We are not writing this blog post to say “The Pac-12 is dead.”
That has yet to be seen. The future looked dark for the Big 12 when Texas and Oklahoma decided to bolt for the SEC, but now that conference is looking to have a renaissance (partially at the Pac-12’s expense, but).
Let’s be real here, losing Colorado probably isn’t a death toll unless the Arizona schools or others decide to bolt as well. It’s not like the Buffs were some conference staple, they spent most of their time out west being bad.
There’s still an opportunity to come back from this, however bleak it may seem. What remains to be seen is if the conference has the leadership to get it there, but that’s a story for someone else to write.
That being said... things do look bleak. No matter what you think about the Pac-12 or the circumstances that brought it here, what’s happened so far and what could be on the horizon is a shame both in itself and the way it’s being framed.
The Pac-12 has in some way existed for over a century as the Pacific Coast Conference, AAWU, Pac-8 and Pac-10. There’s storied programs across every sport in the current makeup of the conference.
Washington football was a powerhouse of yore, Oregon has been great and truly burst onto the national scene, USC needs no introduction, ditto for UCLA men’s basketball.
But, believe it or not, there’s more to college sports than just football or even basketball. The former has largely taken the priority in both narrative and conference realignment, but it’s not as though the latter is an afterthought.
Oregon has one of if not the most historic track & field programs in the entire country. Stanford is great at pretty much every Olympic sport, owning uhhhh 134 team and 619 (!!) individual national titles.
When the United States sends its greatest athletes to the Olympic Games, nobody has greater representation than the Pac-12.
There’s the historic rivalries now facing potential limbo as we’ve already seen with bedlam in the Big 12. What’ll become of Oregon-Oregon State, The Big Game, the Apple Cup, the Duel in the Desert or the Northwest Championship?
Then there’s the rivalries you probably haven’t heard about, like the men’s rowing one between Washington and Cal.
Countless past, present and future athletes at every university are jeopardized here. You’ve probably heard Bill Walton’s thoughts on UCLA, for instance. Hundreds of them built at legacy in a conference that may very well cease to exist in just a few years, how do you even begin to reckon with that?
But they’re not the ones whose story you’re hearing, few bother telling it. Group fans and alumni of these universities in with them too.
Nope. All that’s really being given airtime or slotted near the top of a homepage is media deals, expansion targets and the kind of soulless garbage nobody likes about college sports. It’s different for local media, but the national scene really fumbled the narrative here.
Patrick Mayhorn, a friend of the blog who actually cares about the sport he covers, summed all of this up pretty well.
I don’t think it’s especially funny that one of college football’s oldest conferences, as rich with tradition as anything in this sport, is being scrapped for parts. And I’m not sure why so many people do. This is bad and it is only getting worse— Patrick Mayhorn (@patrick_mayhorn) July 28, 2023
Like, I get it. Poke fun at the conference, sure. But there’s plenty of real things at stake here and this is by no means a good thing for college sports.
Sweeping changes are being made to the landscape that fans can’t really do anything about all for the sake of a single sport. Worse still, fans of that sport still lose out. Conferences line their pockets, but at what cost.
Of course, at Indiana, the Big Ten is a conference that has benefited monetarily from universities jumping ship. Again, at the expense of fans.
When we say that schools like Maryland and Rutgers don’t belong in the Big Ten, it was never really about the on-field competition. The Terps have been competitive in most sports, revenue or otherwise, and the same can mostly be said for Rutgers, especially recently.
But... they’re East Coast schools. They should be playing other East Coast schools that they’ve built relationships and culture with through the decades. Maryland-Duke was always a heated matchup. Rutgers has rivalries with the likes of Princeton, UConn and Seton Hall.
When rivalry week approaches in the college football season, the Big Ten kind of grouped those two together in a forced effort to manifest a rivalry, but it hasn’t really worked so far because there’s just no history there.
Instead of playing Duke, Maryland has to travel to play Wisconsin. Instead of battling other New Jersey-New York area teams, Rutgers has to play schools in an entirely different region of the country.
UCLA and USC are going to make this problem worse. There’s no historic rivalry there with any Big Ten teams, really, so the fans don’t have any investment outside of it being a game their team plays.
Take traditional rivalries like The Game. They draw in viewership because each team’s fanbase is already invested, but they get national viewership if both programs are highly visible.
Where Michigan and Ohio State see countless years of tradition, television networks and the conference they call home sees dollars. Millions and millions of dollars. Most of the national media that covers the sport can’t look past the dollars conferences wave around to see how it’s decimating athletes and fanbases’ storied histories.
As an Indiana guy, I do not care about a football game against UCLA in the same way I do one against Purdue, Michigan, Wisconsin or Ohio State. There’s historic and established thoughts on those, not with UCLA.
I’m sure the same can be said of UCLA and USC fans. None of this is to criticize either institution, it’s the conference’s fault they’re here.
I spent a summer out in Pac-12 country speaking with former athletes from schools such as Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State. It’s a special place with incredible stories to be told just like the Midwest, South or East Coast.
It’s incredible when fans fill the stands at T-Mobile Park with Beavers orange when Adley Rutschman and the Orioles visit the Mariners. When residents of Oregon keep up with their homegrown track and field stars, that means something.
Michael Penix Jr. lifting the Huskies to victory over the vaunted Ducks during his first year in Seattle is the kind of thing UW grads will tell their friends, kids and others about for years to come because that game matters to them.
They will not do the same when that game is against Kansas. Or Illinois. Or wherever the Huskies end up. Because it doesn’t matter nearly as much.
That’s what we’re losing. It deserves more attention.