Caple: UW leaving Pac-12 is a total bummer — and totally necessary
Aug 4, 2023, 3:44 PM | Updated: 3:46 pm
(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
It takes about two hours to drive from Husky Stadium to Vantage, Wash., a census-designated place in Kittitas County along the Columbia River. This isn’t quite the halfway point between the University of Washington and Washington State University, but it is unofficially so. It’s where you exit Interstate 90 and steer onto Highway 26 toward the Palouse. Maybe you stop there for gas, or to use the restroom. Maybe you just keep driving.
No doubt, you peer out the window to admire the view.
Football tickets are available enough at California that there might not be a need to ascend Tightwad Hill, rising above Memorial Stadium, though it’s fun to spot the freeloaders and surmise their party might be the best in all of Berkeley.
Oregon State plays at one of the smaller stadiums in the Power 5, but for my money, nothing feels more like college football than a pregame meal in Corvallis’ charming downtown, followed by a tromp over wet leaves and through the parking-lot tailgaters.
At both Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Bowl, you know the players you’re watching are competing in the same arena as national champions and Heisman winners and Olympians and sporting pioneers. Ever seen Ralphie run? Ever admired the mountains on a trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium, or speculated about what ridiculousness the Stanford band might invent next, or chewed your nails to the cuticles during the fourth quarter of another Washington nightmare in the desert?
For more than a century — with a slightly varying membership — each corner of the Pac-12 combined to form a league unique in geography and culture. It produced big winners and spectacular losers, piles of passing yards and years of late-night zaniness. It fomented natural rivalries and secondary disputes, each school developing its own history and traditions with every other. It also became enormously flawed, through administrative incompetence and institutional arrogance, and suffered, too, from the sort of apathy and dispassion not present in those power conferences still standing.
There goes Washington.
Here lies the Pac-12.
The deed done after the official announcement. The Huskies are off to the Big Ten, seeking refuge, along with Oregon — and USC and UCLA, which announced their jump 13 months ago — in the superconference that will number 18 schools come next summer. As of this moment, the Pac-12 has seven remaining members, though Arizona, Arizona State and Utah all are more than likely heading for the Big 12.
Perhaps the brand will persist, either via merger or expansion. But a league is more than a logo, and the conference we all loved and hated is effectively dead.
This move will be cause for celebration among some UW fans, and that is understandable. The Big Ten and SEC have established as the two premier conferences, with annual media-rights payments dwarfing those available in the Pac-12 and rabid, engaged fan bases driving that value. UW’s athletic department has bills to pay, and a deficit to make up, and, in the coming years, skyrocketing debt payments on the loans that funded the renovation of Husky Stadium.
It had budgeted for a larger TV contract come 2024-25, after the Pac-12’s current deal expires. With USC and UCLA in the conference, a boost in TV revenue would have been a slam dunk. Without them, not so much. Washington (and, reportedly, Oregon) viewed the deal commissioner George Kliavkoff brought to the conference presidents — heavy on streaming, via Apple TV+, with incentives tied to subscription growth — as simply untenable.
Maybe in the SEC, where fans would do just about anything to see their teams play, the upside of such a gamble would have been worth it. But in the Pac-12? Administrators saw how it went with DirecTV over the past decade-plus. The satellite giant never did carry the Pac-12 Networks — the creation of former commissioner Larry Scott, one of the primary figures responsible for the league’s demise — at least in part because conference fans didn’t raise enough of a stink to force their hand. The Pac-12 encouraged fans to switch providers, to complain to DirecTV, to apply pressure such that the carrier would have no choice but to pick up the network.
That it didn’t happen is perhaps emblematic of West Coast priorities, and not a positive signal that fans would race to purchase Apple’s Pac-12 football package. With a base payment reportedly in the low $20 million range and no significant linear TV presence — and the Big Ten offering stability and far greater revenue, particularly in the future — UW president Ana Mari Cauce had little choice but to steer UW away from its roots.
The UW Board of Regents met in executive session Thursday night. They were briefed on the details of the Pac-12’s proposed deal, and about where things stood with the Big Ten. They adjourned with the situation still fluid, I’m told, but with faith that Cauce would make the right decision. It couldn’t have been easy. Cauce cherishes the school’s alignment with Stanford and California — not to mention regional ties with rival Washington State — and, I assume, would have preferred to hold the Pac-12 together, or at least not abscond without the others.
After USC and UCLA decided to leave the conference, Gene Block, UCLA’s chancellor, felt badly enough about the bombshell that he emailed Cauce directly, writing: “I wanted to send you a personal note to express my sincere apologies that I was unable to share information with you before the public announcement. I am truly sorry about this.” Cauce’s colleagues couldn’t have been quite so blindsided — reports indicate Cauce and Oregon president John Karl Scholz broke the news during a Pac-12 CEO Group meeting Friday morning — but I wonder if she’s penning similar messages today.
What happens to the Apple Cup? I know there is a strong desire at Washington for the game to continue, though it seems unlikely it would be played the final week of the season. What happens to Washington State, generally? Ship them and Oregon State to the Mountain West and call it good?
It’s not that simple.
WSU and OSU earn and spend at a far lower level than their peers, yes, but they’ve nevertheless staffed and invested to compete in the Power 5. That money simply won’t be there in the Mountain West, assuming that’s where those programs end up. It’s a shame to think that schools like WSU were encouraged and encouraged and encouraged to spend and spend and spend, to upgrade facilities and take on significant debt, all in the name of keeping up with their better-resourced colleagues. Now they’re left holding the bag, and it’s hard to see how it won’t end up costing a lot of people their livelihoods.
You can bet there are many sighs of relief — and much fist-pumping — in the UW football offices today. The Huskies are about to secure their future in the richest conference in college athletics. They will, in the coming years, play prime-time games on major networks against opponents like Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State and Wisconsin, and while they are expected to enter the league with only a partial media-rights share, they will eventually bathe beneath the same cash faucet as the aforementioned bluebloods. That means more resources to retain coaches, recruit star players and renovate facilities, and, perhaps, greater freedom to direct donor money toward name-image-likeness efforts.
Given the events of the past week or so, Washington landing in the Big Ten is the best possible outcome. It is, objectively, a necessity.
It also completely stinks, and has effectively rendered the 2023 season a Pac-12 farewell tour.
If you’re able, park in the groves at Stanford and crack open your favorite merlot. Maybe pour a little out, while you’re at it.
Hoist a pint at Dirtbag’s on your way out of Tucson.
Make the drive to Corvallis and take in the new Reser Stadium.
Curse Larry Scott and George Kliavkoff and the conference presidents who enabled them.
Resent Fox and ESPN for destroying the sport you fell in love with as a child. Wonder why the Big Ten even needed USC and UCLA in the first place. Should it suit you, say a prayer that this realignment cycle does not decimate the athletic programs at the unfortunate schools stuck in The Upside Down.
There will be ample time to look forward to the future, and to Washington as a nationally relevant football program with bulging administrative pockets and marquee opponents lining the schedule.
For now, it feels more appropriate to mourn what the Huskies are leaving behind, and hope that not every tradition exists only in the rearview mirror.
This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.