Merton Hanks' arrival signals a new day for the Pac-12 conference
It hasn’t been too long since Merton Hanks did his signature “chicken dance.” celebration. When the now Pac-12 Senior Associate Commissioner for Football Operations was offered the position; Hanks said he celebrated in similar fashion as he did during his nine-year NFL career.
During an introductory press conference Thursday, Hanks expressed a level of excitement for the task at hand: rebuilding the conference’s football image.
“The bottom line for me is how can we continue to elevate not only the Pac-12 football but the entirety of Pac-12 sports,” Hanks said. “How can we elevate our student-athletes, promote our student-athletes, and protect our conference brand.”
“Merton brings instant credibility to the position,” said Ray Anderson, Arizona State Vice President for University Athletics. “As important as anything because the coaches, assistant coaches, and the folks who have been in the trenches understand and appreciate where Merton has been.”
Hanks, who was hired by the Pac-12 Sept. 8, comes to the conference after previously serving as the Conference USA’s Senior Associate Commissioner. He also previously spent time working with the National Football League in an administrative role, during which he worked with Anderson, ASU head coach Herm Edwards and UCLA head coach Chip Kelly among others.
In less than a month since his hiring, Anderson said Hanks’ presence has been helpful in the Pac-12’s return to play initiative.
“The impact he’s already had in our rooms with the ADs, the coaches, the administrators, the personnel has been profound because now there is credibility and respect for the juice he brings,” Anderson said. “The intelligence he brings and the leadership he brings when he talks about things folks believe it instantly.”
One of Hanks’ first tasks in his role with the conference is to organize and solidify the Pac-12’s modified football schedule, as the conference prepares to begin its 2020 season Nov. 6. With only six regular-season games to schedule, Hanks said the schedule – which should be released in the next few days – would present a challenge in pleasing each institution.
“Certainly, the time constraint is the principle thing,” Hanks said. “Usually, these things take months to align, in regard to the requests and needs of our television partners. As one [Pac-12 athletic director] stated ‘if everybody is a little bit mad about the schedule, we probably have a pretty good schedule.’
“We hope to have a schedule out in short order. We’re working diligently to get that done. As soon as it was announced by our CEO group… the wheels immediately began in motion to putting together a schedule.”
Hanks addressed the challenges presented by the Pac-12’s attempt to play seven games in seven weeks, making a note of the interruptions other conferences have made and the change in procedure the College Football Playoff has made as well.
“First and foremost, we can’t proceed as if we’re not going to lose a game, so it’s better to have legislative language and other facets to address that issue,” Hanks said. “Because we’re calendar-constrained at this point. More than likely, as we continue to work on the schedule, it will be difficult to put in bye weeks, for instance, because we just simply don’t have time left on the schedule.
“I don’t think there has been a conference to-date that has been unscathed. But we certainly believe that through our testing mechanisms and daily antigen tests backed up by PCR tests that we can mitigate some of those issues and get through a schedule.”
On the field, discussions in previous years surrounding the Pac-12 have included the conference’s checkered officiating past. After the conference admitted fault in its officiating mishaps during a game between USC and Washington State on Sept. 21, 2018, when Woodie Dixon – Hanks’ predecessor – incorrectly phoned in and overruled the conference’s trained officials, many called for a reform of the conference’s officiating, something Hanks expressed a desire to fix.
“We want to up our diversity level, and we want to become the preeminent pipeline for NFL officiating,” said Hanks, who was able to do such a thing in his previous stint with the Conference USA. “At Conference USA, I had the highest percentage of officials that currently work in the National Football League started in the Conference USA.
Hanks expressed goals to place officials in the best position to advance to the NFL, a move he said would encourage the best up-and-coming officials to join the Pac-12.
“We want to transfer that to the Pac-12. How does that help us? The best of the best will want to come to our conference because they know that we’re going to support them in their endeavors. There’s not a doubt in my mind that our officiating department will be the most in shape, the most diverse, and quite frankly the leader not only on the NCAA level but in producing quality officials for the National Football League and other professional leagues.”
The Pac-12’s inability to get a team into the College Football Playoff for three consecutive seasons remains among Hanks’ and the conference’s most significant challenges on the football front. ESPN’s Heather Dinich reported Wednesday that Pac-12 conference commissioner Larry Scott advocated for an expansion to the 2021 College Football Playoff, an idea that was shot down by his peers.
Still, the CFP selection committee agreed to move back the first week of rankings by a week, allowing the Pac-12 to play three weeks rather than two before debuting the original rankings. With only five weeks of rankings in 2020, it will be the fewest rankings unveiled before the final selection show in the short history of the playoff.
“Commissioner Scott has certainly led from the front, and he’s already gone to the CFB group as the voice obviously representing the Pac-12,” Hanks said. “He put that on the table at this point in time, and it was rejected by his peers.”