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At two-team Pac-12 media day, WSU coaches and players begin to grapple with imminent changes

 (Greg Woods)

LAS VEGAS – Jake Dickert turned around, footsteps echoing in a hallway somewhere inside the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, and greeted the guy he thought for sure was gone.

Striding his way was Ron Stone Jr., the former Washington State edge rusher who played his sixth and final season last fall for Dickert, and embraced him.

The two men wore bright smiles as they chatted. They talked about Stone, his family, his new opportunity with the Las Vegas Raiders, with whom he signed an undrafted free-agent deal this spring. That’s the reason he was in town, after all.

For WSU, Stone’s presence was about the only similarity between Wednesday’s conference media day and the dozens that preceded it. At this event – a scaled-down version that featured WSU and its fellow Pac-12 holdover, Oregon State, in a night dubbed “After hours with the Beavs and Cougs” – the differences stood out like a sore thumb.

For one, there were only two institutions represented, not the usual 12. As each coach and player talked on the main stage and in quieter moments off to the side, a few themes kept surfacing.

We’re in the fight.

This is our chance to show who we are.

We’re two proud schools.

Nearly a year after the Pac-12 as we know it collapsed, all but WSU and OSU defecting for other conferences and forcing the Cougars and Beavers to find temporary homes in other conferences, the reality rippled through a ballroom in Las Vegas.

“I mean, it’s a lot of mixed emotions going into my last year,” said WSU wide receiver Kyle Williams, who transferred from UNLV and played his first season in Pullman last season. “But as they always say – just take it one day at a time, and that’s what I am (doing). Just living in the moment, enjoying everything, taking it in and not letting anything past me.”

During nearly two hours, WSU head coach Dickert and OSU coach Trent Bray took center stage to discuss their schools’ place in the college football landscape. The Cougars’ player representatives, Williams and senior linebacker Kyle Thornton, revisited their paths to WSU and how those experiences shape them today. Highlights of both teams played on TVs flanking the stage and their mascots, Benny and Butch, moseyed around.

If nothing else, it gave the Pac-12 and new commissioner Theresa Gould a chance to pitch why people around the country should still make an effort to invest in the only two schools left in the conference. If things go the conference’s way, there will be more at some point – the only plan Gould would commit to Wednesday was to explore “all options” – but for at least this next year, the Pac-12 will look more like the Pac-2.

The evidence lives on the Cougs’ football schedule for this fall. As part of a scheduling agreement, WSU will play games against nine Mountain West opponents – seven courtesy of the agreement, two from previously contracted meetings – and in September, they’ll play a nonconference game against longtime rival Washington at the Seattle Seahawks’ Lumen Field.

In other words, things aren’t just changing for Washington State. The people involved are beginning to feel the changes, to come to grips with them.

“Honestly, we don’t know, because we haven’t been there,” Thornton said. “So once we get into it, I’ll probably have a better answer, because it’s really hard to imagine – it’s hard to fathom not playing a Pac-12 schedule. So it’ll be interesting to see how it goes. But honestly, we’re such a bought-in team, they’ll play whoever they tell us to play.”

As the night wore on, something else became clear: Both schools might feel excited about the chance to play Mountain West teams, but they’re taking care to avoid treating the games like a cakewalk. Dickert was once Wyoming’s defensive coordinator. Williams played three years at UNLV. They know what it’s like to play these teams.

Which is why, as Dickert and his players recounted their upcoming schedule, they talked about the contests with a certain reverence.

“It’s all about approach – how do you walk into that game, that moment, that stadium?” Dickert said. “Because I’ve been to Fresno. It’s tough to play there. I’ve been to Boise on a Saturday night, tough to play there. Obviously, the Apple Cup in Seattle, it’s gonna be a great environment. Texas Tech at home. What we were able to do, put together this schedule in a really short order, I think was pretty special.”