Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott chartered a private jet to transport him from Tempe to Tucson last weekend, leaving the ASU-Washington football game and arriving before kickoff at the Arizona-Utah game.
Scott had a driver take him to Arizona Stadium, whereupon he made a tour of the $74 million Lowell-Stevens football center, and was soon escorted to a loge suite; his publicist called a news conference outside the Pac-12 Networks TV booth.
This is life in college sports, 2013, when money talks and a basketball coach, Sean Miller for example, is fined $25,000 for disputing a bad call.
Scott’s message that night was calculated. “Arizona will play 12 games on the Pac-12 Networks,” he said, and then, as if committed to memory, Scott began to list them one by one, “Washington, USC, Cal ….’’
This might qualify as breaking news at Washington State or ASU, but Arizona was a big-time operator in college basketball — every game televised, every season — long before Scott negotiated a culture-changing $3 billion media-rights deal last year.
But sometimes the pace of college sports, especially Pac-12 basketball, is so swift you lose your bearing.
Now everybody in the conference, even Washington State, projects as a tough out. If there’s a walkover, a night to kick back and count to 100 points, it will be unexpected.
The league has changed so much that Arizona doesn’t have to play at ol’ Friel Court in Pullman, Wash., this year. The Wildcats won’t play UCLA at McKale Center either, which scuttles the West’s top rivalry of the last quarter-century.
But you can watch the Arizona-Cal Poly game on the Pac-12 Networks.
The coach with the strongest perspective on the changes at McKale Center might be 52-year-old Augustana College coach Tom Billeter, who will coach his Vikings against Arizona on Monday night in an “exhibition” game.
The seats cost the same — $22.16 for the nosebleed seats in Section 105, Row 39, next to the air conditioning ducts — but the game doesn’t count for anything more than a scrimmage with statistics.
Yes, it will be broadcast live on the Pac-12 Networks.
Billeter was a 23-year-old grad student from Illinois when he showed up at McKale in fall 1985. He had a front-row seat, his foot in the coaching door, for what has grown into a $30 million-a-year basketball colossus.
In a stroke of good timing and good luck, Billeter was awarded one of two graduate assistant coaching spots on Lute Olson’s third Arizona basketball team. The landscape was so dramatically different from today.
There was a significant pocket of empty seats at McKale; the average attendance in 1984-85 was 10,932.
There were only two referees per game and no stoppage of play to review close calls on the video machine.
There were no retired jerseys and no banners hanging from the rafters.
Oregon State coach Ralph Miller and the Beavers’ Gill Coliseum were the league’s most feared opponents.
Except for one week in 1985, Arizona had not been ranked in the AP Top 25 since 1977.
The Wildcats didn’t open the season until after Thanksgiving. Now they play before Halloween.
Almost no one, especially a 23-year-old grad student, could have known Arizona was on the brink of its most telling season (to that point) in school history, and that it would launch him into a rewarding coaching career.
By year’s end, Billeter had watched Arizona win its first Pac-10 championship. He was witness to the clinching game on a Monday night, March 3, at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. Arizona sophomore Sean Elliott emerged as the league’s best player.
After that game, the UA coaches walked to a downtown Westwood restaurant and toasted their success with a small group of Arizona fans. It was all so low key.
Now there is no toasting, no intimate gathering, after a Pac-12 championship. Now you cut down the nets and make a video. You punch up Aerosmith, “Dream On”:
“The past is gone; it went by like dusk to dawn.’’
On that special March night at Pauley, Billeter sat on the bench next to assistant coaches Ricky Byrdsong, who would ultimately become the head coach at Northwestern; Kevin O’Neill, who would soon become the head coach at Marquette; and Scott Thompson, who would become the head coach at Rice, and take Billeter with him.
Last year, Billeter was named the NCAA Division II Coach of the Year.
Now he’s back where it all started, and everything has changed. His success matches the theme of another Arizona basketball season. Dream on.