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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: WSU, OSU vying for Pac-2 crown

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: September 23, 2023, 6:02am

There won’t be a rivalry trophy or a guaranteed trip to a prestigious bowl game or an official conference championship on the line.

But when Washington State and Oregon State meet on the field today in Pullman, you can’t help but think it’s about more than a football game. That’s what happens when two Northwest schools play for the de facto title of the Pac-2 Conference.

A little more than a year ago, the Cougars and the Beavers were part of the Pac-12 Conference, a distinguished, erudite coalition of universities with similar athletic and academic missions.

But then UCLA and the University of Southern California announced they will leave after this year for the Big Ten Conference. And Colorado said it will leave for the Big 12, followed by Utah, Arizona and Arizona State. And Oregon and Washington carved out a reverse Oregon Trail by following the Los Angeles schools to the Big Ten. And California and Stanford bolted for the Atlantic Coast Conference, turning that league’s name into an oxymoron.

So, then there were two, leaving Washington State and Oregon State without a home conference for their athletic teams, be it football or volleyball or rowing.

There is some perverse synergy in that. Both WSU and OSU are land-grant universities in small towns, and both face disadvantages while trying to compete at the highest level of college athletics. Local athletic talent is not as rich as, say, in Los Angeles; drawing talent from far away is not as easy as attracting it to, say, Seattle; and there aren’t any sugar daddies as wealthy and generous as, say, Oregon benefactor Phil Knight.

But for anybody who grew up following sports in this part of the country, there is a profound sadness in the demise of the Pac-12. And there is unavoidable empathy for the supporters of Washington State and Oregon State as they suffer through athletic homelessness.

“I don’t think it’s going to take us months to get the full picture,” WSU President Kirk Schulz said this week. “I’m optimistic that in the next 30 days or so, we’re going to have a pretty decent idea of a lot of this, and that’ll help our decision-making and our legal strategy.”

The legal strategy is fascinating. Representatives of the two schools already have won a restraining order to prevent the other Pac-12 universities from meeting while the situation is in limbo.

The fear is that the other schools will divvy up the conference’s assets on their way out the door. Given the callousness that has permeated the scenario, that is a reasonable concern; loyalty is a four-letter word in college sports.

“We owe it to ourselves, to our student-athletes, we owe it to all of our constituents to make as informed decisions as we can, and getting to this asset liability piece has always been critical in terms of making those decisions,” WSU athletic director Pat Chun said.

Now, we could rant about the absurdity of college sports. About big-time athletic departments that bring in more than $100 million a year while failing to pay the workers who generate that income. About the attention afforded to athletics. About the fact that plenty of fans know that Washington State has not been to the Rose Bowl since the 2002 season, but few know that the university has had three Nobel laureates.

But that would ignore the fact that a funny thing happened on the way to athletic purgatory.

Both the Cougars and Beavers have won their first three football games this season. Both have demonstrated they can challenge the big-name programs that thumb their noses at tradition. Both have provided a distraction from the crumbling of a historic conference.

And when they face each other on the field today, it will be the first time in their 108 meetings that both are nationally ranked.

It is fitting for the unofficial championship game of the Pac-2 Conference to feature two teams that are having successful seasons. It will be even more fitting if the Pac-2 champion can parlay that into something bigger at the end of the season.