Looking back at the Pac-12: Good, bad, magical and mirthful

The forerunner to the Pacific-12 Conference was formed in 1915, and contrary to some belief, I wasn’t outside that meeting room, yelling “Gimme rewrite!” into a phone.

A little later, though, I did cover 45 years’ worth of Pac-8/10/12 goings-on. I saw inspiring and awful football (does a scoreless tie do anything for you?), rousing and putrid basketball, and along the way, a sideshow of happenings that both dropped your jaw and touched off a guffaw.

In 2011, I had lunch with Brock Huard, the former Washington quarterback now a TV analyst and radio talk-show host. Larry Scott, the fledgling Pac-12 commissioner, had hours earlier completed a 12-year, $3-billion TV deal for the league, and we agreed that it was a shockingly bold move forward for the league.

Today, it’s staggering that before that contract is even up, the Pac-12 has been carpet-bombed. Any attempt to regenerate it will be a tawdry imitation.

So I don’t think it’s jumping the gun to offer up half a century of random recollections, with an accent on the lighter moments. (Apologies to Utah and Colorado, whom I wasn’t around enough to form much of an impression. My prevailing memory of Utah is that it’s where WSU’s Mike Leach emerged after a 49-6 loss in 2012 and then ordered his linemen to come out and explain it. It was then up to us to explain Leach.)


Desert Swarm, what a defense. You had as good a chance of running through razor wire . . . Dick Tomey, the ‘Zona coach, great guy and somebody who wasn’t afraid to have his teams be stylistically different. In the interest of facts, however, it must be pointed out that Arizona has never had the first-team All-Pac-12/10 quarterback, and it’s getting late . . . Hoops? Lute Olson’s bulging portfolio doesn’t make for an easy distill, but he flew into Birmingham in 1997 for a Sweet 16 game and was greeted by a Paul Finebaum column that did everything but set Olson’s home on fire and torture his dog. Said he was a lousy coach but he wouldn’t be long for the regional, anyway, since he was playing Kansas. Then the Wildcats went out and won their first of three games against NCAA No. 1 seeds and captured a national championship.

Arizona State

Wacko, disheveled Bill Frieder, the ASU basketball coach, calling Pullman “a dump” in print; getting $5,000 stolen from his hotel room in Eugene and then unsuccessfully trying the next year to interview the thief for his TV show; and teaming with Arizona’s Olson for a series of irresistible TV ads promoting their programs . . . Frank Kush, who ran Arizona State football like a North Korean gulag, saying that “I treat my players all the same: terrible.” One of them once alleged that “he hit me with pipes, boards and a ship’s rope.” . . . Jake the Snake Plummer, making magic with the 1996 team that came within a minute in the Rose Bowl of the national title . . . J.R. Redmond, the Sun Devil running back, who, after accepting NCAA-improper benefits in the form of cellphone calls from a part-time employee in the ASU athletic department, was advised by her that to make it allowable, he needed to marry her. So he did . . . Pat Tillman, from a linebacker to an Army Ranger toting a rifle in Afghanistan, an inspiring story – spoiled only by the revelation that the government tried to conceal details of his death by friendly fire.


Ah, the joys of Tightwad Hill, even as the cannon exploding startles your seven-month-old from a deep sleep . . . I recall standing in befuddled amazement over a wire machine in our sports department on a November Saturday evening in 1982 as it zipped out a tortured description of The Play, the most famous choreography in college football history. When the Pac-10 Skywriters visited Berkeley the next fall, Cal passed out gold T-shirts commemorating it, musical notes signifying where the laterals – and the ultimate collision with a trombone – took place . . . listening on that Skywriters tour to Joe Kapp, the ultimate Golden Bear, wax fervently about how Memorial Stadium is the best in the country, and hearing the tentative voice of prim veteran Joe Hendrickson of the Pasadena Star-News interrupt from the front row, “Joe, what about the Rose Bowl?” . . .   the Straw Hat Band blaring in pre-remodel Harmon Gym days . . . Kapp, in his final season as Cal coach, entertaining a question after an unseemly loss at Washington and unzipping his pants as his answer.


Believe it or not, before a torrent of cash flowed down Interstate-5 from Beaverton, Duck assistant coaches in the 1970s used to stage position meetings in the tunnels leading into Autzen Stadium, diagramming plays in chalk on the walls . . . not only the facilities, but the teams were pretty pedestrian; in the mid-‘70s, the Ducks introduced themselves at a home opener with a 5-0 loss to San Jose State, and the next week, the new Oregon president Bill Boyd said, “I’d rather be whipped in a public square than watch a game like that.” He probably wasn’t humored by Oregon’s home game a few years later against Fresno State, when the Ducks fell, 10-4 . . . in Rich Brooks’ second game of an 18-year run at Oregon in 1977, against TCU in Fort Worth, Duck safety Kenny Bryant intercepted at the Oregon 3-yard line, set sail for what was going to be a 97-yard return, and was waylaid by a Horned Frog player – off the bench. Bryant was awarded a touchdown . . . Brooks experienced a slow start reviving Oregon, and in the early ‘80s, a one-win Air Force team came to town late in October, beat the Ducks with a wishbone quarterback from Eugene and a Portland TV guy, Ed Whelan, thrusts a mic in Brooks face afterward and asks, “Coach, does this mean your program has reached the bottom of the barrel?” . . . with funds scarce – and Phil Knight concentrating on his own fledgling company – and Oregon rains leading some folks to conclude the weather is crucial in poor attendance, a proposal makes the rounds to dome Autzen Stadium with wood . . . but in 1994, Kenny Wheaton steps in front of an “out” pass thrown by Washington’s Damon Huard, hijacks it and runs 97 yards for a game-clinching touchdown. A few weeks later, the Ducks are in the Rose Bowl, and soon, Knight’s checkbook can’t get enough of the Ducks . . . A triple-double machine, point guard Sabrina Ionescu helped fill the Oregon and OSU arenas in a rousing rivalry, becoming the first player in the 2020 WNBA draft … in the early ‘70s, Steve Prefontaine’s running feats and his feisty persona became legendary, before his death at 24 in an auto accident in Eugene.

Oregon State

With football-revenues lagging and Title IX in place, the OSU baseball program was on the chopping block, an enterprise that surely wouldn’t survive the ‘70s. Except somehow it did, and it won three NCAA titles in the 21st century … Dee Andros’ vaunted football program enjoys perhaps its greatest year in 1968, beating two No. 2-ranked teams before taking down top-ranked USC and O.J. Simpson in the mud in Corvallis, 3-0 . . .  dogged by the echoes of racial problems and top-shelf assistants trickling away, Andros’ program falls into ruin. But the Great Pumpkin still puts on a roaring, rollicking show at the Civil War luncheons, bellowing, “We will leave no stone untouched to try to beat the Ducks.” … Joe Avezzano, who had a 6-47-2 record at OSU, campaigns to keep his job after a 0-0 tie with Oregon in 1984, and it works … After an NCAA-record 28 straight losing seasons, the Beavers finally get it right, courtesy of Mike Riley and Dennis Erickson … Ralph Miller, renowned for smoking cigarettes and barking orders at practice from a courtside folding chair, pieces together spare parts and underrecruited prospects and assembles a basketball team ranked No. 1 for eight straight weeks in 1981 … before that, the OSU-Oregon rivalry sizzles, and in 1974, Oregon hoops coach Dick Harter intentionally trips an OSU male cheerleader . . . a few weeks prior, OSU scissors UCLA’s 50-game Pac-8 basketball winning streak and less than 24 hours later, Oregon completes a state sweep of the Bruins.

Southern Cal

  John McKay had those juggernaut teams, and when he was asked once if he had given the ball too much to O.J. Simpson, he said, “Why not? It’s not that heavy.” … McKay took one of those powerhouses to Birmingham in 1970, and after Sam Cunningham had shredded the Crimson Tide for 135 yards on 12 carries in a three-touchdown victory, the legendary Bear Bryant said he knew ‘Bama would now be recruiting black athletes . . . but the ‘80s augured a generation-long period when the Trojans couldn’t get it right in football, firing four consecutive coaches before a magical run under Pete Carroll . . . in the 2006 Rose Bowl game against Texas – considered by some the best college game ever – Carroll leaves Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush off the field on a pivotal, late fourth-and-two play that comes up short, denying USC a third straight national title. It provides a haunting prelude to the 2015 Super Bowl, when his Seahawks lose the honor of back-to-back championships on a final-minute interception from the New England one-yard line . . . years before any of that, Simpson becomes destined to live in pop-culture infamy forever as the passenger in a white Bronco headed to surrender in a double-murder case . . . AP voters embarrass themselves in their final 1978 vote, naming Alabama No. 1 and USC No. 2, despite identical records – and USC’s 10-point win over the Tide in Birmingham . . . the Trojan band sustains a long tradition of driving opponent crowds berserk with its incessant “Tribute to Troy.” . . . in basketball, USC played for decades at the Sports Arena, in a neighborhood so rough media people were escorted by security to their cars after games.


The Stanford band, which, if all were right with the world, would be enough for the Cardinal to name its destination in the realignment age. Among its credits: A sketch on the Ford Pinto, complete with exploding gas tank; a parody of O.J. Simpson on his infamous ride in a white Ford Bronco; banned in Oregon for a performance that mocked a controversy between logging interests and spotted-owl preservationists (complete with a chain saw); and, in homage to its opponent, Brigham Young, a ceremony in which the band manager proposed, one by one, to several members of the Stanford dance team, while the band announcer intoned about the sanctity of marriage as “between a man and a woman, and a woman, and a woman.” . . . deafening nights in Maples Pavilion, where Mike Montgomery’s teams engaged in a roaring rivalry with Arizona . . . tailgates among the eucalyptus trees outside Stanford Stadium, a scene about as unlike the average college bacchanal as you can get . . . Amid an investigation of NCAA violations by Washington, Bill Walsh, the erudite Cardinal coach, lets fly at a 1993 Sacramento luncheon and calls Washington’s players “mercenaries,” who “have almost no contact with the rest of the student body,” perhaps forgetting the UW was his first opponent that season . . . Katie Ledecky left Stanford holding six American records on the way to seven Olympic gold medals and a pedestal as the best female swimmer in history.


In 1983, I sat directly across from fifth-year senior Rick Neuheisel at a luncheon table on the Pac-10 Skywriters, and heard the story of his walking on with the Bruins (picking them because he figured poor passing stats provided the best chance of playing), and when the season was out, he was Rose Bowl MVP. He, and we, would have a lot of other Neuheisel stories to tell decades later . . . nothing like having UCLA as a 25-1 shot to win the Rose Bowl, via an August wager at a Nevada casino (don’t tell anybody), and being on the field in Pasadena on Jan. 1, 1994 as the favored Bruins struggle back from a deficit against Wisconsin, get into the red zone in the final minute for the would-be winning score, and quarterback Wayne Cook, on the last play of the game, takes – wait for it – a sack . . . an innocent, Sunday-night call to the home of Bruins coach Bob Toledo in 2002, seeking a response to Neuheisel’s insinuation of dirty recruiting by UCLA and Oregon, gets this rejoinder: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. We never had a problem in this conference until he started talking about negative recruiting.” On a recruit in question, Toledo said Neuheisel was telling him Toledo was going to get fired, to which Toledo said he told the recruit, “If I get fired, Rick Neuheisel will be the first one to apply.” . . . in four different Olympics, Bruins alumna Jackie Joyner-Kersee wins three golds in the heptathlon and long jump . . . John Wooden’s teams rule college basketball for a dozen years, and when he retires early in 1975, he picks up the phone readily at his house to talk about the shortfall of the teams succeeding him . . . Tyus Edney goes coast-to-coast in 4.8 seconds in the 1995 NCAA second round against Missouri, a harrowing escape on the way to an 11th UCLA national title.


Hugh McElhenny states his case for being among the all-time greatest backs, college and pro, and years after he had departed Washington and signed an NFL contract, he said he took a pay cut . . . I witness Oregon beating the Huskies, 58-0, in 1973 and Washington beating the Ducks, 66-0, the next …  Jim Owens, whose program augured an awakening in West Coast football at the start of the ‘60s, runs afoul of racial strife and societal upheaval and bows out of the UW in the mid-‘70s, giving way to a quiet colossus in Don James … in 1984, the Huskies beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, thanks in part to a delay-of-game penalty on the Sooner Schooner covered wagon …. In 1991, Huskies unleash on the game defensive tackle Steve Emtman, among the very best in the conference’s 108 years … James’ regime begins unraveling with quarterback Billy Joe Hobert’s NCAA-improper $50,000 loan from an engineer in Idaho … UW student-athlete Olin Kreutz, a UW center, goes off early to the NFL with this parting shot delighting Upper Campus: “Everybody talks about school, but we want to be football players. We really don’t want to do school.” … Rick Neuheisel takes the Huskies to a Rose Bowl, gets fired after taking part in a high-stakes NCAA-tournament pool, and in his wrongful-termination trial against the Huskies and the NCAA, his cellphone rings while he’s on the witness stand … Softball’s Danielle Lawrie demonstrates to a group of media folks how hard it is to hit her pitches, something she showed the field in leading UW to the 2009 NCAA title . . . Kelsey Plum leaves Washington as the NCAA’s women’s hoops scoring queen with 3,397 points . . . Jimmy Lake downplays any recruiting rivalry with Oregon, saying, “We battle more academically prowess (sic) teams.”

Washington State

Terry Smith, a WSU student, comes out of the stands at Spokane’s Albi Stadium in 1970 and tackles Stanford running back Eric Cross in a 63-16 Stanford victory … a 2-7-1 Cougar team, a 17-point underdog at home, marks the first Apple Cup in Pullman in 28 years in 1982, derailing Washington’s Rose Bowl plans. Ecstatic students tear down the goal posts, haul them downtown and deposit them in the Palouse River … with quarterback Ryan Leaf, coach Mike Price’s team breaks a 67-year Rose Bowl drought in ’97, and goes to Pasadena again five years later … After WSU, Mark Hendrickson becomes one of 13 all-time to play both major-league baseball and in the NBA … football takes a dreadful turn in the regime of Paul Wulff, who goes 9-41 in four years, including a 69-0 home loss to USC in which Pete Carroll’s team takes a knee in the red zone before halftime. Yet the Cougars delight in a double-overtime defeat of the Huskies in 2008 as Washington goes 0-12 . . . Mike Leach brings his own brand of iconoclasm as WSU coach, and two victories over USC. After the second one, amid a wild celebration on the field on a Friday night in Pullman, Leach tells a national TV audience, “It’s like Woodstock, except everybody has their clothes on.” . . . and for jilted Cougar fans, these 1987 words to live by from Dennis Erickson, the day after a heated loss at Washington. Erickson said the calendar would remind him of the days remaining until he again played the Huskies. “And I’ll count every one of them,” he vowed. “I’m going to ask myself, ‘What did I do as a football coach to beat the Huskies?’ “