A little belatedly, LA schools will get their cash
If you’re trying to lasso some perspective on Thursday’s cataclysmic news of USC and UCLA bolting for the Big Ten Conference, you need go no further than the Pac-12’s own football media guide, where it lists annual standings. There, you’ll find that in 1922, USC was first part of the conference. That’s exactly a century ago. It’s a mere two years after the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
It’s breathtaking, shocking, mind-bending and so, so . . . wrong.
Yeah, this is the old guy’s view, the one forged on the notion that regional collegiality meant something, that old rivalries counted, that the Pac-12 was somehow insulated from the warped geography of today’s college alliances. So now UCLA is supposed to send some of Jackie Robinson’s artifacts to the Big Ten’s trophy case? Does that iconic photo of Lew Alcindor towering over everybody, rejecting a shot, now belong in the Big Ten conference office in Rosemont, Ill.? Do we insert Marcus Allen’s and O.J. Simpson’s season rushing totals on a conference list that includes Red Grange?
Once, it was about whom the Pac-12 (or Pac-10) could annex, as in the push to lure Texas and Texas A&M. That was so 2010.
Suddenly, it’s who just left.
How did we get here?
I thumbed back through some news accounts from the fall of 2010. The Pac-10’s stab at Texas and Texas A&M had failed months earlier, it had settled on adding Colorado and Utah, and now the issues were: How to form two divisions, and how to split revenue. Cleverly, while the league placed Cal and Stanford in the North, it stipulated that those schools would play the LA schools annually. And somehow, the LA schools were convinced to abandon a revenue-sharing plan that had traditionally favored them. Bill Moos, then the Washington State athletic director, pushed hard for it, supported by the other Northwest ADs.
A paragraph from something I wrote in the Seattle Times in September of 2010 flashes in neon today: “Mike Garrett, the former USC athletic director, always held out the implied threat that the Trojans could bail on the Pac-10 if it implemented equally shared revenue. Could that happen?”
Somehow, Larry Scott, who had taken over as Pac-10 commissioner only a year before, persuaded the LA schools the arrangement could work – probably because a new media-rights deal was coming in 2011, and after that, his pet project, the Pac-12 Networks. The league would be the land of milk and honey.
Well, we all know how that turned out. While we might have thought Scott was just mucking up some cosmetic details in governing the conference – things like officiating and extravagance in operations – it turns out he may have torpedoed the entire ship. It would be a load to pin this entirely on Scott, but it’s indisputable that things like his misjudgment of Pac-12 Networks’ revenue and the fiasco of never reaching agreement with DirecTV were gut punches.
Meanwhile, it’s ironic – and perhaps significant– that in the decade-plus since the Pac-10 expanded, USC and UCLA were hardly burnishing their brands. USC mostly lurched through Steve Sarkisian’s personal problems and the forgettable Clay Helton era, and UCLA had a composite conference football record of 16-27 from 2016-2020. For much of that time, they’ve been afterthoughts in the LA market, especially with the return of the NFL there. So they’re like the homeowners who let the grass grow out of control, allowed the siding to decay and the roof to leak, and still got invited to join the Street of Dreams.
Big picture, fans have squirmed over night games and belated release of TV times. Football has tilted toward becoming a studio sport, away from the live experience and instead toward the attractiveness of the matchup in the living room. I’m not sure Purdue or Illinois coming to the Coliseum moves the needle in LA, but that doesn’t matter anymore. What does is TV ratings. As Rick Neuheisel, who has his own healthy piece of Pac-12 history playing and coaching, told KJR radio in Seattle Thursday, “Television has ruined the day.”
As for what’s next, it’s logical to think that Washington and Oregon will sniff out interest in the new Big Ten, and vice versa. In that vein, for fans of schools like Washington State and Oregon State, what just happened registers somewhere between disheartening and devastating. The best outcome appears to lie in a sort of merger with the Big Ten, which seems unlikely, or perhaps with the Big 12.
Could the Pac-12 survive without USC and UCLA but retaining Washington and Oregon? Maybe, but all of a sudden it becomes tougher for the Northwest schools to recruit in LA. If ever there were a time to think creatively, this is it: Maybe you consider Gonzaga, which would provide a nationally appealing basketball brand (but obviously, no football). Maybe you surrender to the consistent football profile of Boise State and San Diego State and invite them.
For WSU, and for Oregon State and Oregon B.P. (Before Phil), there was always a place as sturdy underdog fighting the good fight, making do with less, a counter to those schools blessed with population and weather and a more gilded path. For decades, that was a workable social contract. In a cash-driven age, the crushing likelihood is, that no longer flies.
It happened so swiftly. Late Thursday afternoon, the outbound were already issuing statements. Said USC athletic director Mike Bohn, “The Trojans’ outstanding athletic heritage will always be synonymous with the Pac-12 . . .”
Right. Until it isn’t.