Mostly, what's happened within the league is what's happened with the world: it's shrunk.
At midnight Thursday, the odometer clicked to July 1, and presto, it was the Pacific 12 Conference. The initiation was over, and Utah and Colorado became members of the fraternity.
To think, it’s been 33 years since the league last changed, outstripping everything except the Ivy League for stability. The year the conference last expanded, Jack Thompson was the all-league quarterback, Manu Tuiasosopo made it at defensive tackle and Kenny Easley was the obvious choice at safety.
Back then, as always, the league rounded up a group of 50 or 60 press and radio guys, the Pac-10 Skywriters. We barnstormed from school to school in August, writing about their football outlook by day, trying to stay upright by night. They gave us blue windbreakers that said “Pac-10 Conference,” under which was a cool, stitched advisory: “The First Year.”
They didn’t hand out any windbreakers last fall noting “The Last Year,” because there’s no Skywriters anymore. Nor is there all the clumsy electronic equipment we had to pack around to file stories. Then, there were barely computers. Wi-Fi in the press box? We’d have killed for it.
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The embroidery on those windbreakers was small and subtle, kind of a metaphor for how the league has changed. Now it’s burst forth with the biggest college TV contract, is poised to announce its own network, and is going to market itself in Asia.
Mostly, what’s happened within the league is what’s happened with the world: it’s shrunk. A disparate conference of distant cities is somehow more negotiable.
My first recollection of the Pac-10 came when Arizona State, the fast, glitzy team that had dominated the WAC, played its first league game, which was also the first in the conference for Jim Walden at Washington State. WSU won, 51-26, which might be a cautionary tale for Utah.
You think the BCS is screwed up? That first year of the Pac-10, the national debate was between USC and Alabama, two one-loss teams. Except ‘Bama’s loss was administered by USC. In Birmingham. By 10 points. In a what-were-they-thinking moment, the writers gave the AP vote to Alabama, while the coaches sided — correctly, you’d have to say — with the Trojans.
Back then, Washington was just beginning a long, glorious run under coach Don James. If that’s what’s to come in the next decade or so, the Huskies would take it.
In the last third of a century, nobody changed like Oregon. The Ducks went from the bread lines to high tea with the queen. Of course, nobody outside of Bill Bowerman had heard of Phil Knight in 1978.
Nobody inspired conversation like USC. The Trojans went to 12 Rose Bowls, fired four straight coaches, and near the end of the 33 years, turned bitter at the heavy NCAA sanctions over Reggie Bush.
That was the last of three major scandals of the Pac-10. The first was the infamous bogus-credits academic scam that swept the country, and especially the West. In 1980, The Seattle Times ran “Eligible” and “Ineligible” divisions of the football standings. (The scofflaws, if you’re scoring at home, were USC, UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona State.)
The next big uproar, of course, was the Huskies’ thunderous probation following three straight Rose Bowls in the early ’90s. If it was mishandled by the Pac-10, it was thoroughly mangled by Washington’s own administration.
Meanwhile, Arizona is still searching. The Wildcats have never been to a Rose Bowl, and they’ve never had a first-team all-league quarterback.
In basketball, what we suspected back in 1978 came true: Nobody was going to replace John Wooden. But Lute Olson at Arizona and Mike Montgomery at Stanford came to approach legendary status.
Nothing reflects the evolution of the Pac-10 era like women’s sports. Thirty-three years ago, they weren’t even governed by the NCAA. They came under the heading of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
Money issues were, and are, prominent. Back then, people wondered how Oregon, Oregon State and WSU could make it in the Pac-10 (now a lot of people would prefer Knight quit writing checks). Today, perhaps the most stunning element of commissioner Larry Scott’s revolution is the implementation of equally-shared TV revenue, as much a philosophical as a fiscal statement.
So is this a good thing, Colorado and Utah? People are still debating whether the newbies actually add anything financially, now that there are a dozen shares. One administrator at a school outside the league maintained to me last year that Scott only took on Colorado under the assumption he was going to get Texas.
Whatever. In college athletics’ acquisitive climate of 2011, the two not only enable a league-championship football game, but they’re academic and philosophical fits.
Imagine: The Pac-12 … the first year.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org