, Stanford and Oregon have combined to win four BCS bowl games. Last year, the Pac-12 had five 10-win teams and a 6-3 bowl record.
The conference no longer has to worry about lack of depth, as Scott mentioned.
“As for depth, this is something where we’ve seen dramatic improvement,” he said, referencing the Pac-12’s nine bowl bids in 2013. “Put simply, our conference has never been stronger [nor] deeper than it is today.”
At the heart of Scott’s message was the Pac-12 furthering its growth, and to that end, he touted the conference championship game moving to a neutral site: the San Francisco 49ers’ new home, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. “Silicon Valley, the innovation capital of the world,” as Scott described it.
“Innovation, entertainment,” he added. “This is part of the DNA of the Pac-12.”
The coming months will dictate the two teams with the privilege of playing in the revamped conference championship. In the interim, all 12 teams unofficially open the season with similar goals.
Here are some of the top takeaways from the first session of Pac-12 Media Days 2014.
Quotes obtained firsthand. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.
The Student-Athlete Model and NCAA Reform
His assessment of the conference’s football was not the only topic on which Larry Scott’s address took a decidedly positive tone.
Eschewing what he called “the narrative that is out there in the public,” Scott touted the student-athlete model.
“From my vantage point, college athletics [are] working exceedingly well.”
Scott’s focus was on the entire landscape, not limited to big-time football. He mentioned $126 million in scholarship money for athletes across the Pac-12’s 22 sponsored sports.
As for football, the commissioner is realistic. He acknowledged the need for “reform,” a topic others addressed at Wednesday’s session of Pac-12 Media Days.
Cal defensive back Stefan McClure emphasized that student-athlete is a title that designates two, full-time duties.
He compared the workload student-athletes face in competition and said the demands in the classroom are equally rigorous.
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez discussed extending compensation to match the challenges athletes face, without a strict pay-for-play model.
“Could we give them more of a stipend, a couple thousand dollars? Sure. Should we feed them every meal, every day? Sure.”
The NCAA approved unlimited meals this spring, a major milestone in the ongoing reform of college sports.
Rodriguez said the biggest impact coaches can have on student-athletes is preparing them for life without their chosen sport—in his case, football, the focal point of the reform debate.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with guys wanting to play in the NFL, but they have to realize very few of them make it,” he said. “We better be prepared for the transition outside of athletics, [and] that’s for all athletes; not just football players.”
Though Rodriguez endorsed reform such as an increased stipend, his ultimate assessment of the current college-sports landscape echoed the positive tone of the day.
“The life of a student-athlete will be better going forward, but it ain’t bad now,” he said.
Oregon Head Coach Mark Helfrich on Staying Focused
Oregon was once again a runaway favorite to win the Pac-12 North, per the annual preseason media poll. The Ducks garnered 37 first-place votes to defending champion Stanford’s two, and their 232 total points edged out South favorite UCLA’s 231.
While the media poll is a flattering vote of confidence, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich pointed out its emptiness without results at season’s end.
“It’s a great thing for the media. It’s a great thing for our fans to talk about,” he said. “And looking back to last year, it’s a great thing for our players to kind of slap ourselves in the face [to] go back to process, go back to culture.”
Helfrich’s message is clear: Oregon cannot return to the Pac-12 mountaintop while buying into its own hype.
Some controversy surrounded Oregon’s 2-2 finish to the 2013 regular season. Running back De’Anthony Thomas and wide receiver Josh Huff drew criticism for downplaying the significance of making the Rose Bowl, but the Ducks were eliminated from contention that same week in a blowout loss at Arizona.
“The importance of preparing for everybody is what I think our biggest focus need to be,” Helfrich said. “You look around the country, and there is a fine line of being in that [national championship] discussion months from now.”
Steve Sarkisian 'Turned Up' to Be Back at USC
Steve Sarkisian called his return to USC “humbling.”
The first-year Trojans head coach served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator there in the 2000s, contributing to the program’s dominance of both the conference and national landscape.
USC fell on hard times when Sarkisian left for the head-coaching job at Washington in 2009. The Trojans served a two-year bowl ban and didn't play in a BCS bowl game in his time away from Los Angeles.
USC is a program that’s never down for long, and the expectations to recapture past Trojans greatness may hover over Sarkisian—but he doesn’t notice it.
“I don’t feel pressure at all,” he said. “I love my job.”
While the project ahead of him at USC is nowhere near as daunting as what Sarkisian faced his first season at Washington—inheriting a 10-4 team is worlds different than an 0-12 team—the Trojans' challenges are unique.
First and foremost is the team’s NCAA sanction-thinned roster, which Sarkisian said featured “about 65 scholarship players."
“That’s not ideal,” he added. “That’s OK. We're still a very good team.”
Sarkisian—and the rest of the Pac-12—will know how good only once the season kicks off. And as he learns about the quality of his Trojans, Sarkisian may, too, learn the meaning of the catchphrase “Turned Up SC.”
He admitted to not understanding the phrase, despite appearing alongside those words on billboards across Los Angeles. But Sarkisian analyzed it in a quintessential head coach’s fashion.
“If that little saying gets us stats, then that’s great,” he said.
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota a Leader by Example
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota isn’t a social-media sensation. In general, the third-year leader of the Ducks offense is known for being soft-spoken. But according to his head coach, Mariota is a quintessential leader by example.
“The way he plays kind of speaks for itself,” Helfrich said.
Mariota was a potential first-round pick in last May’s NFL draft, but he opted to return for his redshirt junior season. According to Helfrich, Mariota’s decision to return is a meaningful example to his teammates, in and of itself.
“If I’m the backup guard, and I see that guy forego what he could have made, it’s not some lip service,” Helfrich said. “This is the reality of a ton of money. ... Like, ‘That guy turned down how much? OK, I’ll watch him.’”
Or, as ESPN.com's Ted Miller joked on Twitter, "Mariota walks on water" per his coach's assessment.
Mariota credited Helfrich’s demeanor for helping the quarterback develop his leadership skills.
“He teaches all of us how to, basically, influence with our words,” Mariota said. “Coach Helfrich does an awesome job with me as a leader and as a role model. Those are lessons I’ll be able to use for life.”
In the meantime, one lesson Mariota is looking to apply on the field both to guide the Ducks and impress pro scouts is his passing ability.
NFL.com's Bryan Fischer calls Mariota "a perfectionist." He threw just four interceptions in 2013, but look for the Oregon leader to try and cut that number even further.
Rich Rodriguez and Steve Sarkisian on Uptempo Offense
Rules to limit pace of play were shelved this offseason, but the temporary discussion, of which Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema and Alabama head coach Nick Saban were at the forefront, fired up Rich Rodriguez.
“I call it a farce,” he said. “If you think pace of play has anything to do with injuries, you drank the wrong poison.”
As a forerunner of uptempo offense, Rodriguez is an understandably vocal critic of any movement to slow no-huddle offenses and sees an ulterior motive in the thwarted effort.
“There is a concerted effort by every coach in America to try to make things easier,” he said. “I don’t blame the coaches for doing it, but good luck trying to find data [supporting the suggestion pace of play impacts injuries].”
Supporting Rodriguez’s stance is Steve Sarkisian, who offered an interesting statistic of his own.
“We had one season-ending injury at Washington [in 2013],” he said. “USC had 19. [Washington was] a no-huddle team, [USC was] a traditional-huddle team.”
Utah WR Dres Anderson on QB Travis Wilson
In a conference that features such noteworthy names as Stanford’s Ty Montgomery, Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong and USC’s Nelson Agholor, Utah’s Dres Anderson stands out.
His 1,002 yards receiving in 2013 is a remarkable statistic, given the instability the Utes faced at quarterback with Travis Wilson battling injury all season.
A pre-existing intracranial artery injury threatened Wilson’s career, and he gained full clearance only late in June. But Anderson likes Wilson’s outlook for a bounce-back 2014.
“I’m still comfortable with Travis being the starter. ... We’ve seen Travis before in tackling situations, and he’s a beast.”
Wilson is just getting back into full swing, but his 2014 is already legendary thanks to a photo the program’s official Twitter account shared on July 18. And legendary is the right word, considering the comparison Anderson made.
“The man looks like Hercules,” he said of Wilson.