Food & Drink

collapse of a conference

The Pac-12 has no one to blame but itself

By Danny O’Neil September 20, 2023

Washington Huskies celebrate following the Pac-12 Championship game against the Colorado Buffaloes in Santa Clara, Calif. on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. Washington defeated Colorado 41-10. (Spencer Allen/IOS via AP Images)

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

The Pacific Coast Conference had a hell of a run for something conceived on a Thursday night in a Portland hotel.

It has been more than 100 years since five schools came together on Dec. 2, 1915, at the Imperial Hotel, forming the conference that has won more NCAA team championships than any other collegiate league in the country.

And now the Pac-12 is effectively a corpse. I say this not as a criticism, but an observation. It had been touch and go in the year since USC and UCLA announced their departure to the Big Ten, but the death rattle occurred once Colorado bailed to the Big 12 at the end of July. The conference just couldn’t find the television dollars to sustain a top-tier conference of West Coast college, and so it collapsed. Washington and Oregon followed USC and UCLA to the Big Ten, leaving the Washington State Cougars and Oregon State Beavers to fend for themselves in the hinterlands.

When I stop and think about this, I can work myself up into a pretty good lather of indignation about those I hold responsible, starting with Larry Scott. He was the conference’s commissioner up until two years ago, and I do not care for him even a little bit. In fact, the last time the Huskies went to the Rose Bowl, I wore a T-shirt that read, “Fire Larry Scott.”

The one thing that guy knew how to do was spend money. Under his leadership, the conference relocated from Walnut Creek to downtown San Francisco because … well, I’m not sure why other than the fact it offered the chance to pay through the nose for office space. Then, when every other conference was partnering with established broadcast companies to build conference networks, ol’ Leisure Suit Larry decided to build himself a TV network. From scratch. That actually wasn’t such an entirely bad idea except he couldn’t get DirecTV to carry the channel, which meant that half the houses in the footprint of the conference didn’t have the option of subscribing. Still, that didn’t stop Scott from negotiating the highest salary of any conference commissioner in the country, arguing he should be paid like a TV executive. I didn’t necessarily disagree with that. I just thought he should have been paid like the world’s worst TV executive, and when his departure was announced in June 2021, I thought his severance package should include a stipulation requiring him to eat the network he built, wire by wire.

Scott isn’t the only one culpable, though.

I’m mad at USC and UCLA, too. So self-interested and soulless, so quintessentially SoCal. They bailed on a century’s worth of history, not to mention commonsense geography, effectively screwing their neighbors so they could make the wealthiest conference in the country even wealthier by adding the Los Angeles TV market. That’s what matters these days: TV markets and broadcast windows, but as much as I can’t wait to point out the (literally) hundreds of people who will show up to watch Illinois play UCLA in college football, there was no replacing the revenue the Bruins and Trojans are taking with them.

They were the undisputed Cadillacs of our conference. The two schools that played in the conference’s largest city, with incredible pedigrees and whose uniform colors make for the most aesthetically pleasing college football game in the country each year. But even with those two schools, it was already getting harder for the Pac-12 to matter at the national level. Washington was the last school from the conference to reach the college football playoff, and that was 2016. Eight SEC teams have been chosen for the playoff since then. Six have come from the Big Ten.

When UCLA and USC announced they were leaving, the conference tried to soldier on without them. It made statements of solidarity and commitment. There was talk of adding San Diego State. The new commissioner, George Kliavkoff, said he was confident about negotiating a new television deal, but in the end, the best deal he put together wasn’t better than what the Big 12 was offering Colorado and two weeks after the Buffs left, the Pac-12 flatlined.

I’m mad at USC and UCLA, too. So self-interested and soulless. So quintessentially SoCal.

It’s all enough to make me sniffle. The Pac-12 was not as great as it used to be. Hell, it might not even be that good anymore, but still, it was our conference. The one Bill Walton unerringly referred to as “the conference of champions.” The place where Jackie Robinson played in college, and O.J. Simpson, too.

I was born in Oregon, graduated from high school in California, and went to college at the University of Washington. I love the Pac-12. I love it in spite of the habitually awful officiating and a seemingly league-wide mandate against playing competent defense.

Over this next year, you’re going to hear lots of people say the Huskies and Ducks will be better off having joined a richer conference in the Big 10. They may be right. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, though. In fact, I’m furious. I didn’t want to bail on the Cougars and Beavers the way the Trojans and Bruins bailed on us. I don’t want to play at Minnesota in a league game that will kick off at 10 a.m. Pacific, nor do I want to join a conference that has 16 teams but refuses to change its name.

All of these changes are being driven by the desires of the television networks. None of them are improving my experience as a fan. Washington is going to be part of a conference that includes Maryland and Rutgers, which doesn’t make any geographic sense at all.

I don’t want college football to become NFL Lite. Tradition and history are two of the reasons I love college football, so I’m not excited at all about what comes next. In fact, I feel like I’m preparing for a funeral this season as we watch what will be her final football season. She deserved better than this. 

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