Remembering the Pac-12 conference as realignment does it in

ByRyan McGee ESPN logo
Friday, September 1, 2023

Editor's note: This story was published in August, after the exodus of Pac-12 schools to the Big Ten and Big 12.

Before we get on with the autumn win-loss business that is actual college football, let's pause for a moment -- no, make that a dozen moments -- and pour one out -- no, let's pour 12 out -- for the artist formerly known as the Pac-12 Conference.

What beverage? That's up to you. In Southern California, now Big Ten country, perhaps you'll select a double half-caf mocha oat milk latte ... though, heads-up, your new conferencemates of the Midwest are going have some questions about your non-dairy creamer choices. In the Sonoran Desert, now Big 12 country, you can return your margarita's prickly pear garnish back to the sands from whence it came before some guy in a 10-gallon hat from Lubbock replaces it with a can of Lone Star. And in the Bay Area, now ... um ... I don't know ... Mountain West country? ACC country? Y'all should probably make like melancholy Paul Giamatti in "Sideways" and just pour that 1961 Chteau Cheval Blanc into a Styrofoam soda cup at a burger joint.

But no matter where you live, what you imbibe or which school colors you wear as you dip your toes into the waves of the Pacific, deep down we should all feel like poor Miles as he secretly sipped his fine wine with crinkle fries. Because even if you have no allegiance to the Pac-12 (hang on, sorry, bad choice of words there, because clearly no one has any allegiance to the Pac-12, let me start over) ... because even if you have no ties to a traditional Pac-12 school, you might have some sort of allegiance to the institution of college sports. And even if your blood runneth a Crimson Tide or a Carolina Blue or any other hue that resides well east of the Rockies, the idea of the Pac-12 being vaporized should feel at the very least unsettling and at the very most, sad. Super, super sad.

For nearly 108 years, the conference never seemed like it was on a countdown to its demise. Heck, even its name was a count-up, from the Pacific Coast Conference to the Big 5, Big 6, Pac-8, Pac-10 and that window back in June 2010 when it seemed inevitable it become the Pac-16, snatching Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Colorado from the Big 12. Now, after unraveling a century-plus in one Friday afternoon, it's the Pac-4.

So, in the time we have remaining before the Pac-12 goes the way of Alderaan on July 1, 2024, let's make like the 405 at 5 p.m. and slow down. Take a beat. And before we move forward into a world where UCLA regularly travels to Rutgers for volleyball matches, allow ourselves to glance into the rearview mirror and remember what made the conference and all its Pac-X numeric iterations cooler than UCLA alum Karch Kiraly with his wraparound shades and the bill of his ballcap popped up.

I'm talking about stuff like ...

Matt Barkley vs. Andrew Luck in the LA Coliseum in 2011, as Stanford outlasted USC 56-48 in OT. The 1996 season opener that saw Jake the Snake Plummer and Arizona State running around Brock Huard and Washington to kick a field goal to set the tone for a season that ended with Sun Devils fans filling the parking lots of Pasadena with so many RVs it made the Rose Bowl look like Burning Man. How about the Pac-12's dozen Heisman Trophy winners? How about a shoutout to Jim Plunkett and his Stanford helmet that looked way too small as he threw 1,000 passes per day in practice to convince head coach John Ralston that he wasn't a defensive end ... and then won the Heisman, a Rose Bowl and two Super Bowls. How about watching UCLA QB Mark Harmon, who went 17-5 as a starting QB in the Rose Bowl Stadium on Saturdays and has starred on nearly every other night as a prime-time TV star? Does it get any more Pac-12 than that?

Speaking of the Rose Bowl and TV, sure, we all know the Rose Bowl isn't going away. Neither is TV. That's what's driving this whole realignment chaos. But without the Pac-12 filling half the stadium on our New Year's Day flat-screens, will it ever be the same? The Granddaddy of Them All was concocted in 1902 as the Tournament East-West football game, specifically designed to pit a Pacific Coast team versus a squad who rode a train in from an eastern time zone. Our televisions crackling to life, from black and white to color to 4K UHD, thanks to UCLA blue, USC gold, Washington purple ... you name it, popping against the chroma contrast of rosebushes and a Big Ten opponent. After decades of fighting to preserve that mission, even in the face of the Bowl Alliance, BCS and College Football Playoff, now that goes away. The Apple Cup. Oregon-Oregon State. The Big Game. They could survive. But they might not. The powers that be swear that they are committed to saving the rivalry games, but lest we forget, they are the same folks who a week ago said they were committed to the Pac-12.

Godspeed to #Pac12AfterDark, the hashtag that started as a Twitter (or X or whatever) joke and became a bona fide marketing strategy. That strategy became the place where drunk East Coast college students finished off their pizzas at 2 a.m. and also the place where ranked Pac-12 teams went down like those same college students trying to climb the dorm stairs. Like 2016, when UW thought its CFP hopes had been erased by USC on the banks of Lake Washington. No. 8 Wazzu losing to unranked Cal by 34 points in 2017. Speaking of Cal and Washington, how about Marshawn Lynch and the medical cart?

But let's also not allow ourselves to be like those who run this realignment train and obsess about only football. The Pac-12 was also the kingdom of the Wizard, John Wooden. The realm of Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and their Pyramid of Success that led to 10 national hoops titles, including seven in a row.

Across town, Rod Dedeaux was running the same kind of roughshod over college baseball as USC won 11 College World Series titles with rosters that included Tom Seaver, Dave Kingman and Fred Lynn. The Pac-12 owns 29 CWS titles in all, shared by seven different schools. Think about the 1980s alone, when Stanford and Arizona State and USC would do battle on ballfields for conference titles trotting out the likes of Mike Mussina, Barry Bonds and Randy Johnson. And where would the Women's College World Series be without the Pac-12? Without UCLA and Arizona, the West Coast crucibles where the modern game was forged?

Lisa Fernandez on the mound. Tiger Woods on the tee box. Kerri Walsh Jennings stalking the net. Cheryl Miller. Some guy named Jackie Robinson manning second base.

Roll your eyes at the whole Conference of Champions thing, but the fact of the matter is that the Pac-12 has teamed up to win 553 nattys across all NCAA sports, 254 more than the next conference. And it owns more precious metals than the U.S. Treasury. You might not think you've ever rooted for a Pac-12 athlete, but if you love America, you certainly have cheered for one West Coast college kid at least once every four years. The conference has produced nearly 1,500 Olympians. They won 108 medals at the 2020 Tokyo Games alone.

Will those same schools enjoy the same level of success once they are scattered and covered across the conferences of the United States like a Waffle House special? Maybe. Will the athletes of those schools still lead the parade into the stadiums of every Olympics opening ceremonies going forward? Perhaps. Someone from USC will no doubt win another Heisman Trophy. Teams that once played in the Rose Bowl as a member of the Pac-12 will most certainly return to Pasadena as a representative of the Big 12 or Big Ten.

But it won't be the same. One day it will feel normal. Not to all of us, certainly not to those who still wear title rings earned as a member of the Conference of Champions. But adapting to new normals has become collegiate athletics', well, new normal. However, one of the biggest slices of that new normal pie chart should always carry the label "stuff that we miss."

So, please, take the next year to soak up that Pac-12 sunshine one more time before it is sliced up and shipped off to every corner of the college conference map, stuffed in equipment bags and loaded onto airplanes at LAX and PHX bound for baseball games in College Park and swim meets in Fort Worth.

And someone call my man Gary Tyrrell, aka the Stanford band member who was run over by Cal Bear Kevin Moen at the end of The Play in 1982. Tell him to start warming up. I've never heard "Taps" played on a trombone, and certainly not a bent trombone. But that also feels kind of apropos for this moment, doesn't it? Especially if it is played after dark.

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