The Oregon Ducks shocked the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus yesterday, 35-28. Shock was the operative word in that it’s increasingly rare for PAC-12 teams to beat prominent, out-of-conference teams. How things have changed, which is where this piece will begin.
It was a fall Sunday in 1994, or maybe 1995. The actual year really isn’t important. What’s important for the purposes of this argument is that UCLA football wasn’t doing particularly well. A little blurb in the Chicago Tribune sports page asked something along the lines of “What happened to UCLA football? They’re all in the NFL.” The Tribune went on to list the college programs with the most NFL players. Up top was USC with 38, followed by UCLA with 37. Or maybe it was UCLA with 38, and USC with 37? A search through old clippings didn’t unearth this one, but the memory for what some would deem worthless facts is long.
What’s important about the blurb is what it said about the state of what was then PAC-10 football. Hard as it may be for readers to imagine today, the PAC-10 of the 1990s had few peers. Certainly from a player standpoint.
Going back further in time to the announcement of the 1992 NFL Pro Bowl, the PAC-10 led all conferences with 17 players selected, followed by the Big 10 (11), the ACC (8), the SEC (7), and the now defunct Southwest Conference with 6 players named to the game. Which team provided the most talent? You probably guessed it: USC. 8 Southern Cal alums were voted into the game by fellow players, and the next closest was Miami with 4, followed by Florida with 3, Alabama with 2, Notre Dame with 1, and perennial power Texas with 0.
Another clipping from around the mid ‘90s looked at the NFL Draft. The 10 team PAC-10 had 36 players selected, followed by the then 12 team SEC with 34. The 1992 NFL draft kicked off with Washington’s Steve Emtman at #1, after which 15 of the first 63 players taken were from the PAC-10. Fast forward to the 1996 draft when USC’s Keyshawn Johnson was taken at #1 by the New York Jets, a USA Today graphic ahead of draft day listed the most drafted football conference of the 1990s up until then. The PAC-10 was in the lead by mid-decade with 215 players taken, followed by the SEC with 199, the Big 10 with 176, the ACC with 138….To this day USC leads all schools in terms of total first round draft picks.
As the 21st century began, a Wall Street Journal survey of the major conferences still showed the PAC-10 up top with the most NFL players. One guesses Playboy no longer does its college football preview, but in the 1990s it routinely made a case for PAC-10 supremacy. Paraphrasing one year’s blurb, “We say it every year and this year is no different: the PAC-10 is the best conference in college football.”
Oh well, that was then. Nowadays the PAC-12 is awful. It’s irrelevant. Worse, it can’t even add good teams in the right away. You see, in the 1990s Colorado was a national football power. A mid ‘90s draft had the Buffs at the top with Florida State. 10 players selected each. How things change. Colorado was part of the Big 8, or maybe Big 12 then. Now it’s a forgotten program in a conference that’s largely forgotten. So what happened? The speculation here is that economic progress is what happened.
About the progress, it’s a good thing. Call it essential. At the same time, it perhaps exposed weaknesses of the PAC-12 that were less visible in decades past.
Arguably the PAC-12’s demise began with a development in Washington that was very good: the late 1970s deregulation of air travel. Before then, air travel was very expensive and routes were planned by the Civil Aeronautics Board.
Pricey flying very much meant that travel to college football games by distant alums to Ann Arbor, Austin, Baton Rouge, Columbus, Greenville, Stillwater, Tallahassee, and Tuscaloosa wasn’t as much of a thing. As recently as the late 1980s and early 1990s, weekend travel of the one and two-day variety marked you as relatively “jet set.” Now? It’s nothing. It’s the norm. Even better, 7, 14, and 21-day advance fares offering lower prices are very much part of the past too.
All of this has resulted in a surge of weekend visitors to once expensive and hard-to-get-to college towns. Wolverine, Longhorn, Tiger, Buckeye, Tiger (Clemson), Cowboy, Seminole, and Crimson Tide fans were always passionate, but it’s increasingly inexpensive for them to be passionate in person at more than one game. No doubt the Mack Brown era at Texas rightly increased fan interest in the team, but it’s no surprise that the biggest crowds at Memorial Stadium came after Brown’s tenure.
Cheap travel quite simply made charming college towns a fall destination, and a regular one at that. Compare this to where PAC-12 teams largely play games. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle and the rest are surely desirable destinations, but most are not compact. Worse, the non-compact nature of PAC-12 cities versus college towns doesn’t as much make them routine destinations for fans. While hotels like the Abernathy (Clemson) and Atherton (Stillwater) are among the locations geared specifically for college football weekends, where would you stay if heading back to USC for a game in order to see old friends? What about UCLA when it’s remembered that the Rose Bowl in mostly normal traffic is an hour from Westwood?
None of the above much mattered when air travel was expensive, and when city schools could count on local alums to somewhat fill their stadiums, but it does when travel is cheap. While UCLA was reduced to giving away tickets for its recent game against LSU (please don’t even ask attendance for Hawaii the previous week), and while USC maybe (at times) played in front of 50,000 against San Jose State the same day, southern and Midwestern schools in real college towns had stadiums that were packed. This sad truth has to have had, and will have an impact on recruits. USC and UCLA surely have die-hard fans, but if they don’t already live in Los Angeles, what’s the point of traveling to Los Angeles for games that aren’t really played anywhere near where alums might gather? There’s something missing in the PAC-12 atmosphere scenario that isn’t missing in the college towns where other traditional football powers reside.
Which brings us to economic growth more broadly. In decades past, Austin was a college town. So was Columbus. Greenville, which neighbors Clemson, was largely unheard of. This arguably aided schools out west located in major cities. Not only did USC, UCLA, Washington and others offer big-time programs, but economic opportunity with Trojan, Bruin and Husky alums in the aftermath was substantial. It still is.
At the same time, the gap has in a sense shrunk. Austin is now a major commercial center, it’s said in Columbus that the city is thick with former Buckeyes working good jobs, to visit Greenville today is to see abundant growth. While California can still claim the greatest number of billionaires and centimillionaires, the cost of living there along with the tax burden of living there has led to the migration of some of the talent outside the state. More broadly, the U.S. economy has boomed since the 1970s, and the boom has been more widespread than the media would have people believe. The view here is that this happy truth has similarly made the genius of heading west less obvious. Opportunity is everywhere.
And the opportunity is colorblind. This speaks to the beauty of competition that by its very name is defined by merit. Race goes out the window. While it used to be that talented black athletes in the south either went north or west out of necessity, this is no longer the case. Some in the south believe to this day that USC tailback Sam Cunningham did more for southern integration than even MLK (Cunningham starred on a well-integrated Trojan team that beat a nearly all-white Alabama team badly, at Birmingham’s Legion Field, in 1970). Whatever the answer, the love of winning has easily trumped the racism that formerly prevailed in the south, and that pushed many of the top athletes north or west for college.
Back to growth once again, while it’s been broad, it’s produced an abundance of billionaires and centimillionaires in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. This is a great thing. But consider what you do if you’re head coach at USC, UCLA, Stanford, Cal, or Washington. How do you recruit assistants with pay in the $300,000-$600,000 range to cities where the latter buys you quite a bit less than nothing? Check out home prices in Palo Alto, or in the locales neighboring Westwood, or what it costs to find a living space sort of near USC.
Contrast the above with Austin, Columbus, Greenville and other glorious college towns. No doubt Austin in particular is starting to see a Californication of its housing prices, but at the same time there’s a reason 8 Californians move to the Texas capital each day. Expensive as it is, housing prices are still much less than equal. Well paid as college assistants are today, the gap between what a $500,000 income affords you in Ann Arbor, Columbus and Greenville versus Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle is wide.
To which some will understandably reply that PAC-12 schools can arguably lay claim to the nation’s richest alums of any major conference, so why not just pay up for coaching talent? It’s a good question. One Stanford alum actually did buy houses near campus that would house assistants who couldn’t otherwise afford to live anywhere near the campus. Stanford should be a model.
Still, it speaks to a problem that wasn’t as visible in the past: who knows why, but it seems PAC-12 alums aren’t as football passionate as grads of other schools. Obviously the list of billionaire grads from schools like USC and Stanford is endless, but their money is in most ways less evident in a football sense. Contrast that with a visit to a beautiful campus like Oklahoma State’s, where the spending by the late billionaire T. Boone Pickens on the football team was much more than abundant. It seems the rich alums at ACC, Big 12 and SEC schools in particular are much more football focused than are PAC-12 alums. And it shows. If anyone doubts this, visit Auburn, Clemson, Tuscaloosa, and once again, Stillwater. Some may single out Oregon, and the spending of Phil Knight on the football team and sports in general, and they have a point. Oregon, with an alum like Knight, and a remote college campus in Eugene, may paradoxically be the PAC-12 school best situated to thrive in the new world.
About what’s been said, it’s all a speculation. It seems positive economic changes exposed a relative lack of passion within PAC-12 alums, and this truth will become more and more apparent as travel becomes easier and easier. Throw in cost of living near urban schools, along with football interest among alums of urban schools, and it may help to explain the PAC-12’s demise.
No doubt all conferences go through up and down periods, the ups and downs can often be repaired by the arrival of one or two good hires, but a lack of fan interest married to a lack of an intangible Saturday atmosphere is harder to repair. The bet here is that PAC-12 football will get worse before it gets better, assuming it gets better.