Gold: Driven into the arms of another lover by a sport intent on breaking hearts
It’s a weird thing, saying goodbye to college sports and the Pac-12 in the same weekend.
The Pac-10 was one of my introductions to sports. I hold Toby Bailey in the same esteem as Kobe Bryant, and nobody will ever tell me different.
My first Big Boy job was covering UCLA sports for the Los Angeles Daily News. Talking to Rick Neuheisel as a neophytic 25-year-old, 2 years removed from college, was like hearing from the voice of God, if only the almighty said “you betcha” every other sentence.
Sitting with Ben Howland after the tail end of 3 Final Fours was listening to a master chef describe slicing tomatoes. He’d have the Bruins back in no time, that was for certain.
One year turned into two turned into four, and it became clear those 3 Final Fours would be the only ones. By then, 2012, my last year on the beat, Neuheisel was long gone. It turns out great recruiting only goes so far. He was replaced by Jim Mora, who seemed like a decent enough guy and a better coach, only his interviews would sometimes devolve into weird arguments. One day he pretended he didn’t know what the “yips” were. We fought about it for like 12 minutes.
Then it was off to the desert, and the raw insanity that was Rich Rodriguez and the intense spittle that was Sean Miller dominated the Tucson scene.
It was there, with the Arizona Daily Star as Pac-12 features writer and columnist, that I truly began to understand what was special with our weird league out west. Sure, there were no Final Fours and barely a sniff at the College Football Playoff, but there were stories aplenty.
How many days did I sit chatting with Stanford coach David Shaw, talking about gun violence, life in the African-American community, raising children in an unforgiving world, and coaching them, too? Anything but football.
How many hours spent with Mike Candrea, the legendary Arizona softball coach, just aching to return the Wildcats to prominence?
Countless words about #Pac12AfterDark and about the fall of USC and about the rise of Oregon.
And then, after a half-decade hiatus from following the full time, a grand return, becoming columnist for Saturday Out West, days before USC and UCLA announced they were leaving for the Big Ten.
Talk about an auspicious start.
And now comes the end.
This is my last column for Saturday Out West and perhaps my final column on college sports, ever.
I’m running into the arms of a new lover, driven away by a sport that seems hellbent on exploding and a power structure that arms the few — a precious few — over the many. The fans. The players. The teams. The schools. Tradition and rivalry. Regionality and quirks. Most of all, fun.
The few, over the many.
My two great loves as a child: sports and sports cards.
I’m leaving one for the other.
I start this week as Brand Editorial Manager for PSA and its parent company, Collectors, where I’ll talk about baseball cards and hobbies and why Eddie Jones’ 1994-95 SP Holoview Die-Cut rookie card is the greatest card ever made.
But this isn’t just about running toward something special.
It’s also about a broken heart and broken fences.
It’s also about the disappointment of watching the league I loved go by the wayside because of the invasion of a foreign entity. Well, 2 interlopers, really: ESPN and Fox.
They deemed the Pac-12 poachable, an asset to be raided, stripped of parts and sold off to the highest bidders. You can’t blame UCLA or USC — or any of the league’s former schools — for finding new, more suitable homes.
You can blame Larry Scott and George Kliavkoff for their incompetence, sure, but the league’s undoing was caused by far more than 2 overmatched executives. This was a dozen college presidents and chancellors who read the tea leaves wrong for a dozen years. This was a horde of consultants run amok. This was overspending and greed and hubris all wrapped up into one.
And now it’s over.
The Trojans and Bruins to the Big Ten along with Oregon and Washington, the 4 Corners schools heading to the Big-12. Cal and Stanford somehow absconding for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Oregon State and Washington State left up to pick up the pieces of a once-proud conference.
It would be laughable if it weren’t so damn sad.
I’ll miss Sparky and Oski and the weirdest darn mascot in college athletics, the Stanford Tree.
I’ll miss Bill Walton and his fungibility of the English language. I’ll miss Pauley Pavilion and Heritage Hall and Hillenbrand Stadium and checking in with the best Sports Information Director in the country, Arizona State’s Doug Tammaro.
I’ll miss UCLA baseball coach John Savage and basketball coaches Mick Cronin and Cori Close, more sages than sports teachers.
I’ll miss the Pac-12 for what it was and what it could have been and what it will forever be: The Conference of Champions.