While the SEC and the Big XII owned the 1990s and 2000s in terms of television ratings and modernization, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten were typically called ‘traditional’, as opposed to out-dated. Being traditionalists, we liked that. But today, the conference called the ‘Conference of Champions’ gets a new name, the ‘Conference of the Future’, as it finally steps forward as a modern conference, with a 12-team format, a conference title game and a family of television networks within its arsenal.
A decade ago, the Big XII Championship Game was a big deal. From its inception in 1996 with a classic Nebraska-Texas matchup, to Oklahoma’s wacky games with Kansas State at Arrowhead, to the dramatic 2009 game between Ndamukong Suh and Colt McCoy, the game was a wunderkind of neo-historical modernism at its best, and the west coast missed out on it.
While the Pac-10’s stubborn traditionalism was great for instilling a nine-game round robin conference schedule and healthy connection with the equally traditional Big Ten, the conference missed out on the fun being partaken in the other conferences.
If there had been a Pac-10 Championship Game in 1995, USC and Washington would have met for a second time, after dueling to one of the most iconic ties in Trojan history, 21-21. A title game would have settled it, and there’s no way people wouldn’t have watched Keyshawn Johnson and company get another shot at their mid-90s nemesis. It would have been awesome.
Seven years later in 2002, the Trojans lost to Washington State in overtime, costing them a trip to the Rose Bowl to play Oklahoma. With a title game, one last Jason Gesser vs. Carson Palmer game would have been possible, rather just been a would-be memory of two of the conference’s most likable quarterbacks in recent memory.
Yes, the tradition was fun, but it would have been just as fun to be able to emulate the cool kids of the Big XII and the SEC back then. Instead, we had to come up with never-gonna-happen scenarios that would put BYU, Fresno State or Utah in the conference. Utopia was unreachable, tradition was king and we had to accept that.
The Pac-10 would always be a pass-happy finesse league founded by a bunch of wanna-be Ivy League schools(plus Arizona State), who were more concerned with cohesiveness and academics than anything else. And, really, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. Academics should be stressed and tradition is everything in college sports. But, as a fan growing up in the era of huge TV contracts, championship games and College Gameday, it’s hard not to be envious of the progression of other conferences.
So as expected, even when the Big Ten started to modernize, the Pac-10 was still behind the curve. Ohio State hosted Texas under the lights in 2005, the Big Ten Network launched in 2007, and the high-flying spread offense made its way to the Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust Conference in 2008. Though out west, USC shut out Washington State 69-0 on Prime Ticket and had the conference title virtually wrapped up by early October.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the conference finally showed signs of modernization, which oddly coincided with a massive regime change. NCAA sanctions saw Mike Garrett leave USC with shame, while retirement meant the end for University President Steven Sample, and a head-gig with the NCAA pried Mark Emmert away from his post as Washington’s President. With the old guard left an out-dated way of doing things, and led by new Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott, the conference began a lifestyle of forward thinking.
Scott took coaches to New York for a special East Coast Media Day, and suddenly the prospects of expanding to 12 teams went from being a one-time pipe dream to plausible. Heck, a Pac-16 was nearly a reality, that would have brought both Texas and Oklahoma to the conference.
Blood was flowing.
It was Colorado, not BYU to accompany Utah in the conference, and a year later, at long last, a 12-team league with a conference title game was indeed a reality.
But 2011 was really a dry run for the Pac-12, despite it being the inaugural year. USC wasn’t eligible to compete in the title game and pre-existing television contracts were in their final year. It wasn’t until today, August 15, 2012, just four months before the Mayans may have predicted a Washington State bowl victory, that the conference is whole, complete with 12 teams, a lucrative television contract, the conference’s own network, and the prospects of a classic USC-Oregon championship game staring at everyone in the face.
Forget the fact that you might not get to watch the opening moments of the Pac-12 Networks due to disputes between cable providers and the networks, this is the future of the conference we’re now in. A future that cannot only be ultra-competitive in Olympic sports and iQ scores, but football, basketball and the media-driven culture that surrounds it.
Let’s savor it and rejoice, for we have now caught up to the Joneses, while the Big XII lives on without a title game. Go figure.