The Ball was Great; Finding Meaning in Pac-12’s Final Season

Six years ago, I had a conversation with legendary coach Mack Brown. With utter simplicity he stated, “College football is about two things: the players and the fans.”

This past week, as the maize and blue confetti draped the floor of NRG Stadium in Houston, I couldn’t help but look around and agree. Amid the flurry of changes, chaos and unprecedented movement that would challenge that very statement, the game still proved to be about those two things.

After Michigan was crowned National Champions, I stood at the 50-yard line, knowing that when the lights shut off and the celebration ended, college football as we knew it would also end. I stood there, competing with myself to take it all in. As I looked to the Michigan fans singing “The Victors,” numerous Wolverine players being interviewed, glowing UM parents taking pictures and Washington players staring at it all with tears in their eyes, time seemed to stand still.

If this was a movie, it would rewind and flashback to August 4, 2023, when time for the collective college football world also froze. That was the day when the PAC-12 Conference’s 108-year-old history would change forever.

That morning I recall walking back to my home office, sitting at my desk and like those Husky players, just staring. After a few moments, a football caught my eye. Ever since I was a child a football has been positioned on my desk, sitting close enough to grab it to throw to someone, or up in the air to myself. I’ve always known in my heart that without that ball, without the game it inspires, there are no articles to write, no podcasts to host, no playoffs to debate, and no games to broadcast.

Without the ball none of this exists.

For what seemed like hours, I stared at that ball and talked to myself. “How did this happen?” “Why is this happening?” “What’s happening to this sport?” “Is it about the players and the fans or is it now about the media and the money?”…and the concern of “What would happen to my colleagues?”

So many emotions seemed to come over me: a constant ping pong that would ricochet between denial, anger, bargaining and depression. My colleagues felt it too. And as I would come to learn, so did the West Coast players and fans.

We have all gone through the stages of grief, some of us many times over, and some of us while dealing with things much more personal than football. I’ve learned that the final two stages of grief, according to David Kessler, one of the world’s experts on that topic, are acceptance and meaning.

Would I ever find those amidst the chaos of the Pac-12’s radical and stunningly swift transformation? Would the players? The fans?

As that weekend in August went on, I did what I always did when there was Pac-12 news. I called Ted Robinson, my Hall of Fame broadcast partner. We’ve worked together for close to a decade, and during that time, Ted has not only influenced me immensely in the booth, but has also offered me sage advice as a family man, a father, a husband.

Bottom line – we had to talk.

Once we hung up from that wide-ranging yet simple chat, it was clear – we were going to celebrate this season. Ted would call it an “Irish Wake”, and if you know Ted, he can always turn a phrase to match the moment. We were going to compete to not miss a single second of PAC-12 play. The 2023 season, as fate would have it, was the conference's most talented in 20 years.

As the games became reality, our crew, led by producer Michael Molinari, would accept the newfound realization that this season would be unique. As teams won, and a record 9 found their names in the Top 25 in September, the buzz grew. The nation began to talk about the “football out west” instead of the “realignment out west.” And as we entered bowl season, that one particular one-of-a-kind team in the Pacific Northwest would separate itself.

The Washington Huskies would do the unthinkable—go undefeated in conference play, which had never been done in PAC-12 history. The Dawgs would beat Oregon twice to win the league title, beat Texas in an epic Sugar Bowl and earn a place in the National Championship game. Their season set the stage for a finale that very few outside the West Coast had predicted.

As it happened, UW would not complete the storybook ending so many hoped for out west, but they did allow for us to re-focus on what actually matters most: the ball, the players, and the fans.

As I watched Ja’Lynn Polk sit on the field for over 30 minutes after his team would lose on college football’s grandest stage, time began to move again. I watched him pick himself up, wipe away his tears, dust himself off and walk towards his locker room. One step at a time.

Heartbreaking for a senior, who would never play college football again – that’s a given. Poetic in a sport that provides better storylines than the Oscars. Symbolic, proving that life is full of moments, and we can try to slow them down. Capture them we can’t, but savor them we must.

The fact remains – life moves on, and we have to move with it, or through it.

Maybe that’s a lesson, or a reminder. Our goal should be to embrace life, to enjoy it, and to learn from it. And ultimately, to accept the twists, the turns, the fickle hand of fate. If we’re lucky, we can even find some meaning.

I know I have. And I’m grateful for every eye-opening moment, as I trust that the next magical one is right around the corner. Because the ball, and everything it represents, is still truly great.

And to the rest of the country, look out. Because football on the West Coast is only getting better.

For much of the past decade, Yogi Roth has been the lead analyst for Pac-12 football telecasts, and is also a filmmaker and NYT best-selling author.