College sports will never be the same after the death of the Pac-12

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Spectators hold signs about the Pac-12 during Saturday night’s game between Cal and the UCLA Bruins in the Rose Bowl.

Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

The final weekend of the college football regular season was filled with drama and tension, competitive play and high stakes.

However, from a West Coast vantage point, it was all very disappointing, the last of the Pac-12 implosions.

It’s very disconcerting to hear all the flowery language about tradition and tradition, knowing that none of it is really that bad. Bill Walton’s “Conference of Champions” is no time to blow it up.

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In the year Born in 1915, the Conference took its last breath of the regular season at the age of 108 on Saturday night. Oh, there will be a weird bastard version of the “pac-thing” left back from Oregon State and Washington State.

But it will never be the same. College sports will never be the same.

It was fitting that the final upset over UCLA in the iconic Rose Bowl – a place where all Pac-12 teams once thought to reach – fell asleep at a time when most of the decision makers in the college football world were already there.

Over the years, “Pac-12 After Dark” has been a showcase for what’s right and wrong in college football. The interval has produced some entertaining games that have been overlooked by the rest of college football. And those same games were used against West Coast schools because attendance was often not good, because who wants to go to a college football game at 7:30 at night, without a glorious tailgate date? It was all part of tearing up and discarding tradition.

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It was also fitting that Cal UCLA should be embarrassed in their 90th and final meeting as conference siblings and rivals. After all, UCLA blew up the Pac-12 — more than any other school. The Bruins played lap dog against cross-town rival USC to join the Trojans for Big Ten treasure. It’s one thing for USC, a private school, to take such a step with only its own prestige and status in mind. But UCLA is a public university, tied to Cal by tradition, the same governing body and the same tax dollars. Two of their football coaches are the highest paid public employees in the state of California. They should stand for something different.

Leaving Cal without a second thought was tricky, so it felt right to see the Brains get embarrassed on their home field in their last meeting with Cal until the random schedule gods found West Coast College a one-time major. Playing football again.

My first college football game was UCLA-Cal, sitting on the Cal sideline with my Cal ex parents. My first college football game as a college student was the UCLA-Cal game sitting in the UCLA student hall. So, yeah, I’m a little bitter.

The ESPN broadcast was full of bittersweet moments. Dave Fleming and Brook Osweiler, both Pac-12 products, still seemed in disbelief that the end was really coming the way most of us felt. ESPN delivered an emotional segment on the conference, which felt like a ghost story, complete with Rose Bowl and Heisman Trophy winners and the most beautiful college settings in the world.

And more than one observer on social media pointed out that the whole thing was ironic because it was the battle over broadcast rights and missteps that ended the Pac-12. “‘Nobody wants the Pac-12 to end,'” said John Canzano, one of the reporters who broke the news on the conference’s demise.

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It’s often been mentioned that this has been a phenomenal year for Pac-12 football. Deion Sanders’ Colorado team captured the nation’s imagination before its demise. Despite the presence of 2022 Heisman winner Caleb Williams, USC planted a face. Two top-six teams will face off in the final Pac-12 Conference championship game: undefeated Washington and 11-1 Oregon hoping to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.

But the Pac-12 was never just about football, and that’s the real insult in all of this. The collapse of the conference would eliminate one of the historic conferences for women’s basketball, men’s basketball, women’s soccer, baseball, volleyball, softball, water polo and several other sports. Schools that have created their own real and true rivalries are now scattered into the Big Ten, ACC and Big 12.

Stanford women’s soccer heads to ACC country this week to play in the College Cup at Carey, where the NC Cardinals will face BYU — which rallied from a three-goal deficit to beat North Carolina, denied a matchup with Tar Heels coach Anson Dorrance, and their soccer program welcomed Stanford to the ACC. They will die on the vine. If the Cardinal get past BYU, they will face either Clemson or Florida State in the final ACC team. A new conference rivalry begins.

But the value of college sports is legacy and bonding. Connecting generations and sharing a common history. One of the “traditions” hailed throughout college football’s final weekend.

Here in the West, such words ring hollow.

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Reach Ann Killion: akillion@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @annkillion



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