Each Friday night this season, Ted Robinson pulled out a bottle of Jameson whiskey. The Pac-12 Network play-by-play veteran didn’t want his crew — wherever they may have been gathered for a game that week — to forget what was being left behind.
They did shots together on those Fridays because the next day would bring their occupational existences to an end as the conference moved one step closer to its expiration.
“This year,” Robinson told CBS Sports, “was going to be an Irish wake for us.”
Irish wakes are a centuries-old tradition of honoring the deceased with one last party in their honor. Robinson merely added a realignment twist. A once-glorious conference was dying and deserved a proper memorial.
No. 5 Oregon and No. 3 Washington meet Friday night in what will be the final Pac-12 Championship Game. Scattered to the four winds will be 108 years of tradition. The league started in 1915 with a consolidation of four West Coast schools: Cal, Washington, Oregon and Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State).
It ends with all the sadness and mourning any wake would imply — along with that shot of whiskey.
“You go to an Irish wake and no one is crying and no one is maudlin,” Robinson explained. “Everybody is telling stories, trying their best to smile while remembering the departed. You try to remember good things about them. And yeah, you have a little drink with it, too.”
Some deaths are expected. In this case, it has been 18 months since news broke of USC and UCLA intending to join the Big Ten. For some, those 1 ½ years have only slightly numbed the initial pain. In fact, the end has come in a series of atomic-level shockwaves.
There was a year-long quest to land a new, lucrative television deal in efforts to salvage the conference. Those efforts failed. Colorado’s decision to leave for the Big 12 then caused a domino effect. When Oregon and Washington announced they, too, would be joining the Big Ten alongside USC and UCLA in 2024, that gave Arizona, Arizona State and Utah cause to join Colorado in the Big 12.
The inevitable Irish wake had begun.
The official end comes July 1, 2024, at the end of the academic year. More importantly, that date also marks the expiration of the league’s current TV contract. But there is some sort of unofficial finality this week with the league’s biggest revenue sport (football) going out with a combination of glory and tragedy.
Glory in that this was arguably the Pac-12’s best football season. Tragedy in that it didn’t also have to be the Pac-12’s final season.
“It just doesn’t seem natural does it?” said Tom Hansen, the league’s commissioner from 1983-2009.
This account isn’t meant to be a recounting of grievances. If nothing else, this is for the rank and file who will soon be looking for jobs. League presidents reportedly approved a retention plan in September to make sure events were properly staffed for the media partners at the Pac-12 Networks, ESPN and Fox.
We already know the Pac-12 could have been saved. It collapsed because of a cascading chain of failures over the years.
These are the Pac-12’s last days. This is meant to be a dignified wake. The Jameson is optional.
NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day
The Pac-12 failed to secure a conference-saving TV deal under the direction of commissioner George Kliavkoff. USATSI
Cal and Stanford will soon be playing in the ACC, a conference centered around Tobacco Road. The Big Ten Network will be doing a feature on “Big Ten Legend: Pete Carroll.” (Don’t laugh; shortly after scooping up Nebraska, Tom Osborne’s Big Eight/12 accomplishments were co-opted for similar Big Ten legend status.) There are no immediate plans to keep playing the rivalry game between Oregon and Oregon State.
While the Huskies and Ducks face off in the last Pac-12 Championship Game, irony is not lost. Those two could possibly be facing off next year in their first Big Ten Championship Game.
Yogi Roth, author/documentarian/former athlete and Pac-12 Networks analyst, is going down fighting for his league. A few years ago, then-commissioner Larry Scott asked him to help present the Pac-12’s case to the College Football Playoff Selection Committee during the season. George Kliavkoff kept Roth on the same duty when he took over to present alongside executive associate commissioner Merton Hanks.
“Probably the greatest honor of my career,” Roth said. “I can’t think of another analyst who does this.”
They’d get on the phone fighting the good fight with detailed numbers and in-person observations. The Pac-12 has gone seven years without a CFP berth. Regardless of what happens this week, that will go down forever as the longest drought of any Power Five league in the four-team era — but not without that good fight.
Roth grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, played at Pittsburgh and got his West Coast awakening from teammate Brennan Carroll, Pete Carroll’s son. Roth soon found himself being invited to work USC camps in the offseason. Carroll offered Roth a job while he completed his master’s degree.
“I was with Lane and Sark,” Roth said, referring to then-offensive assistants Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. “They said, ‘Hey dude, this is going to be the coolest place in the country to learn offense.’ I basically spent four years sleeping in the office.
“I never called a play, but to sit in those rooms and then spend two years next to Lane Kiffin in the press box and then two years on the sidelines with Sark. That allowed me to see the game, allowed me to earn a job as analyst.”
In 2011, Roth co-authored Carroll’s book “Win Forever.” This is his 20th year in the Pac-10/12. Roth worked the last game on the Pac-12 Networks this past weekend as Notre Dame battled Stanford. Next time those schools meet, the game will be an ACC tilt.
“My kids will not grow up fans of the Big Ten or the Big 12 or the ACC. They’ll grow up fans of USC, UCLA or Stanford,” Roth said. “When we look back on this … history will say that’s not a good thing for college athletics, especially here on the West Coast.”
What would the dearly departed legends think of the dearly departed Pac-12? Forever legends such as Bill Walsh (Stanford), John Wooden (UCLA) and Pat Tillman (Arizona State)?
“They’d say, ‘What’s wrong with you people?’ ” Robinson said.
What about Don James? Might as well call him the West Coast Nick Saban for all the branches that have sprouted from his coaching tree. James, who died 11 years ago at the age of 80, won six conference titles in 18 seasons with Washington. That included a share of the 1991 national championship. That was also the last Huskies team, before this year’s squad, to start 12-0.
James was among a handful of icons, along with Wooden, who may have been able to save the league by sheer force of nature.
“If Don James was alive, he could have talked them into not doing it,” said Jim Walden, Washington State’s coach from 1978-1986.
For weeks now on his Sirius XM radio show, CBS Sports college football analyst and former UCLA quarterback Rick Neuheisel has been playing disco queen Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” as the league’s walk-off music.
Neuheisel is as Pac-12 as they come. The Arizona native was headed to Princeton until former UCLA coach Terry Donahue challenged his football manhood.
“I was a walk-on,” Neuheisel recalled. “Terry Donahue called me … literally, I think I had to leave for Princeton training camp in a week or so. He said, ‘Look forward to having you here at UCLA.’ “
Neuheisel reminded the legendary coach he hadn’t heard from him in weeks and assumed there was no interest.
“I guess that’s probably a good move [to Princeton] if you don’t think you could play at this level,” Neuheisel recalled Donahue saying.
Properly confronted, the quarterback was in his car and showed up the next week for the beginning of UCLA camp. Neuheisel led the Bruins to the 1983 Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl win over Illinois.
“It’s the Holy Grail,” Neuheisel said of the Rose Bowl. “I argue … it should be the absolute national championship site every year. You wish you could follow the yellow brick road to Oz. It’s Oz. It’s the Emerald City. It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen on New Year’s Day. To pull up and see that Rose Bowl stadium and say, ‘I’m at the pinnacle of college football.’ “
Not so much anymore. The sunset over the San Gabriel Mountains on Jan. 1 won’t go away. However, the one-time traditional postseason home for the Pac-12 and Big Ten champions will now merely be in the rotation for games in the expanded 12-team College Football Playoff. There are no plans for the Rose Bowl to host the championship game.
Marc Dellins developed a special relationship with UCLA’s legendary coach, first as a student sports editor of the Daily Bruin, then as the school’s venerable sports information director lovingly nicknamed “The Minister of Propaganda.” On the off day between the NCAA Tournament semifinal win over Louisville and Wooden’s last game against Kentucky for the 1975 national championship, Wooden agreed to meet Dellins in his hotel room for an exclusive.
“For a half hour it was John Wooden and some piss-ant junior editor for the school paper sitting in his hotel room,” Dellins remembered. “Let’s just say I was sitting with a guy who won nine championships in 11 years, and I’m a junior in college and he’s taking time for me. I thought that was pretty special.”
Dellins remained close to Wooden until the legendary coach’s death in 2010. Earlier that year, Dellins felt compelled to call Wooden because of rumblings about his death.
“Coach, you don’t know how happy I am to hear your voice …,” Dellins said when Wooden answered. “There was a rumor you had passed away. He said, ‘Not yet, but soon.'”
Memories like that won’t go away, but they will exist in an alternate conference universe. The Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award will go away along with the league that awarded it. Tillman gave his all for Arizona State and his life for the country.
Where do all those Pac-12 statistics and milestones go? In the internet age, some of them will be preserved, but certainly not all. There currently are no plans to do a final Pac-12 record book. What, then, becomes of nuggets like this? There are two players who have scored 61 points in a game in the conference’s basketball history. UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) is obvious, but what about the other? Arizona State’s Eddie House in 2000.
Some of the accomplishments have already been memorialized, burned into our collective memories. UCLA won those 10 basketball national championships under Wooden. In football, USC is tied with Miami for the fourth-longest winning streak in history (34 games, 2003-05).
The Pac-12 also has nurtured and grown women’s sports. It has been a developmental incubator for our Olympic teams. There were years when the medals won by Pac-12 athletes alone would be greater than some countries. Officials have worried that Olympic foundation may crumble with schools playing in other leagues.
The weather, the coaching, the excellence of Olympic training all defined the “Conference of Champions.” How many know that Mack Robinson finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200 meters at the epic 1936 Summer Olympics? The continuing irony: If Owens (Ohio State) and Robinson (who would enroll at Oregon) came along today, they’d be in the same conference.
Mack was the brother of MLB legend Jackie Robinson — a four-sport letter winner at UCLA, among his other legendary accomplishments.
“My first class at UCLA was with Jackie Joyner,” Neuheisel said. “English class. I didn’t know she was going to be Jackie Joyner. She said she was from St. Louis, and I told her I was from Arizona. I sat right next to her the whole year. Next thing I know she’s got more gold medals than anybody.”
The icon eventually known as Jackie Joyner-Kersee went on to win three Olympic golds and gain a reputation as perhaps the best female athlete in history.
What used to be the old Pacific Coast Conference was formed with the four schools mentioned above at the Imperial Hotel in Portland, Oregon, more than a century ago. This time next year, those four originals will be playing in the ACC, Big Ten and who knows where in the case of Oregon State?
In 1958, the PCC broke up amid disagreements over “athletic policy and academics.” Five of the schools created something called the Athletic Association of Western Universities (AAWU). That was made up of Stanford, USC, UCLA, Washington and Cal.
“We knew what it could be. And we knew what it ended up being.”
UCLA coach Chip Kelly
It wasn’t until 1968 the league dropped the cumbersome AAWU label and expanded to become the Pac-8. Arizona and Arizona State were added in 1978 to become the Pac-10. Utah and Colorado helped finalize the Pac-12 in 2011.
Serendipity works. Former Cal chancellor Glenn Seaborg, a key figure in the formation of the new conference in 1958, had won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1951. He was born in … Michigan, a state that now profits from the Pac-12’s breakup.
The league’s development is, at least tangentially, attached to atomic research. Seaborg was among a team of scientists who invented plutonium.
In 1958, Seaborg reportedly spoke to Notre Dame president Fr. Ted Hesburgh about membership in a West Coast conference … at a United Nations conference in Geneva, Switzerland, regarding nuclear weapons! One newspaper reported there was talk back then of a nationwide conference that included the Irish, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Army, Navy and Air Force.
And you thought modern realignment was crazy?
The Pac-12 always had a certain dignity to it. Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA and others at least tried to balance academics and athletics. Maybe that was its undoing — not caring enough about football.
Or maybe there was no saving it considering the direction in which college athletics is headed. Saturday’s MVP in the Big 12 Championship Game will be presented a title belt by a WWE superstar. Arizona will soon be playing in Orlando, Florida, against UCF. Colorado coach Deion Sanders might as well be the de facto president of the university.
Coach Prime wanted more access to talent in Texas and Florida, so migration back to the Big 12 made sense. Never mind that CU went to the Pac-12 a decade ago because of its deep roots in Southern California.
In recent years, the whacky Bill Walton became the league’s biggest cheerleader. The former UCLA basketball star is still known for his late-night ruminations on ESPN telecasts wearing tye-dyed Grateful Dead t-shirts.
“There is a lot to what Walton said,” Walden said. ‘This is the Conference of Champions, and you just ruined it.’ “
The knock on the league during this CFP drought is that it was almost too competitive. It wasn’t surprising to see everyone in the league with two losses before Nov. 1 in recent years. The Pac-12 was out of the national championship picture before Veteran’s Day. That led to a talent drain as recruits headed East because there wasn’t that playoff access.
This year has been different, however. In mid-September, eight teams were ranked in the AP Top 25. USC’s Caleb Williams went through half the season as a favorite to repeat as Heisman Trophy winner. Less than a week before the 2023 Heisman finalists are announced, Oregon’s Bo Nix may be running neck-and-neck with Washington’s Michael Penix, Jr. for the most coveted individual prize in the sport
This has been the best and most fascinating year. Pac-12 quarterbacks rule the Earth once again. There are two national coach of the year candidates: Washington’s Kalen DeBoer and Oregon’s Dan Lanning. That’s not including Arizona’s Jedd Fisch, who could very well be Pac-12 coach of the year.
“Melancholy’s not what I’m thinking about right now,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who also coached at Oregon, told reporters after his final Pac-12 game, a 33-7 loss to Cal on Saturday. “I’d like to wax eloquent about the demise of the Pac-12, but that’s not on my mind right now.
“We knew what it could be. And we knew what it ended up being.”