College football realignment has now left an entire region behind

College football realignment has now left an entire region behind

For all of the plundering of college football conference realignment, it hadn’t fleeced an entire region. It was merely a matter of time, not a respectful nod to tradition. The latest phase of greedy mayhem left the Pac-12 dangling, jeopardizing the identity of football on the West Coast.

Sadly, it’s hard to envision the conference stabilizing. The aftershocks continue 13 months after USC and UCLA made the seismic decision to bolt for the Big Ten in 2024. Just last week, Colorado announced its intention to return to the Big 12. When the worst football program in the conference is jumping out the window, it’s too late to call the fire department.

With the conference down to nine members and still lacking a long-term media rights deal, every Pac-12 school is left to scramble on its own. No one can be firmly committed because survival doesn’t lend itself to loyalty. Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff, who inherited a disaster when he replaced Larry Scott two years ago, seems to have been blindsided by the departures. He projects genuine confidence about the future, but the conference may be unsalvageable. If so, a storied football region would be reduced to shards spread across competing leagues. For the first time, there wouldn’t be a dominant conference organized by and managed for the west.

It would be a shame. But let’s not stop with a single Pac-12 lament. Don’t underestimate the negative impact it would have on the very thing conference realignment seeks to do: add significant value to traditionally regional leagues by pursuing national interest.

This is the strategy of shortsighted television executives interested in filling slots across multiple time zones with the most easily compelling matchups they can imagine. On the surface, it makes sense to pay a premium to have a sprawling Big Ten slate on fall Saturdays, but visibility doesn’t guarantee passionate engagement.

Sports fans have provincialism in their DNA. Their backyard is the priority. Rivalries with neighbors, recruiting battlegrounds and long histories fuel their emotional intrigue. During the regular season, that’s the weekly draw — familiarity, not made-for-TV randomness. Maryland men’s basketball fans feel it when they struggle to get up for Big Ten matchups with Michigan State and Indiana the way they anticipated ACC showdowns with Duke and North Carolina.

In all college sports, a great charm of the postseason is that secondary pursuit of national bragging rights, the satisfaction of curiosity about how a style of play that dominated a league will fare against the rest of the country. Tournaments are team vs. team, conference vs. conference, distinct region vs. distinct region. It’s not the same when a super conference eliminates tradition and diminishes the mystery.

Yet college football forced us down this path two years ago. When Texas and Oklahoma committed to join the SEC, realignment became an existential threat to all of the other conferences. It used to be that every laughable new geographical alliance simply added girth to familiarity. The altered leagues still had the same markers. You could pretend the potbellies on the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 were an unavoidable part of the need to grow in the sports marketplace. It wasn’t as if the movement of Missouri or Louisville or Nebraska or West Virginia or Utah changed the identity of any of these conferences.

SEC makes major change for 2024 football season, but schedule issues remain

Then the two preeminent programs in the Big 12 bounced. A year later, the Pac-12 lost Los Angeles. Despite the College Football Playoff preparing to expand to 12 teams, there’s an access issue among the so-called Power Five conferences. The SEC and Big Ten have reestablished themselves as the true power brokers, and everyone else is trying to survive. The ACC is in decent shape, for now, because it has a grant-of-rights TV deal through 2036 complicating any school’s wandering eye. That left the Big 12 and Pac-12 with a warning: Pivot or perish.

Behind aggressive new commissioner Brett Yormark, the Big 12 beefed up its numbers and solidified a six-year, $2.3 billion media rights deal. Colorado’s homecoming marks the fifth program to join the conference since Texas and Oklahoma decided to leave. With 13 members — and probably a 14th at some point — the Big 12 has a chance to survive, though adding teams from Florida, Ohio and Utah certainly changes its flavor. Still, the conference needs an elite top rung to emerge. Otherwise, a league organized by and managed for the southwest will stray further from relevance.

Colorado votes to return to Big 12 in 2024, leaving Pac-12

You can’t ignore the symbolism of the Big 12 taking back Colorado from the Pac-12. Yormark is determined to rebound. Kliavkoff is dangerously close to letting his conference rot. The inactivity and lack of urgency from Pac-12 university presidents have long been a recurring theme. It’s easy to deride USC and UCLA as opportunists, but the painful reality is that neither would have had reason to leave if the conference had cared to keep up with the times. They didn’t just exit; they evacuated a conference that cannot maximize its worth.

The shrinking Pac-9 hasn’t had a progressive idea since 2010, when it was a 10-team league with a plan to gut the Big 12. The idea was to form the Pac-16. To get Texas and Oklahoma to flee, Scott would also add Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Colorado. It would have formed a super conference nearly a dozen years before the threat of the super conference era became real. But Texas decided against it and chose instead to create the Longhorn Network with ESPN. Later, Scott expanded the conference by inviting Utah and Colorado. Then he botched the formation of the Pac-12 Networks, which have never proved as lucrative as he promised. His ambition died soon after.

On the field, the Utes added a competitive benefit. The Buffaloes have been the grass stuck in the league’s cleats. In 12 seasons as a member, Colorado has a 27-76 conference record, a .262 winning percentage. Overall, the Buffaloes are 48-94, a .338 winning percentage. They have finished two seasons above .500, one of which came during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign in which they went 4-2. Deion Sanders will be the seventh coach, counting interims, to lead the Buffaloes during their Pac-12 era.

And now they’re the ones who no longer feel weighed down.

To survive the uncertainty, the conference is tasked with defying its reputation and transforming into a forward-thinking entity. It must start with saving face on the long-anticipated media rights deal and then come up with a creative financial model and overall plan that satisfies the interests of Oregon and Washington, the most valuable assets it has left. Every move, including expansion, must be considered with a retention pecking order in mind. And it could be a moot point if the Big 12 covets Arizona and decides to make another quick move.

No matter what happens, West Coast teams will continue to be a factor in college football. But they’re not certain to have an influential league of their own to offer all the innovation and fireworks they have long produced.

Right now, that makes the Pac-12 the joke of college football. It wouldn’t be funny, though, if an entire region of a segmented sport felt it truly didn’t matter.

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