The Pac-12 is Facing a Dire Future Following Mass Exodus
The Pac-12 dubbed itself the “Conference of Champions” for a history of athletic excellence stretching back more than 100 years.
The largest conference out West has dominated Olympic sports, went on an unprecedented run in men's college basketball and has won more national championships than any other league.
Pac-12 alumni include some of the greatest names in sports history: Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tiger Woods and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
“To think even remotely five years ago the Pac-12 would be in this position, it’s unthinkable to think that we’re here today,” Washington State football coach Jake Dickert said.
College sports has gone through monumental shifts in recent years as schools swapped conferences like trading cards.
The demise of the Pac-12 hit like a supernova: a Power Five conference dying in real time.
Southern California and UCLA kickstarted contraction last year by announcing plans to join the Big Ten.
Colorado stirred the winds of change further last week by voting to leave for the Big 12.
The Buffaloes' bolting hastened decisions across the conference, leading to a Friday flurry of five schools defecting within hours of each other: Oregon and Washington to the Big Ten, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah to the Big 12.
Left in the wake are a lame-duck 2023-24 season and a Pac-12 that's down to a Pac-4 of California, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State.
“We are disappointed with the recent decisions by some of our Pac-12 peers,” Washington State President Kirk Schulz and athletic director Pat Chun said in a joint statement. “While we had hoped that our membership would remain together, this outcome was always a possibility.”
Justin Wilcox, the seventh-year coach at Cal and an Oregon graduate, called it shocking.
“This is as big a deal as it gets to be,” he said Sunday. “I grew up around the Pac-10, Pac-12 conference and watching it and fortunate to be a part of it, coached in it for a long time. It’s really sad. From what I know it probably didn’t need to come to this. But things happened along the way. Really unfortunate. Frustrating, there’s some anger there.”
The defections were driven by football — more importantly, the money football generates.
The Big Ten has a seven-year, $7 billion media rights deal with multiple networks and the Big 12 agreed to a $2 billion deal with Fox and ESPN last year.
A long-awaited media rights deal recently presented by Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff apparently wasn't enough to sway the conference's at-the-time nine remaining members. Hours after Pac-12 leaders discussed the deal on Friday, five schools were headed out the door.
“Today’s news is incredibly disappointing for student-athletes, fans, alumni and staff of the Pac-12 who cherish the over 100-year history, tradition and rivalries of the Conference of Champions," the Pac-12 said in a statement. "We remain focused on securing the best possible future for each of our member universities.”
History could be all the Pac-12 has left.
The USC-UCLA rivalry will remain in tact, albeit on a western outpost in a Midwest-based league. Same with Arizona and Arizona State, the long-running Territorial Cup spilling east.
The other rivalries are in doubt.
The Apple Cup may now turn sour, with Washington and Washington State now in different conferences.
The Civil War could be headed toward a stalemate, though Oregon said it will prioritize the long-held traditions, including competition across all sports with Oregon State.
Cal and Stanford's first Big Game will be finding a place to land before resuming their rivalry.
“What this enterprise was built on was regionality and rivalries. That is gone. That is leaving the Pac-12,” Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes told The Oregonian. “Some of the most special pieces about our model is regionality of competition and rivalries. Those things are forgotten.”
Unless the Pac-12 finds a way to salvage its conference, memories will be all that remains.
Founded as the Pacific Coast Conference in 1916, the conference morphed into the Pac-8, then 10, then 12. Through the decades, it became the national championship standard.
Led by its Olympic sports programs, the Pac-12 has won 553 national championships, more than 200 more than the next closest conference.
The conference has led or tied the nation in NCAA championships in 56 of the past 62 years, finishing no worse than third.
The Pac-12 has won 16 national championships in men's college basketball and the women have five. John Wooden led UCLA to 10 national titles in 12 years, including a record seven straight.
Pac-12 football programs have accounted for 10 national championships, 11 Heisman Trophy winners and more than 200 consensus All-Americans.
The conference has been at the forefront of the Olympic movement from inception until now, with 321 current and former athletes accounting for 108 medals at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Star power has been part of the tradition.
Robinson lettered in four sports at UCLA before breaking baseball's color barrier. Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton started their Hall of Fame careers leading Wooden's teams to national titles.
John Elway (Stanford), Marcus Allen (USC) and Aaron Rodgers (Cal) became Super Bowl champions after being Pac-12 stars. Joyner-Kersee ran track at UCLA before running up her Olympic medal count.
Woods and swimmers Katie Ledecky and Jenny Thompson went to Stanford before dominating their sports.
The conference also was the home of Pac-12 After Dark, those wild, high-scoring football games that ran well past midnight Eastern time.
Now the Pac-12 may be going dark, its legacy shifting toward the rearview mirror.