Jim Sterk had been Washington State’s athletic director for just a few months when he came to understand just how seriously the Pac-12 Conference took all sports, not just football and basketball. This was in the early 2000s, and he was talking to the school’s swimming coach before the conference championship meet.
“I just want to tell you what we are going up against,” he remembered the coach saying before a race. “In Lane 1 is a national champion. In Lane 2 is an Olympic champion.”
In the third lane, the coach added, was an Olympic champion from another country.
“That’s what you had all the time in the Pac-12,” said Sterk, now the athletic director at Western Washington. “It was fun to be a part of it.”
The soon-to-be-dissolved Pac-12 likes to call itself “The Conference of Champions,” and in many ways it is, with more than 500 national titles, most of them coming in sports that don’t get much attention or recognition until the Olympics, such as volleyball, track and field, water polo and swimming.
How powerful has the Pac-12 been in Olympic sports? Four of its colleges – USC, Stanford, UCLA and California – have not only produced the most Olympic medals, they collectively have more Olympic gold medals than the next 10 schools combined – two of which are also Pac-12 universities, Washington and Arizona.
“Those four schools, in particular, have dominated Olympic participation, especially in the Summer Games,” Olympic historian Bill Mallon said.
Now the Pac-12 is breaking apart, its demise hastened by conference realignment focused on football television contracts. The Pac-12 will live for only this academic year before USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon move to the Big Ten; Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado join the Big 12; and Stanford and Cal head to the ACC, leaving Washington State and Oregon State with still-undetermined futures. In a few months, the conference of gold medalists disappears for good.
“I think there’s a sadness for what is going on, a conference with so much history and so many championships is falling apart,” said Jaime Gordon, CEO of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. “When you look at the Pac-12, you have these schools that have had broad-based athletic departments that other conferences don’t have.”
Stanford fields teams in artistic swimming, fencing, sailing and squash. Oregon has an acrobatics and tumbling squad. Five Pac-12 schools compete in women’s water polo, two in field hockey. What happens to those athletes in a college sports world made primarily for football and basketball? What becomes of the lesser-known Pac-12 programs that have filled so many U.S. Olympic teams?
Gordon, who spent five years as the athletic director at Morehead State and 20 years as its volleyball coach, has what he calls “a catastrophic scenario we don’t want to think about” in which the biggest football and basketball schools essentially create their own two-sport super conference and leave all the other sports behind.
“What would happen is hard to project,” he said.
No one knows what college Olympic sports will look like mostly because no one seems to know what will happen with college sports in general. Sterk, who experienced the conference realignment battle as Missouri’s athletic director from 2016 to 2021, was stunned by the speed with which the Pac-12 collapsed. If one of college sports’ most prominent conferences, with schools in some of the nation’s biggest media markets, could topple in days, what else can happen?
Still, it’s hard to see college Olympic sports going away, if for no other reason than interest remains high. Volleyball, for instance, has boomed in recent years – especially in the Big Ten, where Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota sell out basketball arenas and matches are fixtures on the conference’s television network.
Two weeks ago, with the shock of the Pac-12’s collapse still rippling through athletic departments, Nebraska’s volleyball team set a world record for attendance at a women’s sporting event when 92,003 crammed into the football stadium to watch the Cornhuskers take on Omaha. The juxtaposition of a sold-out stadium for a nonconference volleyball game against the dark future for any college sport other than football or basketball was impossible to ignore.
Gordon imagines the Big Ten becoming an even more powerful volleyball conference with the addition of the Pac-12 schools. While that will bring more volleyball fans, he worries it could be too much. There could be too many good teams, creating pressure on coaches and players that didn’t exist in the past.
“In a Big Ten with 18 teams, at what point does an administrator say: ‘You need to win a Big Ten title’?” he said. “What kind of turnover will that create with all these teams in that conference?”
He frets, too, about rivalries lost as conferences go national. Part of the reason volleyball blossomed in the Big Ten is because the league’s parochial Midwestern fan bases became passionate about matches against teams from nearby states. It’s easy for Wisconsin and Minnesota to build a love-hate relationship around volleyball, but are Nebraska fans going to find that same fire for UCLA or Oregon?
Another challenge will be travel. In a Big Ten that stretches from Los Angeles to New Jersey, half the trips will make commercial flights less feasible.
“I don’t know if they can get away with traveling like that anymore,” Sterk said. “They will have to charter flights because they would miss too much class.”
Charter flights can be significantly more expensive, stretching budgets and potentially forcing athletic departments to trim less prominent sports to cut costs.
Many of the Olympic sports are accustomed to getting by without much. Scholarships long have been split among athletes in many sports, and head coach salaries often pale compared to those paid to football and basketball assistants.
“If you already have a pool, we aren’t an expensive sport,” said Chris Ramsey, CEO of USA Water Polo, whose Olympic rosters regularly are filled with Pac-12 players.
Somehow, Ramsey imagines, universities will be able to find money for sports such as his, even while football and basketball teams demand more resources as their television contracts grow.
“One of the things I know about sports is it has uniform rules, so it’s an even playing field,” Ramsey said. “Life is unfair but sports are an ideal, and I prize that. I think the colleges understand that, too.”
“I’m optimistic,” he continued, “because I believe in the power of student-athletes. So many CEOs have come from college athletics.”
Ultimately, he said, there will have to be a reckoning in college athletics. Schools will have to have more “transparency” about where their athletic departments’ money is coming from and where it is going. Some in college sports wonder if the Olympic sports will inevitably have to operate separately from their athletic departments. Could a European club-style system emerge? Will top American athletes forgo college to play professionally overseas, the way many international athletes come to the United States to play collegiately?
“Hopefully, intercollegiate athletics can survive these things,” Sterk said. “These types of opportunities for our athletes have to survive.”
The Pac-12 has started its final year of existence. Soccer, volleyball, cross country, and water polo teams are entering their last seasons in the conference – a few more months of normal before plunging into an uncertain future.
“I don’t think we are in a crisis,” Gordon said. “We are in a significant period of transition.”
He was talking by phone during a break from meetings with television network executives, planning coverage for the NCAA volleyball tournament. The championship game is going to be on ABC, not cable – yet another sign of volleyball’s growth. He was struck by the irony of having to contemplate the demise of college Olympic sports just as his sport has gotten bigger than ever.
It was another strange moment in a series of developments that saw the Conference of Champions dissolve within months.
“It only becomes a crisis,” Gordon said, “if we don’t adapt.”