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Cougs vs. Everybody

On the decline of regionalism in college football.


Nurses and those who work in hospice care say that people on the verge of death often experience a brief surge of energy a day or two before they die, where they seem to miraculously regain their spirits, talking and carrying on just like their old selves. There’s even a term for it: “terminal lucidity.” I have often thought about terminal lucidity while watching Pac-12 football this season.

If you follow college football, you’ve probably heard that the Pac-12 Conference has been stripped for parts like a car left in a bad neighborhood. The exodus started when U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. announced last year that they were moving to the Big Ten. (U.C.L.A. was only included because it was part of the Los Angeles television market—the sort of deal that makes sense in a boardroom and sounds like a joke everywhere else.) Then this year, Oregon and Washington left for the Big Ten, the Big 12 snapped up Utah and Colorado, and Stanford and Cal jumped to the A.C.C.

Yet, here on its deathbed, the Pac-12 is stronger and more fun to watch than it has been in at least a decade. U.S.C. is resurgent, Washington and Oregon have phenomenal quarterbacks, Utah embarrassed Florida in a pre-season opener, Colorado has been a media circus under head coach Deion Sanders. Washington State and Oregon State, two teams both facing imminent homelessness, are playing their hearts out.

The reasons why the Pac-12 collapsed are banal. Suffice it to say that it was killed by a mix of greed, bad business decisions, and the maneuverings of other conferences in the race for T.V. markets. Distribution problems with the Pac-12 Network made it impossible for fans to watch games. At the same time, the conference slipped into mediocrity on the field.

What matter more are the regrettable results of realignment fever: the end of West Coast football as a distinct entity, the death of regionalism, and the possible end of some of college football’s oldest rivalry games. Washington State and Oregon State—the Pac-2, as their fans ruefully coined them—are also through no fault of their own in danger of dropping out of a Power Five conference altogether, an outcome that would be unfair to the teams and bad for the sport.

This sort of college football drama is something you either feel acutely or not at all. In 2014 the New York Times ran a graphic titled “The Places in America Where College Football Means the Most.” Passion for the game was displayed as a purple bruise spreading across the sun belt, up through Appalachia, around the Great Lakes, and across the plains of Iowa and Nebraska until it terminated in Oregon.

I grew up in Oregon and attended the University of Oregon, and for me this feels like watching part of the world I knew during my childhood and early adult years disappear. Oregon of course does not have an N.F.L. team, making college football a bigger concern than in many other states. The annual Civil War game between the University of Oregon and Oregon State University is, or at least used to be, a minor state holiday, the sort of thing that you jaw about in the supermarket and rib extended family members over on cold November days.

I’m aware that it’s rich for an Oregon fan to complain about the soulless commodification of college football. Throughout the 2000s, the University of Oregon launched a campaign, with millions of dollars of assistance from wealthy boosters, to turn its football program into a hot national brand. But I can’t help but see this whole debacle as a shameful abandonment of two worthy opponents.

In college I once played a rugby game inside Washington State’s Martin Stadium. Snow was piled on the sidelines and in the end zones, and all but maybe a dozen of the thirty-three thousand seats were empty. I honestly don’t remember who won. Probably not us. We were terrible that year.

But the game stands out in my memory because the University of Oregon Rugby Football Club nearly got disbanded for what happened afterward. Without going into the fine details, it involved being kicked out of several bars in Pullman, two speeding tickets in university-owned vans, several Minor in Possession citations, and a hefty hotel cleaning bill.

Naturally I feel quite a bit of affection for good ol’ Wazzu. Washington State and Oregon State successfully sued the Pac-12 for control over the future of the conference, arguing they were the only two remaining loyal teams with stakes left in it. Washington State and Oregon State are not national powerhouses, but they are proud, hard-working football programs. Unlike at U.S.C., no one commits to play football in Pullman, Washington—look it up on a map—for the glitz. Wazzu recruits heavily from the Pacific islands, where earning a football scholarship is a dream opportunity for young men to get a college degree in the states, support their families, and maybe punch their ticket to the N.F.L.

As this goes to press, Washington State is currently five and seven. They’re led on the field by quarterback Cameron Ward, a zero-star recruit who has knocked off nineteenth-ranked Wisconsin and fourteenth-ranked Oregon State so far this season. Wazzu’s unofficial motto is “Cougs vs. everybody.”

“We belong in the Power Five,” Washington State head coach Jake Dickert told cameras after defeating Wisconsin. “These kids have worked their ass off, and I’m so damn proud of them to double down in the moment. We’re all we got, we’re all we need.”

Meanwhile, Oregon State went 10-3 last season, their best finish since 2006, and beat Oregon in the annual Civil War game. They didn’t just win that game; they embarrassed the Ducks by rallying in the fourth quarter and erasing a twenty-one-point deficit. I should note that all three touchdown drives were entirely on the ground, without a single pass attempt. They blew Oregon off the line and ran it down their throats. The Beavers’ reward for their hard work was watching the Ducks get a spot on the Big Ten life raft while they were left adrift with Wazzu.

It’s hard not to notice the class dynamics here. Oregon State and Washington State are both land-grant universities in small towns. They both have strong agriculture, engineering, and veterinary science programs. The University of Oregon and University of Washington, on the other hand, are flagship liberal arts and research universities, replete with things like nuclear reactors and “student athlete” facilities so gaudy they would make Donald Trump blush.

Those differences are also what make the annual in-state rivalry games between the Washington and Oregon schools so potent. A head coach used to be able to hang his hat on winning these games even if the rest of the season was a mess. Mike Leach, the dearly departed former head coach of Wazzu, reportedly used his twenty-five-thousand-dollar Apple Cup victory bonus in 2012 to open the bar at a local Pullman watering hole.

Both Oregon and Washington university officials have said they want to continue playing the Civil War and Apple Cup. The Washington schools announced late this season that the Apple Cup will be played at least through 2028. But continually scheduling out-of-conference games will be a massive headache. Even if the rivalry games survive, they will likely fade into irrelevance, like the Rose Bowl after it was absorbed into the playoffs.

If the Civil War is discontinued entirely, it will be the end of the oldest college rivalry game in the West. Since 1894, the rivalry has seen blowouts, overtime thrillers, and spoilers. I happen to be a fan of the oddball games, such as the 1983 Toilet Bowl, a foul-weather match that included eleven turnovers, four missed field goals, and the last 0-0 tie in N.C.A.A. football history.

One of my favorite Civil War games, the 1974 match, is one that the Oregon Ducks lost. But it did feature an appearance by the greatest American mid-distance runner ever. At the time, fraternities from both schools organized an annual forty-mile relay race, called the Great Race, between Corvallis and Eugene to raise money for muscular dystrophy. When Oregon fell behind in the race that year, Steve Bence, an Oregon track team member, recruited three other team members to run the final four miles. For the anchor leg of the “fun run” Bence brought in Steve Prefontaine, who had won seven N.C.A.A. titles and held every American record from two thousand to ten thousand meters.

As Bence described in a delightful 2012 blog post, Pre had already put in a morning track workout and was only convinced to participate by the thought of rubbing a Ducks victory in the face of an entire stadium of Beavers fans—and by Bence’s promises that he would have the lead at the handoff. As is wont to happen in friendly competition, Oregon State brought in ringers, too, and when Pre was handed the baton, he was fifteen seconds behind a freshman who’d run a four-minute, two-second mile in high school.

“I watched for Pre’s reaction as he received the baton about fifteen seconds behind Rich Kimball,” Bence wrote. “I was prepared for him to refuse to run. Instead, Pre grabbed the baton, glanced my way, flipped me off, and then looked ahead to Kimball.”

The race was scheduled to end at midfield during halftime of the Civil War. No one inside the stadium knew that Pre, a living legend, was running until he came out of the tunnel onto the field, just ahead of Kimball. He won the race by two seconds.

The race trophy was supposed to go to the winning fraternity, but Pre liked it so much that he kept it on his mantle, despite occasional protests from Bence. On a fine spring day several months later, he finally relinquished the Great Race trophy to Bence, won his last race before an adoring home crowd, and died in a car crash later that night, at twenty-four years old.

College football has always been run by cold-hearted mercenaries, but it at least used to be constrained by a loose sense of geographic contiguity and a façade of amateurism. Now that geography is no longer destiny, games like the Civil War and the Apple Cup are just awkward scheduling obligations to schools more interested in making the playoffs. The flattening of college football into two or three major conferences, and eventually a superleague, will be enormously profitable for most of the schools involved. It will also be terrible for fans and the death of most everything charming about the sport. It will sweep away its provincialism, its traditional rivalries, its last shreds of amateur spirit, and the unresolvable debates that make the sport so much fun. (No one can say with a straight face that watching Georgia or Alabama grind another team into paste for sixty minutes is more entertaining than arguing about rankings at a bar.) It will take away opportunities for unsung athletes such as Cameron Ward to do spectacular things, and for spectacular athletes to do silly things, like use their Olympian speed to win fraternity trophies.

I suppose in five years I’ll be sitting on the couch watching Oregon beat Rutgers without too much complaint, but I can’t pretend it will feel normal. I also have no idea, psychologically, how to become a Big Ten watcher. Do I get complimentary Harbaugh khakis in the mail? Am I a Leader or a Legend? Do you really pay Rutgers to play football?

At the very first college football game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, a Rutgers professor observed the muddy scrum, waved his umbrella, and famously shouted, “You will come to no Christian end!” I don’t think the professor was imagining this particular end, but before too long college football fans may all be able to see that prophetic warning come true with awful lucidity.

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