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OC: Death Of Pac-12 Conference

Dec 3, 2023, 1:18 PM | Updated: 1:19 pm

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Spectators hold up signs about the Pac-12 during the game between the UCLA Bruins and the California Golden Bears at Rose Bowl Stadium on November 25, 2023 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

(Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – Nobody asked me to write this.

Consider it a journaling exercise to alleviate my bitterness over the death of a conference I have truly come to love. A conference that was so messy and unpredictable that it sparked an after-dark phenomenon (and accompanying hashtag- #Pac12AfterDark) and became a morbid curiosity- or even a punchline to fans outside of its 6-state footprint. West Coast fans came to understand this mad-scientist football conference and appreciate the joy, pain, frustration, aggravation, and all-over-the-emotional-spectrum insanity of games that we no longer get to see after 2023. This disaster, our disaster will not be heard from again. So I am here to mourn.

It’s halftime of the Pac-12 championship game. A rematch of the best regular season game across all of college football in 2023 Anno Domini.  So far, a 20-10 score between two teams led by Heisman trophy finalists with the promise of another epic chapter in an underappreciated rivalry.  The stakes are what we always hoped they would be.  The winner takes the trophy, the college football playoff spot (most likely), and the aforementioned Heisman for the display case in Seattle or Eugene (probably). The cruelest of ironies; after a near-decade of drought, is that The Conference of Champions finally looks like it might deserve that moniker on the gridiron. I’ve done a daily Pac-12 show on SiriusXM Pac-12 radio for six seasons now. I want six more. Ten more. Twenty! That’s the way it should be.

In the most sadistic twist of fate, any college sports fan could imagine, 2023 was the best year of football in the Pac-12 era. The best stories in college football hatched and grew on the West Coast starting from week zero.  Even Jim Harbaugh and Michigan’s cheating ways were overshadowed by the tantalizing promise of a Prime-led turnaround in Boulder. Caleb Williams and Lincoln Reilly were set to make good on the promise of a returning Heisman winner and a second-straight bounty of transfer portal talent. Never mind that both of those turned out to be false flags.  By the time we knew which tigers were paper, Washington and Oregon had emerged as true powers, Oregon State refused to go quietly into the night, and at long last the snarky comments rang hollow and the snickering was silenced for a glorious fourteen weeks of football. A stellar season with all the bells and whistles. Triumphs and disappointments, redemption stories, and missed opportunities. Unlikely heroes and scapegoats in stripes. The very quintessence of college football.  Perhaps with a storybook ending to cap it all off for the Pac-12.

Too little. Too late.

It won’t matter if the Ducks or Huskies win the National Championship.  It won’t matter if Jed Fisch, Kalen DeBoer, or Dan Lanning is the national coach of the year. Penix for Heisman, Powers-Johnson for Rimington, Latu or Elliss for Hendricks, Travis Hunter or Sione Vaki for the Hornung, Odunze gets the Biletnikoff, doesn’t matter how you dress it up. Nothing can change the frigid truth already written into this final chapter.  The Pac 12 is merely doing its very best -skydiving, rocky mountain climbing, 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu-Manchu send-off.  An unforgettable last gasp in the face of a terminal diagnosis brought on by the tide of television dollars and the disgusting ineptitude of the overpaid suits who failed as stewards of a cherished institution.

Sure, the future is secure for ten of the twelve football programs that have called the Pac-12 home. USC and UCLA will cash huge media-rights checks and immediately build their programs… into teams that are consistently underwhelming on the football field but always among the top Olympic sports teams in the Big 10!  Oregon and Washington are trending in the right direction as they wade into the fray and try to bolster their lines of scrimmage to look like those of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. Utah, Colorado, and the Arizona Schools enter a league with no clear top dog. A clear third-place conference in the P4 without a single blueblood; ripe for the taking. The best thing about that? You’ll make the same amount of money as you would have in the Pac-12 if any of the adults in those negotiating rooms knew what the hell they were doing! Of course, you also won’t get the satisfaction of wiping the smug looks off of those USC and UCLA faces year after year.  Nor you will you have the obvious recruiting benefit of telling California kids they’ll get to play in front of family at least once every season.  But hey, at least you’ll still have the sixth-best NIL package to offer the top kids from Texas now that you play close to their home turf.  For Arizona in particular things get exciting in the brave new world.  Football hasn’t been this strong in decades, and you don’t have the glass ceiling of five conference opponents who have all been much better than you recently (Good luck keeping that Servite high school pipeline going by the way.) Arizona basketball goes from being a firm number one in conference to… to… well, still pretty dang competitive in the Big-12.  Utah should dominate in football, as long as they can keep Kyle Whittingham in the building. Will he be as excited about watching his team run the ball down the throats of Texas Tech Red Raiders as he was when they did it to the Trojans and Bruins? Does the shine come off for a guy who was raised on some of those storied Pac-12 programs and built himself into a name that can stand shoulder to shoulder with their best? I’m not sure that matters to Coach Whitt.  I’m also not sure that it doesn’t matter. At least the Big-12 invitees get a full share of revenue and a firm schedule.  Cal and Stanford get to join the ACC, but they don’t get a full share of the league revenue until year 10! Those long road trips will be fine for football, their fans don’t even attend home games. At least neither of those Bay Area institutions is academically demanding for all student-athletes in other sports. I’m sure it won’t affect graduation rates, student retention, or recruiting at all when they start those four-day basketball road trips to Miami. Oregon State just lost its head coach, a homegrown success story, and former Beaver QB who happens to be the nicest man in college football, because they can no longer pay to play. Washington State got a lifeline from UW with an extension of the Apple Cup.  But they’ll be paying to play Mountain West teams half a dozen times a year for the foreseeable future. Even the best realignment scenarios for former Pac-12 teams will be proven to be lateral moves at best when we look back in ten years. The worst-case fits for OSU and Wazzu might just turn “haves” into “have-nots” before it’s all said and done.

Maybe I’m being too pessimistic about the future for the teams who found life rafts after the Pac-12 ran into its iceberg, but nobody comes out better off than they were in the Conference of Champions. No football program is in a happier spot than it would have been had the conference found a way to stay together. College football is undeniably worse with no Pac-12. Not all change is progress.

I’m past deciding who to blame. My grief is much more mature now. Denial and anger are in the rearview. The bargaining was all done (very poorly) by those same stuffed shirts that were entrusted to lead the conference over the bridge between its proud history and the limitless future of college football in the transfer portal/NIL era.  Even as I watch another instant classic between soon-to-be-Big-10-half-payout-recipients Oregon and Washington, I am firmly rooted in the depression stage of my grief.  There will be no relief in road trips to Waco. No satisfaction in watching a bunch of SoCal Trojan prima donnas lose a frosty 10-7 game at Iowa in late November. Even the restoration of my absolute favorite rivalry in all of college football, The Holy War; does not feel like anything close to a fair trade. I’ve done a daily Pac-12 show on SiriusXM radio for six seasons now. I want six more. Ten more. Twenty! That’s the way it should be. Instead, I’ll follow the Utes to a Big-12 channel. Like all of the Pac-12 teams that found a landing spot after realignment, I’ll be grateful and cling to the life raft. Fine, but not better off.  Nobody is in a better place because the Pac-12 Conference is dead. Nobody.

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed that “Acceptance” is the final stage of grief.  I don’t think I’ll get there any time soon.

Pac-12 Football Forever…

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OC: Death Of Pac-12 Conference