Ahead of a weekend showdown on the football field, Washington State and Oregon State universities are coming together to reassure their fans the future of the Pac-12 is in safe hands – even as it totters on the brink of extinction.
The two schools will be the only remaining members of the Pac-12 Conference when the 10 other schools opt to play in other conferences at the beginning of next school year.
“Together, WSU and OSU are aggressively pursuing all options. Staff from our two schools are meeting daily to explore alternatives and determine the best path forward,” WSU President Kirk Schulz said in a joint news conference Thursday with Oregon State.
Oregon State President Jayathi Murthy said she and her university have felt an “outpouring of support” from Eastern Washington and across the sports world as the universities work together to maintain the hundred-year-old athletic conference.
“This actually knit our identity together and brought us so much closer to each other. That’s been pretty phenomenal,” Murthy said at the Thursday news conference.
The display of unity is rare for conference rivals who go into this weekend’s game both 3-0 for the season. While both sides promised to give their all in the game, the schools look forward to quickly coming back together to work on future plans.
“Our band’s gonna play the Oregon State fight song, and we’re going to ask (WSU fans) to show respect, applaud that fight song, because the two universities are in a fight together,” Schulz said of the game taking place in Pullman this weekend.
Since USC and UCLA started the movement last year, 10 Pac-12 schools have found new conferences. The only schools left, WSU and Oregon State, hope to rebuild the Pac-12 that has been one of the most important in college athletics.
Asked about a possible merger between the Pac-12 and the Mountain West Conference, Murthy said WSU and Oregon State have had “very constructive conversations” with that conference’s commissioner, and there is “mutual interest” in some kind of partnership. Oregon State Athletic Director Scott Barnes said it was “too early” to know what form such a partnership could take.
The schools also allowed for the possibility of a two-team conference in the short term. Chun noted NCAA rules have a “two-year grace period” allowing the conference to find more teams – though they hope and plan to rebuild the conference next season.
Barnes pointed to a late fall cutoff date when asked how long before these decisions have to be made.
“We don’t want to wait that long. We want to move as quickly as we can,” he said. “We are confident we can put a schedule together for all sports in a timely fashion that meets our needs for 2024.”
WSU and OSU have engaged in a legal battle within the Pac-12, impeding their ability to make agreements with other universities and conferences .
The remaining universities sued Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff to stop a board meeting of the 12 schools, arguing the departing schools had forfeited their right to make decisions on the Pac-12 board. A Whitman County Superior Court judge initially sided with the two schools and blocked a Pac-12 board meeting earlier this month. But the legitimate makeup of the board remains under legal dispute.
Until that issue is legally adjudicated, who dictates the future of the Pac-12 is in the air.
“All we’re asking is just an affirmation of the agreed-upon bylaws, but that’ll set its course on whatever timeframe the courts have,” Chun said. “We want to control our own fate. The two schools are the two remaining schools in the Pac-12. Based on the bylaws, the schools should be able to dictate what that future looks like.”
Decisions are also dependent on the financial state of the Pac-12, which Schulz called “far from clear.”
“The conference may possess some valuable assets. It’s also burdened with some significant liabilities,” Schulz said. “Our two schools continue to seek financial records from the conference and are painstakingly reviewing documents to get an accurate picture of the conference’s fiscal position. This has turned out to be more difficult and time-consuming than anticipated. Fans need to know that we are leaving no stone unturned.”
WSU and Oregon State will get a “decent idea” of these financial aspects within approximately the next 30 days, Schulz added. That will give the schools clarity to know the best steps moving forward.
“Our fans at both schools want answers sooner rather than later. I do, too. But we owe it to our institutions to really do the due diligence,” he said.
Millions of dollars are on the line.
In the legal complaint filed by the two schools, WSU and OSU approximated the conference ended fiscal year 2022 with $42.7 million in net assets. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 Network reported net revenue of approximately $40 million that same fiscal year, according to the legal filings.
While collegiate sports are “central” to WSU’s identity as an educational institution, Schulz promised to not let the precarity of the Pac-12 negatively affect the school’s academics or student experience.
“There’s a lot of aspects that will change. But I still think the overall experience that a student’s going to get is not going to feel diminished or minimized or things like that, and it’s up to us to really make sure that that’s the case.”
He also urged those in Eastern Washington to come out to this weekend’s game to support WSU.
“We’ve got to ask our fan base pull together. I’m not sure who’s gonna be on the football field in the fall besides us who are playing, but we need you to come out. Please support us. We need to support those student-athletes – they are still going to be working … to win in the classroom and on the field.”