Defections change sports landscape, undermine rivalries
In a way, the demise of the Pac-12 athletic conference is like the loss of a good friend. And an old friend.
For all my years on this earth there has been a Pacific Athletic Conference in one of its iterations. Indeed, for 108 years there has been an association of prominent West Coast colleges and universities bound together by the common interest of intercollegiate competition.
It seemed to be a commitment, an unbreakable bond in an exclusive club, only to be joined through special invitation with unique qualifications rooted in academic excellence, regional significance and athletic standing.
The University of Washington, University of California at Berkley, University of Oregon and Oregon State University first came together to form the Pacific Coast Conference in 1915. Those four were joined in 1917 by The State College of Washington (now Washington State University). In 1918 Stanford University was added, followed by the University of Southern California in 1922. UCLA in 1928 completed what became the Pac-8.
The Pac-8 lasted for 50 years before its expansion in 1978 to include the University of Arizona and Arizona State University to form the Pac-10. The University of Utah and University of Colorado, Boulder, were added in 2011 to complete the modern day 12-member alliance.
Those annexations to the conference didn’t happen without significant vetting, discussion, and the unanimous consent of all the current members.
But, as time has passed, conference alliance and tradition have fallen victim to the addiction of money, which is to say it is all about football.
And now there are four. Like hangers-on still hopefully lingering when everyone else has left the party, only Oregon State, Washington State, Cal/Berkely and Stanford remain after defections that started with USC and UCLA defying geographical sense by decamping to the Big 10, and concluded with Washington and Oregon joining them as the West Coast component of what is now the Big 16 or 18 or 20, depending on the day. In between, the Arizonas, Utah and Colorado bolted.
And with them went a lot of powerful, personal connections.
I first met Todd at Everett Community College’s Paine Field branch, while enrolled in the Park Ranger Law Enforcement Academy. Todd had recently graduated from the University of Washington, but we decided to partner up for the Washington State Park Ranger class of 1982’s three-week training session anyway. It was probably proof that as seasonal park aides with Washington State Parks, we were just poor and hungry enough to do anything for a full-time job.
After graduating from the academy, he went back to his Hood Canal area park at Scenic Beach and I headed for eastern Washington’s Potholes for the summer. I never felt it was merely coincidence that we would reunite as working partners just two years later at Deception Pass in July 1984.
It was that fall that “The Bet” began. This year will be the 40th renewal of our annual Apple Cup wager. The first payoff was a six-pack of Rainier Ale. I was kind of cocky, my WSU Cougars having knocked the Huskies out of the Rose Bowl each of the previous two years. We both traveled, separately, across the state to Pullman with our respective fiancés to witness the first of my many losses to come.
We got married about six weeks apart. We have shared a number of experiences, “The Bet” lasting through children, the Cascade Curtain, blowouts and nail-biters, transfers, promotions, and our annual conversation:
Todd: “Are we on for this year?”
Me: “Why, are you waffling?”
Todd: “I’m not. I just wanna know. I’ll take a merlot. It’s close to purple.”
Me: “Not so fast, I’ll take a nice crimson (OK, a rose).”
“The Bet” was even once mentioned in a Seattle Times article during Apple Cup Week a number of years ago, along with other goofy bets like the loser dressing in the winning apparel, singing the winning fight song and other forms of public humiliation that only a good spirited, longstanding rivalry can provide.
It’s also been very much an even competition, more than a few times with big stuff on the line: Rose Bowl trips and conference championships, the mythical “Northwest Championship” (concocted by then-UW coach Rick Neuhiesel), 365 days of bragging rights and, since 1962, The Apple Cup.
Some years, like 2008, the game was characterized by a desperate need for a win. The loser would be the worst team in the PAC that year. It was an Apple Cup that had ESPN.com’s Ted Miller writing, “to call this game a train wreck would be a disservice to train wrecks.” For the record, WSU won this game to finish the year at 2-10, the Huskies at 0-12.
Web of connections
All of that may have come crashing down in one big Apple flambe when the Ducks and Huskies threw in their fortunes with fly-over land.
The “realignment” of conference affiliations began more than a decade ago with the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and Big Ten growing from reasonably sized, single-division conferences to large, split-division conferences, preying upon other conferences.
Long-time rivalries and connections were what held conferences together. As I thought about things related to the sudden breakup of the Pac-12, it struck me that I have a personal connection to all 12 schools in the conference. Those connections start in Pullman and radiate out, many of them right here in the Methow Valley.
It started with the Washington State College, where my parents met at some sort of function in 1954. For myself, my spouse and a whole lot of other relatives, WSU is our legacy school. Once a Coug, always a Coug.
There are as many possible solutions for the four remaining institutions, none of them appearing to provide the same luster. The effect on regional rivalries, however, is more than significant. It’s pretty much devastating.
For longtime sports enthusiast, golf course operator, and classy Husky fan Bart Northcott, it is utter disappointment. “It’s a real shame,” he said in a conversation at the Bear Creek clubhouse recently. “All of that tradition is gone now. The Apple Cup game is meaningless. It’s sad to see what college football has become.”
Peter Fitzmaurice echoed Northcott’s thoughts, maybe with a little more sarcastic tone. “Isn’t it quaint to have thought that longtime rivalries and league affiliations mattered?” he rhetorically inquired. “The Big Game is always special,” he continued, reflecting back on his first couple of years at Stanford in 1970 and ’71. Stanford won the old Pac 8 both years, playing in the ’71 and ’72 Rose Bowls.
Even if the conference survives and evolves, the Apple Cup has been emptied of significance. No longer will a Rose Bowl berth hinge on the winner. It is unlikely that the UW will want to play WSU in late November, just before the Big 10 conference championship and a bowl game at the risk of injury. More likely the game will be relegated to a September Saturday as a tune-up to conference play, essentially an exhibition game.
For this lifetime Cougar, the Apple Cup memories are both fond and frustrating. I remember 1981, sitting high up in the Husky Stadium horseshoe. It was a day where maybe, just maybe, things will fall our way in the Apple Cup and the Cougs will get to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1930 season. In the third quarter, news came from Los Angeles that USC had beaten UCLA and the Rose Bowl would go to the Apple Cup winner. It wasn’t to be for the Cougs that day, but a new world of possibility heightened the intensity of the game just another notch.
It would be another 16 years (1997) before that dream would come true. I watched from my Twin Lakes living room with my wife and two kids, and teared up when my brother called, and cried when speaking to my dad a moment later (the previous Cougar Rose Bowl was a year before he was born). Todd presented me with two bottles of wine to celebrate that auspicious win.
Almost parenthetically, just five years later, I sat with my dad on the 15-yard line at the 2003 Rose Bowl, watching our Cougs play Oklahoma in the “Grandaddy” of them all, a phrase coined by 1954 Cougar grad Keith Jackson. I was hoping for the chance to sit at the Rose Bowl someday, with my Cougar son, and watch our Cougars play there, one more time on New Year’s Day. It looks, now, like that possibility has evaporated, into the memories of what once was.