Discover more from Bald Faced Truth by John Canzano
Canzano: Putting a face on the plight of Washington State and Oregon State
A small-town problem looms in Pullman and Corvallis.
Matthew McNelly is the pastor at Pullman Presbyterian Church. It has the good fortune of being located on Stadium Way, just three blocks from the football venue at Washington State University.
On Friday, Oregon and Washington informed the Pac-12 they’re both leaving for the Big Ten. Good for them. They’ll enjoy a superior media-rights deal, more TV exposure and a seat at the table of major college football. But it was a rotten day for some others.
For the rest of Pac-12 Conference.
For schools and fans left behind.
For tradition and history.
Also, for the youth group that McNelly oversees at his church.
‘We’re a five-minute walk to Martin Stadium,” the pastor told me. “I tell people we’re the closest parking lot you can get without having to pay a $1,000 donation to the athletic fund.”
The kids of the youth group utilize that church parking lot to fund their programs. For typical home football games, they charge $25 for a parking spot. But when WSU plays against premium opponents such as Washington, Oregon, USC or even this year’s scheduled home game against Wisconsin, they’ll get $40 or $50.
“All that goes away now,” McNelly said.
Oregon and Washington’s decision is evidence of how monomaniacally focused the college game acts in a world where television revenue matters most. The Huskies and Ducks aren’t the only offenders or the biggest ones. They’re just the latest to follow the money. Washington and Oregon didn’t just bail on the Pac-12 on Friday, they traded their old universe for a new one.
The Pac-12 was born in a downtown-Portland hotel in 1915. It has 108 years of history and has given us some wonderful moments. The conference’s college towns light up brightest on game days, Pullman among them. But Friday’s news was a sobering blow that would have left late broadcaster Keith Jackson unable to muster a “Whoaaaa..!” or even a “…Nellie!”
We’re left instead with two words from Pastor McNelly: “This stinks.”
Maybe you thought about the loss of tradition when you heard the Ducks and Huskies were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. Maybe you wondered if they’ll still bother to play the Civil War or the Apple Cup rivalry games years from now. (Will they squeeze it in for Week 3?) But McNelly’s mind drifted to the adjustments he’ll have to make to the youth-group budget after the 2023 football season.
Membership in one of the so-called Power 5 conferences doesn’t just result in College Football Playoff access and ESPN’s GameDay coming to town. It drives gift giving and enrollment at institutions. It pays for campus support programs, raises a school’s profile, and funds jobs. An entire town drafts off the energy of game day with restaurants, stores, gas stations and bars getting in on the action.
Churches get sucked into the flow, too.
A college town is a tight-knit place.
For example, the pastor said: “When Mike Leach and his staff left for Mississippi State I lost like 30 members of the congregation. We had a bunch of assistants who attended our church. In a small town like this, everybody knows everybody.”
Same goes for Corvallis and Oregon State — everybody knows everybody. Both of those Pacific Northwest schools and their fan bases face uncertain futures without the comfort and luxury of their in-state rivals alongside.
If you’re looking for a column with the details of the Pac-12’s break-up, I’ve covered it in great depth already. I suppose I’m writing this second column to demonstrate the sobering and far-reaching implications of college-football realignment. Those tentacles reach a lot of places nobody likes to think about.
When USC and UCLA left for the Big Ten, I’m not sure anyone in Southern California did more than blink. But that little church not far from WSU’s football stadium did.
“I get it,” the pastor said, “we’re incredibly blessed to have that parking lot so close to the stadium, but USC is never coming back to Pullman. UCLA is not coming back.”
Will a visit from San Diego State be a draw?
How about SMU?
The hope now for Washington State and Oregon State is that the Pac-12 can put itself back together in the coming hours, days and weeks, find a path forward and land a media-rights deal that keeps both schools relevant. Or maybe they join the Mountain West Conference as a duo.
Strength in numbers, all that.
That’s the college realignment game. Washington State and Oregon State now must play it, like it or not. But remember, the death of the Pac-12 is a gut punch for the youth group, too. That church parking lot sends kids to summer camp.
Said McNelly: “It’s a pretty sad day around here.”
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