The road to the college football hinterlands is stunning, winding its way through Oregon’s Willamette Valley, hills and vines in all directions, home to vineyards producing some of the world’s finest pinot noir. If you take State Highway 99W south from Portland, the drive takes a little longer, but, says Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes, “It’s absolutely worth it.” Eventually Barnes’s town, Corvallis, emerges as if from nowhere, all leafy streets and country diners, Hawaiian barbecue takeout carried back to dorms by students in oversized sweats. Signs plastered around campus call this “The Best College Town in the Pac-12,” and the label feels deserved.
Well, at least for now.
Next year, of course, the Pac-12 will be reduced to the Pac-2, and after next year, who knows. Like Washington State, the other member of the Pac-2, Oregon State is a school with a proud athletics tradition and a passionate fan base that now finds itself frozen out of college sports’ endless rounds of consolidation and realignment, left, at least temporarily, without a major conference home. The other 10 schools in their conference will all bolt for new leagues next year, essentially dissolving the West Coast’s lone power conference, which has existed for 108 years. USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington are all going to the Big Ten. And for good measure, so is Oregon State’s coach, Jonathan Smith, who accepted the head job at Michigan State this weekend. Meanwhile, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah are all headed to the Big 12. Cal and Stanford, both of which sit near the Pacific Ocean, are headed, quite (un)naturally, to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The moves are motivated, largely, by television rights money. When conferences can promise networks access to more big markets and the chance to broadcast more high-profile games, they can demand more of that money. A regular-season game between Oregon and Michigan might not have any historical roots and might be wildly inconvenient for traveling players and fans, but when Fox puts the game on its network, many millions will watch.
So much, though, is being lost as the sport’s structure shifts. College football derives its beauty from its loose network of regional grievances, schools in each pocket of the country largely battling among themselves until they send a lone representative across the country to battle the best team from someplace else. Fans across the South chant “SEC! SEC!” because they want to believe Alabama’s or Georgia’s dominance says something about their own hometown. But there’s no point in taking pride in a conference when some leagues stretch, quite literally, from coast to coast.
The sport’s beauty, too, is found in its forgotten places. In the knowledge that there are campuses in Lubbock and West Lafayette, Pullman and Corvallis, with passion and traditions that have persisted through fallow decades, with enthusiasm that reaches a boiling point whenever their programs topple the richer and more glamorous schools from just down the road. But maintaining that beauty relies on giving all of these schools a place in the sport’s power structure, a chance to continue playing conference games against the schools they’ve competed with for more than a hundred years.
All of that is being sacrificed, at least for now, here in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon State and Washington State find themselves in the same position: two programs rooted in small towns and overshadowed by larger in-state rivals, but both with a history of testing and even beating the conference’s best, now left behind as the rest of their conference’s members accept invitations to other leagues.
“We want to prove all these other schools wrong,” says Oregon State senior center Jake Levengood, one of the Beavers’ captains. “We deserve to play with these guys too.”
On football game days, Corvallis transforms, all roads leading to Reser Stadium, pathways clogged with pickup trucks waving Beaver flags and with tailgaters in orange and black and camouflage polishing off light beers and hard seltzers as they stumble to the gates. Reser holds 35,548 people, second smallest in the Pac-12 (with Washington State’s Martin Stadium as the smallest), but, points out Barnes, unlike many other programs around college football, “We will sell out every game this year. That’s pretty special.” Barnes beams when talking about the work they’ve put into renovations, with comfortable seating in every section, a bit of a rarity in a sport where many stadiums still use bleachers; impeccable sight lines; and a wide-open corridor called Beaver Street, where fans can grab a pizza and a beer and watch the game from what feels like an open-air sports bar. A few minutes before the Stanford game in early November, that’s where I find Kerry Smith, a tall and warm 62-year-old man who’s here to watch the game with his son, Richard.
“I’ve been here my whole life,” Kerry says. Born and raised in Corvallis, he remembers summers swimming in the Willamette River, winters heading to the mountains for snow, quick trips to the Oregon coast all year round. He spread his mom’s ashes at Mary’s Peak, the tallest mountain in the Oregon Coast Range. “There’s just a lot of family history here,” he says.
A big piece of that history: Beavers football. For years, that meant hope and suffering in equal measure. “Growing up,” he says, “we were just hoping they would score. That’s where it was back in the day.” Between 1975 and 1998, Oregon State did not have a single winning season. The challenges were obvious. Smaller school without a significant endowment, often in the shadow of the University of Oregon just 45 miles south, and nowhere near the recruiting bases that stocked the rosters of most of the rest of the conference. And that was before Nike president Phil Knight transformed Oregon’s athletics department with his lavish spending on the program’s facilities, resources, and uniforms.
Starting in the late ’90s, Dennis Erickson and Mike Riley built the Beavers program to a level of baseline competence, beating the teams they were supposed to beat and pulling off the occasional earth-tilting win—defeating Notre Dame in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, upsetting no. 3 USC in 2006, no. 2 Cal in 2007, and no. 1 USC in 2008. After a fallow period in the 2010s, the Beavers found themselves looking for a new coach in 2017. Kerry knew exactly who he wanted: former Beavers quarterback turned Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith. Kerry remembers telling anyone who would listen, “We gotta bring him home.”
Smith rebuilt the Beavers quickly, winning 10 games last year and rising as high as no. 11 in the College Football Playoff rankings this season. Now Smith is leaving a top-25 program and his alma mater to take the job at a Michigan State program that has suffered through two straight losing seasons. The uncertainty at Oregon State almost certainly factored into his decision to leave. During his time in Corvallis, though, Smith showed that with the right coach, OSU can compete on the national stage. Last season, the Beavers blasted Florida 30-3 in the Las Vegas Bowl. This year, the Beavers remained in the thick of the Pac-12 title race until their narrow loss to Washington. A lot of programs preach toughness and discipline and winning in the trenches. Under Smith, the Beavers actually did it.
“That’s a brand that fits this place,” says Smith, sitting in a meeting room at the football facility one Friday afternoon, several weeks before taking the job at Michigan State. He points to Corvallis’s location, a small town in northwest Oregon with a recruiting base of big kids from the rural Northwest. “It’s a brand we can recruit to. It’s not going to be 80 degrees. It’s going to be a little damp. It’s going to be a little cold, maybe a little sloppy. And so building that brand of physicality, you can do that here, versus more open sets, more emphasis on skill, the kind of brand that may be for better weather spots.”
This is part of what makes college football great: the fact that so many programs are built in the image of their own communities. Oregon State will push you around because it rains year-round and large men roam the Willamette Valley. USC will sling the ball all over the field because SoCal parents hire private quarterback coaches when their sons are still in middle school. Georgia will maul you in the trenches because kids below the “gnat line” are raised on biscuits and Oklahoma drills. BYU will play disciplined football because its college students are teetotaling 26-year-olds.
College football is not built on parity, as the NFL is. Fans are sold no false hope that if they just wait long enough, their team will get its chance to win a title. You cannot lose your way into a franchise quarterback, can’t trust that if you hire the right offensive wunderkind, you’ll be one roster flip away from glory. As a program, your ceiling is defined by the wallets of your donor base and the talent within a few hours’ drive of your campus.
And yet. So much of what makes the sport special happens deep beneath the surface of the national title race. If the NFL is 32 franchises desperate for one trophy, college football is hundreds of fan bases desperate for the chance to mock their buddy down the street. As someone who married into a family of Alabama fans, I can tell you, even they don’t spend that much time reminiscing about how they won their cabinetful of national championship trophies, but they will never shut up about when Auburn got its ass kicked by New Mexico State. The NFL season is a steady march toward the Super Bowl. The college football season is a spasmodic lurch through a minefield of petty feuds. In one corner of the country, at, say, the Georgia-Florida game, those feuds include grown adults smacking their arms in alligator pantomime or barking at one another like dogs. In another, here in Corvallis, they include shotgunning beer in camo overalls and celebrating turnovers with a chainsaw. The sport is a window into hundreds of corners of the country most of us would never get to see, each with their delightful absurdities, all built on bone-deep desire to cause misery in anyone who would dare cheer for their state’s other team.
Of course, college football is now, as it has long been, a multibillion-dollar business. Coaches are signing contracts worth upward of $100 million. Now that players can benefit from their name, image, and likeness, USC quarterback Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman winner, is on television every week in ads for Nissan and Wendy’s and Dr. Pepper. Drive through the rural South, and you’ll see backups from nearby programs on billboards for local businesses. TV execs, university presidents, and coaches are all getting richer. And even second-string SEC linebackers are getting paid.
As the myth of amateurism has been stripped from the sport, so has the romantic idea that college athletics—or at least college football—serves a purpose higher than generating money for all involved. Over the course of his career, Barnes has been through four separate rounds of realignment. “It runs in cycles for different reasons,” he says, “all of which, I think over history, ties to money.”
At first, Kerry thought his Beavers and much of the rest of the Pac-12 would remain intact. USC and UCLA each announced last year that they were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. The move made no sense culturally or logistically, as the Trojans and Bruins were committing to sending student-athletes in sports like basketball and volleyball as far away as New Jersey for midweek conference games. But it made sense financially, as it allowed the Big Ten to demand more money from its broadcast partners, Fox chief among them, for the rights to televise the league’s football games. “This is OK,” Kerry remembers thinking. “We’re gonna be OK.” Then, this past summer, Colorado announced it was leaving for the Big 12. (Buffs coach Deion Sanders, who had nothing to do with the decision to change conferences, put it plainly when asked about the larger trend: “All this is about money, you know that. It’s about a bag, everybody’s chasing the bag.”) Still, after CU’s departure, Kerry wasn’t overly concerned. “We can rebuild this,” Kerry remembers thinking of the Pac-12. “We’ll just bring in a couple other schools.”
Instead, Oregon and Washington followed the Buffaloes on their way out the door, leaving instead for the Big Ten. A Pac-12 without the two big L.A. schools—one a football power, the other a men’s basketball blue blood—had already lost its luster. Now also without the two programs that have dominated the conference this season? The Pac-12 no longer felt like a power conference at all. That was when the full exodus started. The Arizona schools and Utah bolted for the Big 12. Cal and Stanford, two Bay Area rivals and elite academic institutions, committed to staying together, searching for a life raft, until finally accepting invites to the ACC for far less money than the conference’s other schools had received. Which left the Beavers and Cougars. The Pac-12 was now the Pac-2.
At the center of all this: television rights money. The Pac-12 was years behind its fellow conferences. Former commissioner Larry Scott helped start the Pac-12 Network, years before the ACC and SEC followed suit, but unlike those leagues’ channels, few television providers carried the network. More recently, the league had struggled to get the kind of payout from a linear television network that other leagues commanded and had turned to Apple TV for a proposed rights deal that would put all Pac-12 games on the streaming platform, similar to the deal Apple has with MLS. The deal would have guaranteed each school $23 million per year, with escalations that could have brought that number up to more than $50 million per year, depending on the number of subscribers. By comparison, each Big Ten school receives $58.8 million per year from the conference’s current media rights deal, and each SEC school receives $49.9 million.
Barnes, the Oregon State athletic director, says the leaders of Pac-12 member schools were skeptical of the Apple deal at first, but he believed many presidents and athletic directors came to see potential in the platform. “Let’s not forget that Apple and streaming is where all of this is going,” he says. “It took some time, but all of us warmed to it and were ready because of the growth potential and being ahead of the curve.” Barnes said that he thought the deal was in place until “one individual” (he won’t say who) influenced “one university” (he won’t say which), starting the domino effect that led to the exodus. Within a matter of hours, the deal turned “fragile.” Within a matter of weeks, eight of the league’s remaining 10 schools were on their way out the door.
And so a 108-year-old conference built on equally old rivalries that had long served as the grandest stage for college sports on the West Coast has, essentially, dissolved over television money. “You have media companies dictating what’s going on, when in fact college athletics was built on regional rivalries,” says Barnes. “You go all the way back, and what made this industry and this educational experience so special to fans was the regionality of it. And that’s being carved up by media companies and influencing presidents and, ultimately, ADs.”
In many ways, none of this is new. The Southwest Conference was once a locus of power in the sport in the ’70s and ’80s, home of Darrell K. Royal’s Texas teams and the Pony Express, the pre–death penalty powerhouse SMU. Until Texas and several schools left in 1996 to join Oklahoma and others in the Big Eight, which became the Big 12, and Arkansas left for the SEC. The Big East was a fringe power football conference and perhaps the most hallowed league in all of college basketball until Miami and Virginia Tech left for the ACC in 2004, the first steps in the league’s slow demise. (The league has of course been rebuilt in basketball and other sports, though in vastly different form.) Nebraska abandoned its biggest rivals, Colorado and Oklahoma, to jump to the Big Ten in 2011, and the same year, Colorado bolted westward for the Pac-12, only to return to the Big 12 as a prodigal son. The next year, Texas A&M abandoned its long-standing rival Texas to jump to the SEC, bringing Missouri with it from the Big 12.
Yet there is something so much more brazen about the current round of reshuffling. The SEC continues its slow creep westward, adding Texas and Oklahoma, while the ACC now stretches from Coral Gables to Berkeley, the Big Ten from Piscataway to Pasadena. Already this year, Colorado and BYU have hosted football games that kick off at 10 a.m. local time to accommodate Fox’s broadcast schedule, which prioritizes ownership of the “Big Noon” eastern time slot. Next season, it seems likely that USC or UCLA will host 9 a.m. kickoffs for the very same reason. In football, these changes seem silly. In other sports, they seem unreasonably taxing for student-athletes, who will now have to travel across the country to play midweek games against conference opponents.
And for many fans, the rivalries that long ago stitched themselves into the fabric of local communities have now dissolved. With only a few exceptions, Oregon and Oregon State have played each other every year since 1894. While Ducks coach Dan Lanning has said he wants the rivalry to continue, Oregon’s 2024 schedule has been finalized, and the Beavers are nowhere to be found. It’s now unclear when the two might play again. “It’s incomprehensible to think we’re not going to play U of O in a football game next year,” says Kerry Smith, the OSU fan, standing in Reser Stadium. “There’s no more bragging rights in the state, right?” He thinks back to last year, when the Beavers beat the Ducks 38-34, their second win over their rivals in three years. Carrying the high from that victory, he says, “It’s like that’s the whole deal. We’ve had this win to hold on to the whole year.” He pauses, shakes his head. “It still hasn’t really set in,” he says. “It won’t until next fall, when none of those games are on the schedule.
“It’s just devastating. In so many ways.”
Drive north from Corvallis, up through Portland, and then east, hundreds of miles through the Columbia River Gorge, water slicing through jagged earth, then north across the state border, and eventually you hit the arid hills of Eastern Washington, tiny towns appearing and vanishing in an instant. This is the Palouse, a region of wheat fields and legume farms, beautiful and desolate. Just a few miles from the Idaho border, nestled in between a few hills, you’ll find Pullman, home of the Washington State Cougars, the second member of the soon-to-be Pac-2.
Washington State was founded in 1890, 29 years after the University of Washington, as a land grant university—essentially, a university built with funds derived from the sale of land that the federal government granted to states, with an explicit edict that they build universities focused on agriculture and engineering. Explains Brian Floyd, a WSU alum who has covered college football for SB Nation and USA Today, “UW got the white-collar professions. The med school, business school, law school. WSU got the agriculture programs, then architecture, construction, nursing. So there’s always a cultural tension that comes from that.” The stereotypes are natural. “If you’re from money, or you have money, or you’re going into money, you go to UW,” he says. “If you’re from a farm, or you’re looking to get away, you go to WSU.” At every year’s Apple Cup, he says, those differences are on full display. “One is a Busch Light, hot dog tailgate. The other is a wine and cheese tailgate.”
Though the stereotypes exist for a reason, Pullman draws students from across the state, not just the farmland of Washington’s rural eastern half. Plenty of Seattle kids find their way there and fall in love. “There’s something special about the place,” says Floyd. “There’s a bond between the people that have lived there.” So much of that is built on its very isolation. “It’s not like we’re living in the tundra, exactly, but you are in this isolated area in your formative years. That’s a different experience than a lot of other schools.”
I arrive in Pullman on a Sunday afternoon, the day after a Cougars loss to Cal, and I walk into My Office, a sports bar downtown. But the talk of the bar is not this year’s Wazzu team, or the Seahawks, who are playing the Commanders on a few TVs.
“Your gas back on?” a 50-something man named Pete asks the bartender.
“Oh yeah,” she says. “We just got it back.”
There’s been an outage. Lasting for days, all across the Palouse, after a “landowner trying to install a drainage pipe” broke through a pipeline, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Now, thousands in the region have gone days without heat. But today, workers are restoring service, and the town is coming back to life. So here Pete sits, warming up and watching football.
Born in the San Juan Islands, off the coast of northwest Washington, Pete moved here for college, to play golf for the Cougs. “I loved it right away,” he says. It’s quieter here, hundreds of miles from the state’s major population centers on the coast. “People are kind and welcoming. It’s easy to know everybody.” The town transforms on fall Saturdays, when tens of thousands of people pour in from all across the state to watch the Cougs. Over the years, it’s had plenty of struggles, but like Oregon State, Washington State often finds a way to punch above its weight. The Ryan Leaf–led team that made the Rose Bowl in 1998. Mike Leach–coached teams that flung footballs all over the field in his Air Raid offense and pulled off enough upsets to consistently reach the top 25. This year, the Cougs started strong, even delivering the Beavers their first loss of the season, before things unraveled. But now, Pete says, “I worry these two programs are gonna get killed.”
That’s a disaster scenario, one that seems unlikely. But what’s clear is that, at least for now, Wazzu and Oregon State will slip away, for at least some period of time, from their place in college sports’ power structure and from their biggest rivals. (Though Washington and Washington State have announced they will continue to play in all sports for the next five years, those games will carry much lower stakes as nonconference matchups.) “In the history of the conference,” says Floyd, “it has felt like we’re the low kids on the totem pole. The fear has always been that we would get screwed. And those fears have come to light.” It’s hard not to feel abandoned—by the conference, by their rivals, even by the media that covers college sports. Earlier this year, ESPN’s Lee Corso called the Washington State–Oregon State game the “nobody-wants-us bowl.” With Oregon State ranked 12th in the country and preparing to host undefeated Washington in November, most in Corvallis assumed that College GameDay would be on its way to town. Instead, the show decided to travel to James Madison University, far away from any awkward reminders of the role television networks have played in the fracturing of the sport. “We want to beat all these ‘big-name’ schools,” says Levengood, the OSU captain, “to show people we are one of the big-name schools.”
On the field, both teams have kept fighting. Washington State blew out Colorado in the Cougars’ final home game, taking a 42-7 lead by halftime. Oregon State nearly ended Washington’s undefeated season a day later. Both teams suffered defeats to their in-state rivals to close the regular season—Wazzu narrowly, OSU in a rout. The future of their programs now rests in the hands of administrators and judges. “The optimistic scenario,” says Floyd, “is that we hang on for dear life.”
This month, WSU and OSU gained sole control of the Pac-12 after a judge granted them a preliminary injunction that prevents the 10 departing schools from voting on the conference’s board. As a result, they maintain control of the league’s assets and intellectual property. Essentially, they own the brand. “We want to preserve that as long as we can,” says Barnes, “as we think about our options and see what we can do with it.”
The most discussed option involves rebuilding the conference, perhaps through a merger with the Mountain West Conference. That would root OSU and WSU in a league with schools scattered across the West Coast, though no one would mistake that rebuilt league for the Pac-12 as it exists now, with five teams ranked in the College Football Playoff top 25. Still, when Barnes is asked about the future of Oregon State athletics, even as the shifting tectonic plates of realignment leave them in a place of crisis, he turns animated. “In a weird, almost twisted way, this gets me energized almost every day,” he says. Washington reportedly approached Barnes about its athletic director position this fall, but last month, he said that he would not pursue it. “I feel convicted to want to see this through.”
Who knows how long that process will take or where it might lead. But something has been lost here in the Pacific Northwest, at least for now, as two of the communities that contribute to the constellation of college football traditions find themselves cut off from the schools they’ve competed with for more than a century. Someday, Barnes believes, those rivalries will return. He can’t imagine college sports without them.
“The regionality of college athletics has been lost,” he says. “But not for long. It just doesn’t make sense.” And for now, there is still that drive, up through Willamette Valley wine country and across the Columbia River Gorge, over and around the arid hills of the Palouse, connecting these two small towns in this most remote corner of the country, stitched together by shared grief over all that’s been lost and clinging together over the traditions that can still be saved, the memories that can still be built.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the location of Corvallis, the direction one travels when driving from Corvallis to Pullman, and that the Pac-12 Network launched before the Big Ten Network.