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Vince Grippi: Washington State exits Rose Bowl with a sour taste that’s going to last

By Vince Grippi For The Spokesman-Review

PASADENA, Calif. – In a season of endings, there were enough in Washington State’s 25-17 loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl to last. Maybe forever. An undefeated record. Cameron Ward’s no-interceptions streak. The unblemished us-against-everyone mantra.

And they might have to last awhile, as Saturday’s game was the final conference one the Cougars would play in the Pac-12’s most-revered stadium. Again, maybe forever. At the least, the foreseeable future.

USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon are off to the Big Ten. The two Arizona schools, Colorado and Utah to the Big 12. Stanford and California to the Atlantic Coast Conference – believe it or not. Only Oregon State and WSU remain to hold on to the Pac-12 banner.

A travesty. A destruction of tradition. Idiocy, some might say. A financial windfall, for USC at least. No matter what, though, the hard feelings have built quickly.

Despite the enmity the breakup has built between the schools, the fan bases of the two playing in the Southern California sun this day could agree on some things. Foremost of which was the demise of the West Coast’s premier conference is, well, dumb. It was a sentiment that echoed louder than any cheer for either team.

It’s the main point we uncovered in conversations before, during and after the game in the stands, as we watched with our sister, a UCLA alum, among mainly Bruins fans.

“They’re trading tradition for money,” is how Andrew Ellis, who was at Washington State during the Ryan Leaf era of the mid-1990s, sees it. Now living in Barstow, California, Ellis took in the game with his brother, a UCLA graduate, each wearing their school’s respective jerseys. And, yes, the barbs flew as the contest went back and forth in the first half.

There were no barbs shared pregame between Mike Feigen and Geoff O’Neill, Cougar alums who left Wazzu in the early 2000s. The last time they were in the Rose Bowl together was for the New Year’s loss to Oklahoma in 2003. Though not a bowl game, they still made sure to make this one, with O’Neil heading down from Spokane and Feigen, who lives in West Los Angeles, playing host. Their thoughts, however, paralleled Ellis’ in some regard.

“I’m really bitter,” O’Neil said more than once of the conference’s breakup.

He’s a member of the kill-the-Apple-Cup crowd, is upset with USC and Oregon, but doesn’t feel the same way about the Bruins. In fact, he would welcome nonconference games with UCLA, mainly for recruiting purposes.

“I have a little bit different viewpoint than Geoff does,” Feigen said, noting he’s lived away from the Inland Northwest since college. “I’m definitely upset by what’s going on and I think it’s sad more than something to be angry about.”

Sad, angry or bitter, the two wanted to attend another game in the Rose Bowl with each other. Mission accomplished, even if the Cougars couldn’t supply a storybook ending. But even Bruins fans who left leave smiling after a second-half rally hate what’s happening to the conference – and their school.

“I think it’s tragic,” said Tony Lopez, a UCLA alum who ran track at the school when the Bruins were always among the nation’s best in the mid-to-late 1980s. “As somebody who grew up (in Huntington Beach) rooting for the Pac-12 and is a big history buff, I’m very familiar with all the history, all the traditions, and that’s the main reason I just think it was mistake.”

Lopez, however, sees another aspect that has everything to do with why the 35,437 shuffled into the Rose Bowl. Football is king.

“The other kind of sad part of college athletics is most fans just focus on football,” Lopez said. “I don’t think the administrators and the AD really factored in the travel schedule. When we’re going to be traveling from California all the way to New Jersey to play Rutgers, it doesn’t make much sense.”

What the 13th-ranked Cougars have accomplished this year, despite all the uncertainty, has impressed Brett Ward, a Medical Lake teacher who flew in Saturday morning before flying back at night.

“It’s an atrocity,” Ward said of the dissolution . “Just the amount of tradition and the logistical sense that these conferences used to make, where people played these other great schools that were actually near them.

“It’s just terrible and it makes me really appreciate what the Cougs are doing right now. It seems like a last-hurrah type of situation. I hope it’s not, but it feels that way.”

Whatever happens, he added, “We’re still playing great. All these games seem to have a little more importance and historical context.”

As he got up to leave for his seat in what would be a sun-drenched visitors’ rooting section, Ward seemed to summarize the mood on what should have been a fun October day of college football.

“It’s a bummer,” he said.