Pac-12 football is dead and buried after one final thriller in Vegas

Ric Tapia - The Sporting Tribune
Washington stayed undefeated and beat Oregon, 34-31, to win the conference title and secure a spot in the College Football Playoff.

LAS VEGAS — As celebrations go, Friday’s Pacific 12 Conference football championship wasn’t quite the Irish wake everyone figured it would be. But no one was sitting shiva as would be the case at a Jewish funeral.

It landed somewhere in between as Oregon and Washington duked out again, this time in climate controlled Allegiant Stadium. October’s game was a classic with the Huskies outlasting the Ducks, 36-33 in Seattle. Friday, Washington, a 10-point betting underdog, rallied from a 24-20 fourth-quarter deficit for a 34-31 win in front of a raucous crowd of 61,195. In doing so, the Huskies (13-0) likely solidified their place in the College Football Playoff (Washington was ranked third in this week’s CFP poll).

We saw a hell of a game as the plucky Ducks came back from a 20-10 halftime deficit. But Michael Penix Jr., who likely wasn’t feeling 100 percent (at least those were the reports out of Seattle going into the game), rallied the Huskies with a pair of TDs and finished the evening outgunning Oregon’s Bo Nix, 319 yards passing to 239 though Nix had three TD tosses to Penix’s one.

Whether that performance on national television was enough to swing the Heisman Trophy voting in Penix’s favor, we’ll find out in the coming days. But on this night, Washington etched its name into the history books as the final Pac-12 football champions thanks in part to Dillon Johnson rushing for 152 yards and two scores along with Jalen McMillan’s nine catches for 131 yards.

We’ve known for months now that this moment was coming, that the Pac-12 would be dead and buried. But that it happened so quickly is still stunning.

First USC and UCLA decided to find greener and snowier pastures in the Big Ten. Then Washington and Oregon joined them. The Big 12 opted to throw a life raft to Utah, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado. Finally, Stanford and California decided to switch ends of the country and join the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Just like that, the Pac-12 became the Pac 2.  

Not to be left out, Oregon State and Washington State — the two remaining Pac-12 schools —announced Friday they’ll compete in the Mountain West for the 2024 football season and perhaps in other sports in the future in what would likely be a retooled and rebranded Pac-12.

“This is a unique and unprecedented opportunity for Oregon State and Washington State to play against highly competitive Mountain West football programs in 2024,” Mountain West commissioner Gloria Nevarez said.

There is still a court battle between the Cougars, Beavers and the Pac-12 departees that remains to be worked out. Of course, money is at the root of all this. But the real question is: “Did this really have to happen?”

The answer is no. It happened because Silent George Kliavkoff, the Pac-12 commissioner, failed to see what was going on until it was way too late. His school presidents are also complicit thanks to their greed and misreading the tea leaves of the finances of college football.

How could Kliavkoff not realized what was happening in his own league? How could he have not been in the loop when UCLA and USC were contemplating leaving the Pac-12? It was his job to know what his members were up to and contemplating.

By the time he realized what was happening, it was too late. The Bruins and Trojans were packing their bags and headed to the Midwest. Perhaps had he been more proactive, he might’ve found a solution to keep USC and UCLA and thus saved the Pac-12.

But he didn’t. His lack of experience in college athletics (he had spent a lot of his career in the casino industry) came back to hurt the Pac-12. The timing of his hire in 2021 which coincided with the instituting of NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) along with the transfer portal certainly wasn’t helpful to Kliavkoff’s cause. Neither was the albatross that was the Pac-12 Network he inherited from Larry Scott that was a financial drag on the conference and came up way short of providing the national visibility the conference so desperately sought when it launched back in 2012.

And as egregious as all that was, how could he not talk sense into the presidents, the folks who paid his salary, when they thought their league was worth $50 million per school in media rights? How do you not understand the landscape of the business you work in? Kliavkoff had worked in television at one time so he understood the inner trappings of negotiating deals. Yet for whatever reason, he could never get his conference the right deal which could have saved it.

As for the presidents, their notion that the Pac-12 was worth $50 million a school was ludicrous. When ESPN offered $30 million for each school more than a year ago, the presidents should’ve gotten down on their knees and thanked ESPN for its willingness to give them that. Especially given the climate of the industry where cuts were everywhere when it came to media rights deals and the industry was changing. 

Instead, they felt insulted. They passed on ESPN and watched their league disintegrate as no one else was stepping up. The Conference of Champions had turned into the Conference of Chumps. The presidents naturally were unwilling to take any of the blame, and they tried to spin it as though it wasn’t their fault.

The reality is it was their fault. They totally miscalculated and misunderstood the market and in the end, they had to scramble to make their own deals. It’s truly sad. 

And while the rivalries will remain — USC vs. UCLA in the Big Ten, Stanford vs. Cal in the ACC, Arizona vs. Arizona State in the Big 12 — they’ll take place in another setting, one that will include trips to Rutgers and Maryland, to Oklahoma State and Kansas, to Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. 

But it won’t be under the Pac-12 auspices. The conference of John McKay and John Robinson, of Don James and Terry Donahue, of Rich Brooks and Dee Andros will be no more. I for one, will miss it.