Officials for the Pacific-10 Conference will gather Friday in Los Angeles to discuss the most contentious issue related to expansion: How to divide the 12-team league into two divisions once newcomers Utah and Colorado begin play — Utah in the fall of 2011, Colorado no later than 2012.
Should the divisions be arranged in a North-South format? Can natural rivalries be maintained? Should the four California schools be separated for the greater good?
Everyone involved agrees that all options should be considered — and that the issue could take months to resolve.
"Now that we're beginning the process, people are thinking about their alliances," Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said recently.
Football is the only sport that requires divisions. NCAA rules mandate that 12-member conferences form divisions in order to stage a championship game, which could be worth $10 million annually to the "Pac-12."
It's entirely possible that the league will split into divisions for football but not for any other sport — men's basketball, for instance, likely would exist as a single, 12-team league.
But the division split for football impacts every sport and everything else, from marketing to fundraising to TV revenue to recruiting. And there's no shortage of opinions about what the league should do.
For Cal, Stanford and their two Southern California rivals, keeping in-state rivalries intact is paramount.
"I would consider the three other California schools together as a must-have on an annual basis," Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour said. "Throughout the history of the Pac-10, even when we weren't playing everyone in football, those were constants, and I don't believe there's any compelling reason to change that at this point."
Stanford A.D. Bob Bowlsby echoes that sentiment. "All of the California schools agree that we would like to all play each other every year," he said.
Friday represents the first step on a long and arduous journey. Scott does not expect a resolution on the issue until the league's presidents and chancellors meet in October.
Speaking about the emotionally charged issue, Washington A.D. Scott Woodward said, "We want to do something that makes sense for all our members, so that we don't become a bifurcated conference."
When it comes to splitting the league for football, two conflicting issues must be reconciled: The desire to maintain ancient rivalries with the recruiting and financial needs of all 12 members.
Bill Moos, athletic director at Washington State, spent more than 12 years as Oregon's A.D. He points out that the four Northwest schools, and Cal and Stanford, date back to 1916 as conference members in basketball. He'd like to keep the Northwest rivalries intact, along with the games between California schools.
But he knows that comes at a cost. "If those two desires become reality," he said, "how do you round the schedules out?"
Everyone wants to be paired with the Los Angeles schools in order to guarantee trips to the league's recruiting hub. Annual appearances in Southern California provide teams with invaluable exposure; they also make it easier for recruits to leave home, because they know they'll be back to play once a year.
"It's a big thing," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "That's a special trip for us when we go to L.A. Afterward, a lot of our kids stay home overnight."
Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh sidestepped questions about how the league should be divided and the impact of playing the L.A. schools every year.
"Whether it's the Pac-10, Pac-12 or Pac-16, the only critical thing to me is that we win the conference championship," Harbaugh said. Beyond that, the issue is "something the athletic directors and presidents will decide. I trust them."
Former Oregon football coach and athletic director Mike Bellotti, now an analyst for ESPN, said the Los Angeles issue cannot be ignored. "Playing in L.A. is important — it really, really is. Coaches who are saying it isn't are probably just saying that."
Under the current format, with 10 teams and a nine-game conference schedule, everyone is guaranteed an annual game in Los Angeles and a visit from either USC or UCLA, which is important for ticket sales.
But with 12 teams in the league and only nine league games, there's no way to guarantee every team a trip to Los Angeles every year.
Cue the contentious debate.
There are myriad possible solutions. One option under consideration is to divide the league geographically, with North and South divisions. But that would cut the Pacific Northwest schools off from Los Angeles — at least one Northwest school is dead set on being paired with either USC or UCLA, according to a league source.
Moos said a key will be how the league deals with distribution of TV money when a new media contract is negotiated next year. Since 1986, participants in TV games get 55 percent of the payout while the other Pac-10 schools share the remaining 45 percent. That has favored the L.A. schools, which traditionally appear on television more often.
Moos said schools in the Northwest won't easily be sold on separation from L.A. unless TV money is shared equally, as is done in the Big Ten, Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference. Changing the arrangement requires a 75-percent vote of the league presidents.
"Washington always voted with SC and UCLA (to maintain the status quo)," Moos said. "Washington now is as broke as any of us."
Dividing teams into North and South divisions also leaves the conference with a difficult decision regarding Cal and Stanford:
Would the Bay Area schools be paired with USC and UCLA (and the Arizona schools) in the South, or would they join the Oregon and Washington schools in the North?
A geographical split could result in a "North" team not playing either USC or UCLA in a particular season and, worse, going several years without having a game in Los Angeles.
Another way to arrange divisions is to split the natural rivals (for instance, Cal in one division, Stanford in the other) but with the assurance that they would play every year.
This format, which has become known as the "Zipper Plan," would assure every school of a game against USC or UCLA every year and a trip to Southern California every two years. "We're looking at several 'Zipper' options," Scott said.
One variation, the "California Zipper," would place one Bay Area school and one L.A. school with the Oregons and Washingtons in the North and one Bay Area school and one L.A. school with Utah, Colorado and the Arizona schools in the South.
Critics of the "zipper" arrangement believe the natural rivals must be paired together, but the concept is gaining traction within league circles. Bowlsby said the schools Stanford plays every year is more important to him than divisional alignment. In other words, he's fine with Cal being in a different division as long as the Big Game is played every year.
Bellotti said he favors the "zipper" format, and believes it can be tweaked to preserve long-time rivalries. He suggested that in an eight-game conference schedule, teams would play five games within their division and could include one or two traditional games on an annual basis from outside their division.
"Either way, they're going to have to protect the rivalries," Bellotti said. "No way in the world could Oregon not play Oregon State or Washington. Fiscally, it would not make sense. Just like Cal wants to play Stanford and USC and UCLA."
Regardless of the league's shape, Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA have played each other every year since 1936 (excluding World War II years) — and they want the tradition to continue.
Pairing the California quartet in the South with the Arizona schools would solve the issue, but the core problem would still exist because the more games between the California schools, the fewer opportunities for everyone else to play USC and UCLA.
The reality, in Scott's words, is this: "Not every team is going to be thrilled."