Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen's biggest job is battling the clock
To think, at one time he was going to be a sportswriter. Now Tom Hansen's calling is much more modest; he has only asked to stop the passage...
Seattle Times college football reporter
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — To think, at one time he was going to be a sportswriter. Now Tom Hansen's calling is much more modest; he has only asked to stop the passage of time, to prevent Earth from rotating on its axis.
His work is done on the fifth floor of a modern, sterile office building in this East Bay suburb, a structure housing mega-players like Qwest and Kaiser Permanente. His spacious office hardly betrays the fact he is commissioner of the Pac-10 Conference; the only real sports artifacts are a plaque celebrating the league and ESPN's 4-inch-thick college football encyclopedia.
Hansen is in his 25th year of doing this, a quarter-century of negotiating TV deals and carving NCAA legislation and building consensus and soothing ruffled sensibilities.
And, oh yes, taking the occasional sling or arrow, like this one from a college administrator outside the Pac-10:
"I think the general opinion is that the Pac-10 is still operating in the '70s," he says. "Just a sense that the Pac-10 is sort of stuck in the old days."
Funny he'd put it that way, that time stands still in this league. What Tom Hansen would love to be able to do is make it be 7 p.m. in the West when it's 7 p.m. in the East. Nearing his career's end, he hasn't been able to accomplish that.
"The flow of news in this country is East to West," he says, adding that the conference's lot is "like driving everything upstream or pushing the boulder up the mountainside. I think it's the most difficult thing we face."
A fuzzy TV picture
Historically, the West has always held sort of a dreamy, romantic lure, from Tom Joad's pilgrimage to California in Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," to the TV images of the Rose Parade on New Year's Day shown to wistful, snowbound viewers in the East and Midwest.
In a world grown smaller, perhaps that mystique has diminished. What hasn't changed is that the East-to-West view is inevitably hazier, less informed. If you go to bed at 11 p.m. Saturday night in Philadelphia, you do it without knowing how the USC-Oregon football game came out under the lights in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Thus, the dreaded "East Coast bias." Hansen got a taste of it when he worked at the NCAA headquarters, then in Kansas City, Mo., from 1971-83.
"It was very hard to follow the Pac-10," he said.
As much as any conference, the Pac-10 seems driven by the clock. Take television. While most major conferences have tie-ups with cable giant ESPN, the Pac-10 is aligned with Fox Sports Net (although it inaugurates a limited package with ESPN for football this fall).
ESPN has expressed interest in the Pac-10 for basketball, but because it considers the timing of "SportsCenter" news inviolate, it would require the league to play too early or too late for the conference's tastes.
So the league has opted to hook up with Los Angeles-based Fox, which the Pac-10 says is more lucrative. But the production is clearly second to ESPN and its close connection to college basketball, for which Hansen gets criticism.
"Some of our coaches have felt we should have done more to get on ESPN," Hansen says. "When we've gone to ESPN, they've had commitments that would have forced us into poor times and even poor dates.
"Whenever we negotiate with them, they say, 'We really want your rights, but [the games] are pretty late at night in the East, so we can't pay you very much money.' We've had some pretty frustrating negotiations with them."
It is Fox that has kept the Pac-10 men's basketball tournament anchored to Staples Center in L.A., a cavernous place without atmosphere, especially when a nearby school isn't playing.
As Hansen explains it, the league several years ago sold all aspects of the tournament to Fox, including site. Fox agreed to listen to bids from elsewhere, but retains final say on the venue, and it's staying in Los Angeles — although aesthetically it probably could do better in Portland or Seattle, at least on an alternating basis.
"It was probably inevitable they would stay in L.A.," Hansen says. "That's where all their operations are. That's where most of the sponsors are located, and it's just the biggest media market."
Then there are the Pac-10 bowl affiliations, less lucrative and less splashy than those of its old partner, the Big Ten, which has carved out two profitable, high-profile games in Florida on New Year's Day.
Never mind that there are significantly more viewers in the Big Ten's coverage area than the Pac-10's; that fans are a lot closer to the site and more apt to want to escape a Midwestern winter; and that Pac-10 fans are generally less inclined to "travel" — his critics figure it's Hansen's fault.
"The bowls are not very interested in how good the teams may be," Hansen says. "It's how many fans are going to travel.
"Most bowls are creatures of the local chamber of commerce, and they want hotel rooms and restaurants to be filled. Unfortunately, many people don't understand that."
Hansen grew up in Castle Rock, in southwestern Washington. In 1950, his dad took him to Husky Stadium, where a Hugh McElhenny-Don Heinrich team lost to California and Les Richter, 14-7.
Hansen was smitten by the stadium, by the view, by the electricity.
"I said, 'Somehow, I have got to find a way to continue coming here,' " he says now. "And I've succeeded fairly well."
He was going to be a newspaper guy. In high school, he was the sportswriter at the weekly Cowlitz County Advocate, and he doubled as a printer's assistant in the backshop in the old days of "hot" typesetting.
He spent two years at Lower Columbia Junior College before enrolling at Washington to study journalism. He became acquainted with former Times sports editor Georg Meyers — "one of the most wonderful people I've ever known" — who advised him to get experience covering news at a smaller paper.
Hansen went to The Vancouver Columbian, but he never made it to the Times' sports department. The old Pacific Coast Conference had broken up in acrimony over violations by, among others, Washington, and the reconstituted league was looking for a public-relations director.
Fortuitously, Hansen was a Naval reservist and had done six weeks on an aircraft carrier. The league's commissioner was Tom Hamilton, a noted Navy officer in World War II. The two spent most of the interview discussing aircraft carriers, and Hansen got the job, headquartered in the small Stewart Hotel off Union Square in San Francisco.
"I walked in my office the first day and there was a desk and a chair," Hansen says. "No typewriter, no telephone. I had to go out and buy a typewriter."
In the thick of it
It was on to the NCAA in 1967, where he did a little bit of everything — Hansen put out the NCAA News, was media director for the basketball tournament and the primary liaison for women's athletics. When the thunderous measure known as Title IX was passed in Congress in 1972, Hansen was first at the NCAA to know about it.
He was an associate of Walter Byers, the iron-fisted icon who for decades symbolized the reach of the NCAA.
"He was perhaps the smartest person I've ever met," Hansen says. "A brilliant, brilliant person. When he asked you to do a task, he'd been there and done it. I used to try to write something he wouldn't tear apart. At the very best, I succeeded modestly."
Byers was known as a ruthless negotiator with television, which Hansen says stemmed from his roots as a cattleman, buying and selling livestock. Even as NCAA executive director, Byers was a rancher outside Kansas City.
In 1971, Hansen was elevated to administrator of the powerful NCAA television committee, back when college football rights were limited to one network. Years later, when the NCAA expanded it to two networks, Hansen authored the format.
"That was probably the most challenging thing I did," he says. "It was very, very complex, but it worked."
In the early '80s came a greater challenge, when the College Football Association, an alliance of major schools minus the Pac-10 and Big Ten, sought the right to make its own TV deals. The issue simmered in courts for two years before the Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA in a blockbuster decision.
"I've had lawyers who told me it was inevitable," Hansen says. "And I've had a couple of lawyers tell me if it had been argued differently in front of the Supreme Court, it might have survived.
"I think the NCAA, had it [won the case], would have continued to evolve the program, just because of all the outlets."
The impact was dramatic. Today, you can see a Big Ten game on ESPN at 9 a.m., an SEC game on CBS a couple of hours later, Pac-10 games on ABC and Fox, Notre Dame on NBC, a national-caliber night game on ESPN, and more. It's a fan's delight, but for athletic departments that saw rights fees fall hard, not so much.
Gone was the focus on just two games per Saturday. And by the time the Supreme Court ruled in the case, gone, too, was Hansen.
Leader, and listener
It made good sense for the Pac-10 to hire Hansen when it sought a commissioner in 1983. Who better to lead a conference through a thicket of new television agreements than the guy who was the NCAA's chief liaison to TV?
Hansen and his wife, Melva, were able to scratch a West Coast itch as well. She is a grad of old Queen Anne High School and Pacific Lutheran, near Tacoma.
While some conference commissioners are noisy advocates, Hansen developed a style that was more listener than talker. Thus it was almost startling when he recently issued a rebuke of the "plus-one" playoff format making the rounds of discussion.
"Tom does a wonderful job allowing member institutions' leadership to establish policy," says Bill Moos, ex-Oregon athletic director, "as opposed to other commissioners whom you think are running the conference. The commissioner's job is not to run that conference, it's the institutions'.
"Tom isn't going to slam his fist and say, 'You guys are crazy to be putting this in.' "
As Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood puts it, "In some cases, the commissioner is only as good or creative as we want him to be. Tom has done a really good job in a tough role for a lot of years in a different kind of environment."
For Hansen, most issues are almost rote by now. He can usually feel which way the winds are blowing at his 10 schools.
"It's almost instinctive," he says. "I don't go around saying, 'My position is this.' I'm always careful to say, 'The conference's position is this.' But when I first react personally, I find almost invariably that's the position our institutions adopt."
Hansen is considered one of the country's heavyweights at forging legislation and seeing it through NCAA conventions. He has been a key figure in the evolution of the Bowl Championship Series, which may be a metaphor for his reign as commissioner; while the BCS is a convenient target, its existence only owes to the resistance to a playoff system. For all its warts, most would consider the BCS an improvement on the old bowl free-for-all.
"I think the BCS has been an extraordinary success," Hansen says. "I know it has been criticized by those who didn't get their team in in a particular year. Frankly, I don't think there's been a single year when the best team hasn't won the national championship."
No doubt his time as chief of the conference is growing short. Hansen turns 70 near the end of this season. Asked how long he'll continue, he says, "Not a long time longer."
When that day comes, he'll have time for more Grisham novels and a balky golf game. And pushing that boulder up a mountainside will be somebody else's problem.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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