How the Pac-12 Went Off the Rails and the SEC Got on Track

Jon Joseph Editorials

Once I had a conference, I made it run,

Made it run just fine.

Once I had a conference and

Keith Jackson called it a King.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

(To the tune of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”)

In 1970, a USC team led by coach John McKay (an Oregon graduate) went into Tuscaloosa and played like Achilles was on Troy’s side, wiping out a Bear Bryant-led Alabama team 42-21. This was before the SEC was the Supreme Everything Conference. This rolling of The Tide was achieved by a USC roster that featured many players of color — among them, a running back by the name of Sam “Bam” Cunningham. In fact, all six Trojan touchdowns in that game were scored by African American players.

Tide fans of color, on the other hand, were in the stands, selling popcorn and other goodies.

Make no mistake: the then-lily-white teams throughout most of the SEC (SEC schools were in the process of slowly integrating) were not, on the field at least, all terrible. A Joe Namath-led Alabama and Tommy Nobis-led Texas were formidable between the lines. But this Trojan-authored beatdown led to the long overdue integration of sports at the University of Alabama and throughout the South. This, more than two decades after Jackie Robinson was playing football and baseball at UCLA, and players of color were routinely on the field in the Pac-8.

Coaching legends John McKay (right) and Bear Bryant (left) met for a historic matchup in 1970.

When Bubba Smith no longer had to go north to play big time college football (in his case, at Michigan State), the SEC began to morph into the power that it is today. If the ascendancy of college football in the South could be attributed only to the Scales of Justice being balanced, well, I say, “spot on!

Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The Rise of the BCS and the SEC

In 1997, still a time well before many of today’s Ducks fans were extant, the Pac-12 Commissioner was a fine gentleman by the name of Tom Hansen. Tom and his then (truly) Big 10 counterpart, Wayne Duke, owned by far the most valuable property in college football, the Rose Bowl. Yes, teams outside of the Pac-8 and the Big 10 won AP, UPI and other national championships, but for west coast and Midwestern fans, it was all about the Run for the Roses. The Orange, Cotton and Sugar Bowls were not meaningless, but all paled in comparison to the New Year’s Day spectacle that was the Rose Bowl Parade, followed by the playing of “The Granddaddy of Them All“.

Now, the Peach and Fiesta Bowls in a given year hold more import, Playoff-wise, than does the Rose Bowl. Yet, in this day and age of the College Football Playoff (CFP), a 2019 Rose Bowl between a two-loss and a three-loss team is still relevant to millions of people around the world.

It’s hard to beat the “Granddaddy of Them All.”

But I digress and allow us to return to 1997, when a brilliant businessman, the then SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer, came knocking on Tom’s and Mr. Duke’s doors.

Let us have a true college football champion,” said Roy. “No more shall we allow mere newspaper scribes to tell us which team is the champion. Let’s decide it on the field, boys.

And, by the way boys, we’ll all make more bank. All y’all have to do is to kick the Rose Bowl into the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) mix. Y’all got some damn fine ball clubs. What could go wrong for you boys?

Meanwhile, after Oregon was BCS hosed in 2001 and when superior USC teams were oft one-and-done because they lost to Pac-10 “dwarfs,” and after the SEC won seven titles in a row and ascended to the top of the college football hill, the CFP came into existence. With the CFP came a new round of playoff negotiation.

Pac-12 Decline in the CFP Era

Thank goodness Tom Hansen had retired, and network mogul Larry Scott was engineering the Pac-12 train. Holy Casey Jones! What could go wrong? I mean, this guy went to “Hahvahd,” right? Surely he could see that if there are five conferences (sorry, G5 guys) and the Conference of Notre Dame competing for a title, and if some of us play nine conference games and real opponents out-of-conference, and not just Larry, Moe, Curly and The Citadel, any legitimate playoff has to have at least six contenders. And this Final Six has to include all Power-5 champs, right? RIGHT?

Ah, no. See Oklahoma playing Georgia in the Rose Bowl. And in 2020? See many top Left Coast high school players matriculating back east. See the Pac-12 shut out of a chance for a CFP title 50% of the time. See the Pac-12 Network and the Conference of Champions going the way of railroads in the depression. Have you got a dime, y’all?

CFP appearances have been few and far between for the Pac-12.

The dominance of the SEC today is wrought, in part, due to terrible business decisions made by the Pac-12 Conference and others.

This so-called Playoff ends in 2026. Would college football be worse off, would the Pac-12 be worse off, if on the Left Coast (and in the Midwest for that matter), the college football Holy Grail was once again a Run for the Roses? If coaches were not paid $9M a year to coach “student-athletes” in a max of 15 games per season? If we returned to all Pac-12 teams playing one another every season, with one foray out-of-conference? If bowl games were reduced to the number pre-BCS, and we no longer rewarded base mediocrity? If sports like golf, rowing, soccer, beach volleyball, volleyball, etc. returned to being club sports? Worse off if a college football media cartel, like ESPN and others searching for bank, did not call the shots? If instead the schools themselves called the shots? Maybe back to the days of playing games in the daylight?

Worse off if an honorable man like Tom Hansen ran the conference and made less than $250,000 a year to do so?

An old guy like me can remember back to before integration, which was terrible. But I can also go back to when Pacific Conference football was far more, well, FUN, than it is today. It mattered. But it did not matter to the point where a guy who had a 5-7 record and was being paid close to $3M a year left young men he made promises to for $5.5M a year. When a guy who stiffed Oregon is paid $17M by Florida State to go away. When Oregon alumni and other fans who live in Portland are lucky to get home from late kickoffs before two in the AM.

Look, y’all, is the Emperor naked?

Jon Joseph
Georgetown, TX
Top Photo Credit: From Twitter

Andrew Mueller, the Volunteer Editor for this article, works in digital marketing in Chicago, Illinois.

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