I have a six-decade relationship with the Pac-12 – old enough that I lived through its incarnations as the Pac-8 and Pac-10. My affiliation spans from John McKay to Lincoln Riley, from Lew Alcindor to Johnny Juzang, from Ann Meyers to Anna Wilson.
That doesn’t make me unique. Every sports fan who grew up on the West Coast has been steeped in the tradition of the “Conference of Champions” (a title Bill Walton – another early idol – won’t let anyone forget). My association is no doubt surpassed in longevity and intensity by many who are reading this.
So I’m wondering how many of you are feeling as … melancholy … wistful … sad as I am. Look, there are lots of more important things going on in the world to lament and fret over than the dissolution of an athletic conference. They used to call the sports section “the toy department” for a reason. Yet in the wake of the defection of USC and UCLA last week, leaving the very survival of the Pac-12 very much in limbo, it’s impossible not to feel like something intimate and personal has been torn apart. And that always hits one straight in the heart.
This story now revolves around financial, logistical and strategical machinations, as every Division I school in the country desperately tries to position itself for the best chance at relevance. But I don’t want to lose sight of the emotional angle, which I suspect will get shunted aside in the ongoing fights for survival.
The first football player I worshipped, as a youngster in Southern California, was O.J. Simpson at USC (yeah, I’d like a do-over on that one). I reveled in the John Wooden men’s basketball dynasty at UCLA. I took deep pride in the Rose Bowl, basked in the televised oohs and aahs over the beauty of the San Gabriel Mountains and rooted hard for the Pac-8 team, no matter whom it was. Loyalty to the Pac overruled fandom.
Then I grew up, went off to Berkeley and viewed the conference from a new angle. Cal football was teeming with talent in those days (though it didn’t quite translate into the still-elusive Rose Bowl berth) – the likes of Chuck Muncie, Steve Bartkowski, Wesley Walker and Steve Rivera. Those names might be dimming with time, but they will always be indelible in my memory bank.
My years in the Bay Area also provided a much deeper immersion into the virtues of women’s sports – just as the effects of Title IX were taking effect – and the so-called Olympic sports. My first beat at the Daily Californian was water polo, followed by gymnastics, followed by track and field. I loved covering them all and realizing that there was an immense storehouse of passion and talent away from the football fields and basketball courts – and not exclusive to the men. A half-century later (gulp), and it’s become apparent that the Pac-12 leads the country in these realms.
Or, at least it did.
I also got to see a close-up view of one of the conference’s most hallowed rivalries, between Cal and Stanford. I would characterize it as fierce but refined. One fond memory was the annual joint news conference before the Big Game when I got a chance to lunch with and pick the brain of Stanford’s rising coach, Bill Walsh. I was in the Daily Cal offices in July 1978 – summer session – when news came down that the Pac-8 was now the Pac-10 with the addition of Arizona and Arizona State.
In 1996, I moved back to the Northwest (having spent six years in Yakima out of college) and was exposed to new rivalries, new bastions of passion and prowess. The Pac-12 was born in 2011 when Utah and Colorado joined the conference (after a bid to lure Texas, Oklahoma and possibly Oklahoma State fell apart – cue ominous music).
The Pac-12 was a fount of stability, and there was no reason to think that was ever going to change. At least, until the very fabric of college sports began to unravel – gradually and then suddenly, to quote Ernest Hemingway in “The Sun Also Rises” (hey, I was an English major at Cal).
That’s not to say the changes are all bad. I’m a believer in athletes’ freedom of movement and their long-overdue ability to be compensated, and I think it will become an accepted part of the landscape once some regulation and order is installed.
But this land rush of schools to join the “haves” and not get stuck for perpetuity with the have-nots – in which alliances are betrayed, trust is nonexistent and self-interest trumps everything – will take some getting used to.
Suddenly, geography means nothing. Loyalty means nothing, Tradition means nothing. Increasingly, even educational excellence isn’t the preeminent consideration. The only thing that means something, it seems, is television revenue, which must be maximized by any means necessary.
No matter how this all shakes down, the Pac-12 as we know it effectively died Thursday. There’s a chance that is a literal assessment. Depending on which conference, and which schools, are shrewdest in their maneuvering, there’s a possibility the Pac-12 could simply cease to exist, because all its members will have fled to greener pastures. Or been forced to settle for whatever lesser conference will take them.
Welcome to an era of strange bedfellows, where schools would be wise to hold their friends close and their enemies closer. Suddenly, Washington and Oregon, sworn athletic rivals, have reason to work in concert (until one gets a solo offer it can’t refuse). But Washington’s other sworn rival, Washington State, now desperately needs the Huskies to adhere to in-state fealty and stick with them – even if it must be enforced by the legislature.
As the Pac-12 commissioner, George Kliavkoff, tries desperately to hold things together, every conceivable scenario results in a vastly altered landscape. Maybe Washington and Oregon find safe haven in the Big Ten, or maybe that conference decides to poach a different combination of schools. Maybe the Pac-12 (now technically the Pac-10 again, turns around and poaches the cream of the Big 12. Maybe the Pac-12 and Big 12 execute a full-bore merger. Maybe the ACC and/or SEC decide to delve into the picked-over Pac, scavenging the most enticing remnants; remember, geography means nothing anymore.
No matter what happens, though, it will never be the same. Maybe that’s just a sign of our times, and the price of progress. Maybe I’m just an old man yelling at a cloud. But for this child of the Pac-8, it still hurts my heart.
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