Farewell To The Pac-12 As We Know It


Image credit: Oregon State Beavers shortstop Beau Philip (4) is congratulated by Tyler Malone (7), Adley Rutschman (35), and Alex McGarry (44) after hitting a home run during a game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs on February 16, 2019 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona. Oregon State defeated Gonzaga 9-3. (Zachary Lucy/Four Seam Images via AP)

The Pacific-12 Conference, the self-proclaimed Conference of Champions, has produced 29 College World Series winners—14 more than the Southeastern Conference.

The conference is well-represented in Cooperstown with Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Randy Johnson of Southern California, Reggie Jackson of Arizona State, Trevor Hoffman of Arizona and Mike Mussina of Stanford.

Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick pitched for the 1958 CWS-champion Trojans.

From a talent standpoint, the Pac-12 still holds its own. More than 100 active major leaguers come from the conference’s 11 schools that play baseball. Four of the last 12 players drafted No. 1 overall were drafted from Pac-12 schools.

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This season will be the last for the Pac-12 and its rich history.

Yet, there’s a thick cloud of sadness hovering over the West Coast because the Pac-12 will break up its classic lineup following the 2024 CWS in Omaha.

“I can sit here all day and tell you it’s really sad to think with that much history, that much success that has gone into the sport of baseball within this conference, and for it to go away, I know it’s hard for a lot of people,” said John Savage, who has coached UCLA to 13 regionals and a 2013 CWS title in his 18 seasons.

Savage recalled dozens of two-sport athletes who raised the conference’s profile, from UCLA’s Jackie Robinson to Cal’s Steve Bartkowski to Stanford’s John Elway to Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman.

Jim Darby, a former Cal pitcher and pitching coach before spending 40 years with the Easton manufacturer that supplied bats to many of the conference teams, already feels the pain.

“As a non-coach in the conference now, it breaks my heart,” said Darby, who broadcasts Cal games on a streaming service. “How could this have happened?”

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Simply, baseball was a victim of the sudden dynamic shift created last summer.

• Oregon and Washington joined Southern California and UCLA in moving to the Big Ten Conference for a more lucrative television contract destined to benefit football and men’s basketball immensely.

• Arizona, Arizona State and Utah followed Colorado—which doesn’t have a baseball program—to the Big 12 Conference.

• California and Stanford settled on a move to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That left Oregon State, a program that some coaches were once reluctant to admit as part of a single-conference format 25 years ago, and Washington State standing as two stores in an otherwise vacant strip mall.

It is a humbling end to a conference that was home to Southern California—the all-time leader with 12 CWS championships, including 10 under incomparable coach Rod Dedeaux—and Oregon State, whose three titles tie LSU for the most since 2000.

The Beavers won their first of two consecutive CWS titles in 2006, seven years after finally being admitted as a full-time Pac-12 member. No team has more championships than Oregon State in that time, and the Beavers are geared to make another Omaha run this season.

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“(Oregon State coach) Pat Casey built maybe the best story ever in college baseball,” said Brewers manager Pat Murphy, who won four consecutive Pac-12 titles from 2007 to 2010 at ASU. “He built a program in the state of Oregon in a great conference.”

Casey relished the struggles to reach the top, from facing future Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito of USC in the Beavers’ first game as a full conference member, to losing 22-5 to a Stanford team led by future major leaguers Carlos Quentin, Ryan Garko and Sam Fuld.

Former Arizona coach Andy Lopez, whose Wildcats won the 2012 CWS, fretted about facing a UCLA team in 2011 that featured Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, who were selected with the first and third picks in the draft, in consecutive games.

Former ASU pitching great and longtime scout Eddie Bane remembers watching his alma mater start an outfield of future major leaguers Barry Bonds, Oddibe McDowell and Mike Devereaux in 1984 “with major league outfielders sitting on the bench.”

“That’s not going to happen anymore,” said Bane, who recalled watching Arizona’s Joe Magrane face Johnson at Dedeaux Field the following spring.

“We thought that was a normal game—one great pitcher and one Hall of Fame pitcher,” Bane said.

Those were during the days of the “Six Pac,” when each of the six conference teams would play each other six times in a home-and-home series.

“Every scout in America was there every weekend,” recalled Justin Dedeaux, who played and coached for his father at USC in the 1960s and ’70s.

The younger Dedeaux contended the tough competition prepared USC well for the postseason.

“Those days, if you didn’t win the conference, you didn’t go to the NCAA (Tournament),” Dedeaux said. “(If the NCAA) put those teams in the playoffs, you’d have four or five of them in Omaha.

“For our sake, it really worked to our advantage because we didn’t have to see those teams again. If we had to see them again in the playoffs or College World Series, it would have been scary. They were that good.”

Murphy has invited Casey to serve as a spring training instructor for the Brewers, and the two vividly recall the challenge of competing against some of college baseball’s best coaches, including Mark Marquess (Stanford) and the late Mike Gillespie (USC) and Jerry Kindall (Arizona).

Murphy described his time in the Pac-12 as “a great education for me. It was a key point, learning the game of baseball” from those coaches and selected others.

“I can tell you, there was a maturity to it,” Murphy said. “The game was played pitch to pitch. It wasn’t a game you could predict. It was tactical.”

And at one time, it required a thick skin.

During its storied run in the 1970s when it won six titles, USC also was renowned for its bench jockeying.

“I never heard or saw anything like it ever in my life,” recalled Andy Lopez, who played at UCLA in 1973 and ’74 and coached at Arizona from 2002 to 2015. “I have to admit, a lot of it was pretty dang funny.”

Lopez recalled one instance when USC would make a pitching change, and five or six bench jockeys would yell “worst hitter in the Pac” at the top of their lungs.

“And then you’d strike out to confirm it,” Lopez laughed. “They’d beat you with their mouths and destroyed you on the field.”

The raging would serve them well once they got to Omaha, where they learned the locals would often root for the underdog. Those fans’ hearts were broken in 1973 when USC rallied from a 7-0 deficit in the ninth inning to beat Minnesota in the semifinals despite 15 strikeouts and one hit allowed by Dave Winfield through eight innings.

“We had a certain swagger that they would say, ‘Who do these guys think they are?’ ” Justin Dedeaux chuckled. “But we loved Omaha and had a great time. People were great, but they booed us all the time.”

Now, the booing has changed to sadness and anger as the Pac-12 will splinter after the CWS.

“If you’re really looking at the best baseball, it’s been in the SEC and the Pac-12,” Darby said. “Unfortunately, because of greed and money, the Pac-12 won’t exist.”

The SEC has run away with national dominance in the past 30 years, with 15 CWS champions since 1990 and modern parks often filled to capacity in front of TV audiences.

It remains to be seen how much of the TV money will go toward the defecting programs. Thirteen years ago, Cal baseball avoided extinction thanks to $10 million raised in six weeks by mega booster and former pitcher Stu Gordon, but now the Bears and Cardinal will make multiple trips to the East Coast for ACC games.

“I’ve served on the Cal Baseball Foundation (board) for years, and we have to go out and raise money every year to support the baseball program,” Darby said. “And now this travel?”

When Lopez coached at Florida from 1995 to 2001, “I never heard the budget one time in seven years. Obviously, if you felt you needed something you got it. (The SEC) got serious, and it’s pretty prominent now.”

Darby believes it would be beneficial to eventually revert to north and south divisions of a new conference that would include Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. The format would be similar to the California Intercollegiate Baseball Association, which competed under the umbrella of the Pacific Coast Conference from 1927 to 1966 and included selected non-PCC schools.

But Savage said his entire program has bought into the move to the Big Ten.

“We have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, and this class knew they’d be in the Pac-12 for one year, and then be in the Big Ten for two years,” Savage said.

Furthermore, Savage anticipates that having four Big Ten teams on the West Coast will provide a strong presence, fortified by non-conference games against former Pac-12 foes.

Nevertheless, traveling at least two time zones for conference games presents a challenge, especially in cooler spring climates. But Savage said that MLB often schedules games in cold climates in April.

“If we’re honest, you’ve got to recruit a kid for four years and keep him there,” said Marquess, the fourth-winningest coach in NCAA history who now serves as a special assistant in Santa Clara University’s athletic department.

“With grades and everything else at Stanford, that’s a tough deal.”

Lopez laments the Pac-12 waited until 2022 to hold its first conference tournament. Last May, the Wildcats advanced to the Pac-12 tourney finals and earned an NCAA berth after tying for eighth place during the regular season.

“We dragged our feet,” said Lopez, who asked about starting a Pac-12 Tournament in 2002 after seeing the success of the SEC Tournament and teams improving their RPI mark for NCAA Tournament consideration.

Reality will sink in on May 25 at Scottsdale Stadium in the Pac-12 title game.

“Kind of crazy we’re going to see Pac-12 baseball for the last time,” Lopez said.

“It’s a grave thought.”

Mark Gonzales is a veteran baseball writer based in Phoenix.

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