By David Mullen
“Sometimes, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the … best national TV contract.” — excerpt from the famous Knute Rockne 1928 “Win One for the Gipper” speech, updated for 2023.
College football, the rightful owner of autumn Saturday afternoons and a game rooted in amateurism, loyalty, regional rivalries and nostalgia for more than a century, is dead. The killer is greed. And, with no apologies to Gordon Gekko, “Greed is Bad.”
“Universities have for years prioritized TV money over everything else — player health (mental and physical), fans, regional rivalries, etc.” said Rod Gilmore, longtime ESPN College Football analyst. “There has been this push to get as much TV money as possible and create an NFL style college football system with two super conferences, like the AFC and NFC, but with the Big Ten and SEC. The goal is to get the 64 college teams or so that prioritize football over everything else.”
The imminent passing of the Pac-12 Conference is the final death knell for college football as we knew it. USC and UCLA and their No. 2 national TV market began the exodus by jumping to the Big Ten Conference, starting in 2024. Oregon and Washington followed suit. Recently, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah left for the Big 12. The only teams remaining aligned to the 108-year-old Pac-12 Conference are California, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State. That’s not a conference, that’s a commune.
“The Pac-12 was slow to recognize and respond to the changes in the market. The commissioner [George Kliavkoff] was asleep at the wheel and got caught off guard by USC and UCLA leaving,” Gilmore said. “That is stunning because the Oklahoma and Texas move to the SEC was a clear message to other conferences to take care of your big dogs or they would leave also. But the Pac-12 ignored USC and its huge LA market even though the Pac-12 TV deal was about to expire.”
Arizona president Robert Robbins, whose school leaves the Pac-12 for the Big 12 in 2024, said the final Pac-12 media proposal was, “like selling … Girl Scout cookies.”
“If you want to know what happened to the Pac-12, just consider this: the Pac-12 and Big 12 were in the same position one year ago,” Gilmore said. “Both had lost their two most high-profile members with the most TV appeal and had to address conference instability and potential new TV deals. Today, the Big 12 is thriving and picking up Pac-12 teams, while the Pac-12 is now a zombie conference that will die next summer.
“The Big 12 read the market correctly and made good decisions. The Pac-12 did not — primarily because of hubris in my opinion. While the Pac-12 didn’t want to expand with universities that didn’t meet the Pac-12’s desired academic profile, the Big 12 expanded with UCGF, BYU, Cincy and UCF and stabilized its conference.”
The Big Ten’s new media deals with NBC, Fox and CBS are worth $1.1 billion per year. The Big Ten, once a “brotherhood” with the Pac-12, now openly admits to wanting to turn conference football into the “NFL of college football conferences.” The Big 12’s next TV contract, beginning in 2025, is for a reported six-years and $2.28 billion (and includes men’s basketball).
In 2024, the Big Ten Conference will have 18 teams. The Big 12 Conference will have 16 teams. Those are the facts. Call it “alternative math.”
A game between Washington and Rutgers is going to require one team’s players, coaches, support staff and fans to travel more than 5,500 miles roundtrip for a three-hour football game. Players may miss the game due to jet lag.
Gilmore and I grew up watching West Coast football. We were close friends at an Oakland high school. After graduation, we headed to the (then) Pac-10 in different directions. Gilmore went to Stanford and was a starting cornerback for teams that included College and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. I went to Cal and broadcast Bears football games on the campus radio station. Pac-10 football was our passion.
I was indoctrinated by the Stanford Indians, my dad’s favorite team, led by Heisman Trophy winner quarterback Jim Plunkett. A Saturday trip to “The Farm” in Palo Alto was the closest my urban family got to the countryside, albeit more of a country club. My uncle took me to Cal games, so I maintained a split allegiance until opting for Berkeley after high school.
Saturday afternoons were also memorable for camping in front of the TV, watching ABC and hearing Keith Jackson expand on the incredible plays by USC running backs O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis, Sam “Bam” Cunningham and Charles White. “Whoa, Nellie!” Jackson would yell, over the echoes of the USC band.
SMU must keep very close tabs on what happened to Pac-12 teams. “SMU is in the same position as Cal, Stanford, Washington State and Oregon State,” Gilmore said. “It’s [in] the ‘have not’ club.”
The once naïveté of college football Saturday afternoons will now surrender to the mass marketed polish of NFL Sunday and Monday Night national TV games. “I guess if you like the NFL style on Sunday, you won’t mind having it on Saturday,” Gilmore said. “It’ll become a more ‘national’ game and it remains to be seen if that style can retain the passion and magic the college game has provided for so long.
“We have lost and continue to lose regional rivalries that really mattered to fans. For example, we grew up with great rivalries between Cal -Stanford (The Big Game) and Washington-WSU (The Apple Cup). That’s now gone and unlikely to be replaced. Folks in Texas know full well what’s being lost with Oklahoma and Texas going to the SEC.
“For fans,” Gilmore said, “the days of traveling to local and regional rivalries is coming to an end — and it’s sad. And makes me angry.” I know the feeling.