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Sports >  UW football

As conference realignment reshapes college football, is the Apple Cup at risk?

July 30, 2022 Updated Sat., July 30, 2022 at 7:39 p.m.

WSU hoists the Apple Cup after defeating the Washington Huskies during the second half of a college football game on Friday, Nov 26, 2021, at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash. WSU won the game 40-13  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
WSU hoists the Apple Cup after defeating the Washington Huskies during the second half of a college football game on Friday, Nov 26, 2021, at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash. WSU won the game 40-13 (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

LOS ANGELES – Kalen DeBoer and Jake Dickert have more in common than the Apple Cup.

Before arriving at Washington this offseason, DeBoer played wide receiver at NAIA University of Sioux Falls and climbed the coaching ladder at Washington (S.D.) High School, Sioux Falls, Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Fresno State (twice) and Indiana.

Dickert, likewise, played wide receiver at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, then coached at his alma mater, North Dakota State, South Dakota, Southeast Missouri State, Augustana, Minnesota State, South Dakota State and Wyoming.

Before landing at UW and WSU, respectively, DeBoer and Dickert touted a combined one season of Power Five experience.

So each understands the chasm between college football’s haves and have-nots.

As well as what it would mean for that chasm to permanently, exponentially expand.

“I tell our guys, I used to sell raffle tickets (for fans) to get into fall camp, just so we could eat,” Dickert said at Friday’s Pac-12 media day at the Novo Theater in Los Angeles. “College football is changing, and there’s a lot of parameters we need to continue to keep in place to preserve what we all love about the traditions and the rivalries of college football.”

As the SEC and Big Ten gradually absorb their competing conferences, those regional rivalries face the prospect of imminent extinction. So, too, does the Pac-12 as a whole – with USC and UCLA headed to the Big Ten in 2024, UW and Oregon eyeing possible Big Ten invites and Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark openly broadcasting his conference being “open for business.”

On that note, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff retorted Friday that “we haven’t decided if we’re going shopping (in the Big 12) yet or not.”

But as the Power Five threatens to potentially implode, and with UW’s status increasingly uncertain, what might become of the Apple Cup?

“I think playing the Apple Cup is certainly something we need to make sure we’re doing,” said DeBoer, who kicks off his debut fall camp at UW on Aug. 4. “Going back to the heart of it, having those rivalries is what makes college football special. Having that game and the rivalries we have, whether it be with Washington State or Oregon … that’s what gets you up early in the morning in January and February, getting ready for those games.

“I definitely hope those (games) stay intact, but I understand. I’ve seen it where those rivalries are lost in some form or fashion when changes happen.”

Like, say, when conference realignment sidetracked regional rivalries between Texas and Texas A&M, or Missouri and Kansas, during the last round of major realignment in 2012.

But from WSU athletic director Pat Chun’s perspective, the Apple Cup is unlikely to suffer a similar fate.

“I’m a traditionalist with college football, and all those traditions matter relative to whatever respective school you’re with,” Chun said. “Fortunately for us, where we sit today, the Pac-12 is moving forward. That specific scenario (where the Apple Cup goes away), we don’t have to worry about.”

Of course, that likely hinges on the Pac-12’s ongoing negotiations for its next media rights deal – set to begin in 2024. Chun said Friday that “the fact that we’re in a period where we can actually negotiate puts us at an advantage, because it’s going to take away all the ambiguity. Our conference, obviously we have consultants telling us what our value is, and we’re actually going to see it. Based on the information we have, we’re well positioned for 10 schools to stay together.”

Time will tell – perhaps sooner than later – whether that ultimately proves true. But regarding the relationship between UW and WSU, Chun said, “Nothing’s changed. They’re extraordinary partners and friends. I know (WSU president Kirk Schulz) and (UW president Ana Mari Cauce) are friends and (UW athletic director Jen Cohen) and I are friends and there’s a great amount of respect. And we all recognize the responsibility that we have for our institutions and the state of Washington. Nothing has changed in our relationships, because they’ve been great, professional relationships since day one.”

The same can’t be said of the relationship between the Pac-12, USC and UCLA, though Kliavkoff said he’ll continue rooting for the outgoing programs’ athletes “because it’s the right thing to do.”

Regarding the possibility of Pac-12 expansion, Kliavkoff pointedly added that “we’re very focused, I think uniquely, in thinking about the effect of student-athletes when we add schools. We think about travel and about what we’re going to put our student-athletes through if we expand geographically too far away. I’m proud of the fact that’s part of our criteria.”

When it comes to widespread conference realignment, “the right thing to do” may ultimately finish second to seismic revenue.

But DeBoer also emphasized the positive elements in a comprehensively shifting landscape.

“What you want for the game is you want the experience to be a special one for the players,” DeBoer said. “Right now, the resources through NIL, that’s been positive for our guys. They’re getting more opportunities and experience than guys did two, three years ago. So that’s a positive. Being able to transfer, it gets kind of crazy at times, but they’re getting an opportunity to go to a school and play on a team where their experience can be better, and that’s the hope.

“Really getting down to the simplest form of why I coach, some of these things are positive for our guys. Now it’s just a matter of the conference realignment thing being the next big thing to be sorted out. Not knowing what that will be and how that looks, it’s hard for me to understand yet how that impacts our students and their day-to-day routines and what their experience looks like.”

In the coming days, months and years, that should all become clear.

But when it does, will DeBoer and Dickert continue to have the Apple Cup in common?

“Make no mistake about it: The Pac-12 is going to be here for a long time, in those power conferences, playing big-time football,” Dickert said. “So I’m excited about that, and our athletes having opportunities. I know there’s challenges out there, but at Washington State – our players and our people – we’re going to adapt to it and we’re going to survive and we’re going to keep advancing. So college football and the pureness of the game will always be there, and we all have to fight to preserve that.””

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