SEATTLE — The text came through early, well before Dave Zeeck woke up.
Blurry eyed, he rolled over toward his phone, glanced at it and did a double take. The sender, Washington president Ana Mari Cauce, had written a few short words to Zeeck, the chair of the university’s board of regents. Three of them stuck out.
Oregon is in.
Zeeck immediately knew what that meant: Washington and Oregon’s move to the Big Ten was complete. On the morning of Aug. 4, the duo’s decision landed like a combination punch, leaving the Pac-12 crippled — the latest blow to a conference sent staggering after, first, a left hook from USC and UCLA in July 2022 and then a gut-punch from Colorado just a week prior.
Oregon and Washington, together, served up the knockout swing for a 108-year-old conference, a stunning collapse that had been building over a decade of missteps.
“It was both of us or none of us,” Zeeck said earlier this week in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “The consensus was that if Oregon came along, we’d do it.”
Two months later, in an incredible tiff of irony, the Huskies and Ducks — the Big Ten’s Pacific Northwest package — are, arguably, the Pac-12’s best chance at a national championship in the league’s final year of existence. On Saturday here in Seattle, they meet as top-10 teams for the first time in the 123-year history of the series — the rare unbeaten showdown in the Pac-12 (the league’s first unbeaten game this late in a season since 2004).
While the game on the field may determine the trajectory of this college football season — after all, Washington is No. 7 and Oregon is No. 8 — the game off the field shapes the trajectory of the college football landscape. A former newspaper executive, words are not lost on Zeeck in describing a decision that opened one door (the Big Ten) and imploded another (the Pac-12).
“It was like watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Cadillac,” he said.
Washington and Oregon — Rivals turned partners
Two days before Washington hosts Oregon in one of the most anticipated games of the 2023 football season, Troy Dannen is completing his first full week on the job.
His first game as UW’s athletic director — the biggest in Husky Stadium in at least seven years — is something of a wild coincidence. The former Tulane AD was offered the job seven days ago, flew here with his family five days ago and started work four days ago.
Hours before they meet on the field, the 57-year-old Iowan is still learning about this rivalry, one of the fiercest border wars in the country.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to has said this game means as much to them as any we will play this season,” Dannen says.
This series can get nasty between two fan bases that often do not see eye to eye.
Washington prides itself as old money, a high-academic institution claiming to be a historic blue-blood power, the centerpiece of a metropolis bursting with big tech. Oregon is new money, backed by a Jordan-wearing sugardaddy whose resources have helped lead to its transformation as one the nation’s most recognizable brands despite a rural location — and a losing record in this very series.
The bitterness knows no bounds. There is deep hatred here dating back decades.
In 1948, Washington rallied enough votes within the Pacific Coast Conference to cost Oregon a trip to the Rose Bowl. In 1962, Washington students, rushing the field before the final whistle, impeded an Oregon receiver attempting to catch a final, would-be game-winning pass (it ended in a tie). And in 1995, the Huskies tried to keep Oregon out of the Cotton Bowl with a lobbying effort from UW head coach Jim Lambright.
There was the Rick Neuheisel and Mike Bellotti feud of the early 2000s, Oregon’s streak of 12 consecutive wins in the series and a 70-pointer that Washington posted to end that skid in 2016.
There’s plenty of simmering family dynamics this week. Take for instance Andrew Minear, the director of UW’s NIL collective. His nephew, an Oregon student, reached out to him this week about getting a ticket for the big game.
“No,” Minear told him, “I’m not having someone in Oregon gear anywhere near me.”
Pete Shimer, a long-time booster and season-ticket holder who played basketball at Washington in the 1980s, describes the two schools as “frenemies.” And while such a description is disagreeable to most around this rivalry, his statement is fitting given their Big Ten package deal.
“Washington and Oregon,” Shimer said. “Together they were likely to have a better chance at a move elsewhere.”
Most know the gist of the story by now. In a meeting on Aug. 1, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff presented to league presidents a new television package with Apple that, for two separate reasons, was considered inadequate.
For one, the deal’s base per-school payout of $23 million a year was at least $7 million below Kliavkoff’s predictions, and the deal’s all-streaming concept differed from the linear-streaming combination they expected.
Washington and Oregon administrators began “scrambling,” says one official. For three days, they balanced intense negotiations with Big Ten officials while having ongoing discussion with Pac-12 colleagues over the Apple deal, keeping both doors ajar, uncertain of which they’d march through.
In a fascinating wrinkle, the two programs needed one another for their realignment shift. But during a wild three-day stretch in early August, they weren’t always on the same page. One day, Oregon was in and Washington was out. Another day, Oregon was out and Washington was in.
Like a romantic couple unwittingly thrust together by external forces, they twisted the night away, moving from one dance floor to another. Pac-12. Big Ten. Pac-12. Big Ten.
Suddenly, two of the country’s fiercest rivals had transformed into tango partners, their athletic directors, Rob Mullens of Oregon and Jennifer Cohen of Washington, and university presidents in constant communication during a chaotic 72 hours.
“It was on and off at different degrees,” said an industry source with knowledge of the negotiations. “Every hour, it changed.”
Talks with the Big Ten moved rapidly. And there was a reason for that. Discussions between the two programs and the Big Ten began months prior, after the announced departure of USC and UCLA.
In August of 2022, one month after the Trojans and Bruins’ news emerged, Washington and Oregon each sent to Big Ten headquarters a 40-plus page slide presentation in an attempt to convince the league to acquire them. Yahoo Sports obtained both slideshows.
“The case for Oregon to the Big Ten,” the Ducks’ presentation slideshow kicks off.
“Advancing academic, athletic and financial prosperity: a partnership between the Big Ten Conference and University of Washington,” the Huskies’ first slide reads.
They were far from alone.
Within the Big Ten office last summer, then-commissioner Kevin Warren led an expansion exploration that spanned more than a dozen schools, many of whom reached out to the league about an acquisition after the Los Angeles schools joined. Conference office administrators created a list of desired programs thought to be attainable, according to multiple sources who have seen the list.
They included Notre Dame, North Carolina, Clemson, Florida State, Pitt, Kansas, Cal, Stanford, Arizona, Virginia and, of course, Oregon and Washington. In fact, outside counsel for UO and UW met with Big Ten administrators twice last year — once in Chicago and another in New York.
“We had this list of schools and went through it with the chancellors and presidents,” said a conference official who wished to remain anonymous. “Kevin wanted them [Oregon and Washington] to come in with USC and UCLA, but for whatever reason, the L.A. schools didn’t want to create a West Coast pod. He wasn’t able to convince them.”
A year later, after that wild three-day stretch in August, a $60 million commitment from Fox and at least a few angry Big Ten administrators who were vehemently against another expansion, the Ducks and Huskies — together of course! — were in.
'It was sh**' — Bad deals or the Big Ten
Around the time of Big Ten media days, July 26-27, new commissioner Tony Petitti gathered his athletic directors for a meeting.
One of the topics: expansion.
“We were done expanding,” said one Big Ten administrator with direct knowledge of the meeting. “Tony thought it was done, too. We’d walked away from Oregon and Washington [the previous year]. We were done.”
All of that changed.
On July 27, the first domino toppled. Incensed over the delay in a television package announcement, Colorado chancellor Phil DiStefano and athletic director Rick George made the decision to move to the Big 12 starting in 2024.
A day later, Pac-12 leaders held a meeting where Kliavkoff assured the room that the Buffaloes’ departure would not impact any impending deal. He even previewed the television contract options, multiple administrators who were in the room recall.
Officials would have two options to consider: (1) a more traditional TV package, with partners like ESPN, Fox, CBS and a streamer; and (2) a predominantly streaming package with subscription-based incentives.
They’d get more details at a meeting Aug. 1. The league had given networks a July 31 deadline to submit bids.
By midnight on July 31, the Pac-12 received one bid: the Apple package. It was the first official offer from a media partner since the conference turned down a bid from ESPN the previous fall (ESPN offered $30 million per school).
During that Aug. 1 meeting, athletic directors and presidents learned of the details of the Apple deal, all of which failed to live up to expectations.
One Pac-12 administrator described it thusly: “It was sh**.”
It was a massive disappointment given the long journey here. The Pac-12 had spent more than a year searching for a television contract.
Kliavkoff occasionally updated presidents — not athletic directors — during board meetings. Presentations were made using text-heavy slide decks, listing potential suitors but almost never revealing figures, aside from Kliavkoff’s months-long contention that any Pac-12 deal would be better than their Big 12 rivals ($31 million per school). That was important. Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark was in heavy pursuit to poach several Pac-12 schools.
Through the months, Kliavkoff juggled conversations with a host of networks. CBS wanted a small piece of basketball games. Talks with Amazon never really materialized because the streamer wanted exclusive rights to all games for a paltry fee.
Fox and ESPN were open to a small piece of the package, but together were not enough to get near the Big 12’s number. There were even talks with The CW, which ultimately struck a sub-licensing agreement with ESPN to televise ACC games this season.
And then there was NBC.
The league entered deep enough negotiations that NBC and USA Network were presented as legitimate places for the Pac-12’s A-package of football games. And then, during a meeting in late spring or early summer, the bad news arrived.
“Hey, guys, NBC is out,” one person says describing the meeting.
“Poof, it was gone,” says a person who had knowledge of the call. “The presidents had to be leaving these meetings going, ‘What the f*** is going on?’ The league lost all credibility. Schools lost faith.”
And yet, there was still a chance for the Pac-12 to be salvaged.
In fact, Oregon mega-booster Phil Knight supported the streaming deal, maybe not the distribution amount, but the concept at least. The Apple deal was presented Aug. 1. On Aug. 2 and 3, presidential calls went rather smoothly. Washington president Ana Mari Cauce, who was chair of the board, and Oregon president John Karl Scholz, on the job only four months, expressed an intent to remain in the conference and sign the agreement at a meeting scheduled for Friday morning, Aug. 4.
However, while leaders discussed with Pac-12 colleagues the nature of the Apple deal, they were negotiating with the Big Ten as well. On Aug. 2, the jig was up. In a story broken by Yahoo Sports, Big Ten presidents were mobilizing to formally invite the two schools.
“On that Wednesday, it was shared with us that Fox was in the mix offering more money,” a Big Ten source said. “It would not be dilutive. It was new money. We’d already studied the demographics and realities [on UW and UO] last year, so it moved quickly.”
That doesn’t mean all schools agreed. Ohio State, Michigan, and especially Penn State, were at first against more expansion. Though they eventually voted for the move, leaders in State College expressed disappointment to the point that one administrator described their feelings on adding Oregon and Washington as “no f****** way.”
Back in Seattle and Eugene, things see-sawed over the two days of Aug. 2-3.
At a Washington board of regents meeting on that Thursday night, Cohen and Cauce shared an update of two options with regents: the Apple deal or the Big Ten. The meeting ended without a course of action known but with knowledge that a Big Ten invitation was imminent if the schools agreed on the reduction of shares.
“We felt certain [the Big Ten] invite would come,” Zeeck said. “We talked about it. We walked through the legal benefits and risks and gave our support to the president on any decision.”
At the time, it was unclear that Oregon and Washington were in agreement on the Big Ten’s latest expansion offer, Zeeck said.
There is conflicting information on what happened next.
Big Ten administrators went to bed Thursday thinking the deal was “dead,” having received word that Cauce was ultimately against the move to the Big Ten.
“Overnight, she flipped. That’s what happened,” said one person with knowledge of the talks.
Others say Oregon resisted on agreeing until late, possibly to leverage a better Big Ten offer.
“We were anxious about the terms of the deal,” Zeeck said. “Was it enough?”
Who's to blame and what lies ahead?
Back in Seattle, five days on the job, Troy Dannen is faced with one of the biggest challenges of his career: getting Washington to excel in the Big Ten despite taking a roughly 50% share of conference revenue — and without help from the Nike billionaire.
While all other Big Ten teams will earn about $60 million next year, Washington and Oregon will start at $30 million with an increase of $1 million until the expiration of the Big Ten’s seven-year television deal with Fox, CBS and NBC. The schools will become full-earning members under the league’s next media contract.
The distribution isn’t the only issue. There’s travel, too. Washington’s nine-game Big Ten conference schedule next year includes five road games totaling nearly 20,000 miles roundtrip.
There are other financial matters. The school used much of its reserves — nearly $40 million — during the pandemic; there's a department deficit of nearly $8 million in the next fiscal year; and there will soon be an increase in debt services payment on Husky Stadium renovations.
There’s also the matter of current head coach Kalen DeBoer, a former NAIA coach whose career in Seattle has started by winning 16 of his first 18 games. One of the most attractive names in America as the coaching hiring cycle fast approaches, DeBoer earns $4.2 million a year, which ranks 44th nationally. That figure would put him 12th in the Big Ten, only higher than coaches at Purdue and Rutgers.
DeBoer, an offensive guru from the Jeff Tedford coaching tree, shakes off any thoughts of leaving Seattle.
“I’m all about being at U-Dub,” he told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “This place is amazing and special. It’s been an awesome ride here. This place has the bones of a championship program. It doesn’t go back a couple years. It goes back decades.”
There are plenty of positives to this Big Ten move, of course. The $30 million in distribution next year is more than what the school would have made in the Pac-12, for one. Also, through the Big Ten, UW and UO both have the option to use an annual $10 million interest-free loan paid back in installments once they begin to receive full shares.
The most significant aspect of the move, though, is the visibility — playing in central and eastern time zones on major networks.
“The financial situation going forward is going to be bright just given the additional markets,” said Pete Shimer, the booster and former UW basketball player. “It will open up recruiting and create some brand and marketing opportunities for a university tucked into the northwest corner of the country.”
Already, Washington and Pac-12 schools are benefitting from rules changes within college football, says former UW coach Chris Petersen, who remains integral within the athletic department.
The NCAA’s change to permit players to transfer once and play immediately has spread out talent, especially at the quarterback position. In one of the league’s best years in decades, the Pac-12 has six teams ranked in the AP top 20, most of them with prolific transfer quarterbacks. Washington and Oregon, each led by a Heisman Trophy candidate of a quarterback (both transfers), rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the country in total offense.
Legalized athlete compensation has helped matters as well, said Petersen. The concept has opened the door for athletes to eschew the NFL and remain in college. Both quarterbacks in Saturday’s game — Bo Nix of Oregon and Michael Penix Jr. of Washington — were draft-eligible last year.
“Those guys are not even here this year without NIL,” Petersen said.
NIL is a talking point here in Seattle. At his opening news conference, Dannen quipped, “A lot of people are scared to death of NIL. Boy, we better embrace it and go.”
Asked about how to survive in the Big Ten, Petersen deadpanned, “It’s called your collective and your NIL program.
“It always comes back to recruiting,” Petersen continued. “Now, you get into the Big Ten and you win in that conference, OK, the game is going to change. And Washington does turn into a national brand.”
The move to the Big Ten remains a touchy and sensitive subject here. Washington State and Oregon State are engrossed in legal proceedings with Oregon, Washington and the other eight Pac-12 programs over the lingering assets in the conference.
A reason for the Pac-12’s collapse has evolved into a finger-pointing, speculative blame game.
Those at Washington and Oregon believe they have unfairly been targeted as the culprits, as their decision that Friday morning set off a cascade of moves: Arizona, Arizona State and Utah to the Big 12; Stanford and Cal to the ACC; Oregon State and Washington State, for now, operating as a two-school conference starting next year.
However, without the additional money from Fox, the Big Ten does not have the cash to add the Huskies and Ducks, a nugget not lost on one Pac-12 administrator, who told Yahoo Sports, “Any way you cut it, Fox destroyed the Pac-12.”
Others contend that without Colorado’s departure, Pac-12 leaders would have agreed to a more traditional television package and remained together, at least for a few more years. Colorado may point the finger toward the league office and its commissioner, Kliavkoff, who in turn could very well put blame at the feet of the men and women for which he works: the Pac-12 presidents.
But most agree that the exit of the Los Angeles schools — roughly 35-40% of the conference’s market value — began this fateful fall. Others go back years, to the shaky foundation that former commissioner Larry Scott constructed.
So which is it?
In truth, there is plenty of blame to go around, says Pat Chun, the Washington State athletics director.
“It’s our own fault we got ourselves to this place,” Chun said. “It’s a byproduct of how dysfunctional the Pac-12 had been for over a decade.”
All of this aside, there is football to be played.
On Saturday afternoon, from Husky Stadium, on the banks of Lake Washington, the Huskies and the Ducks will play one another as Pac-12 members for a final time.
Soon, they’ll meet as members of the Big Ten.
And, remember, without one another, they don’t get in.