NCAA president tours the realignment wreckage at Washington State

A Washington State Cougars student holds a sign during a game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Gesa Field at Martin Stadium.
A Washington State Cougars student holds a sign during a game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Gesa Field at Martin Stadium.

PULLMAN, Wash. – NCAA President Charlie Baker made a special trip here last week, more than 2,000 miles from his home on the East Coast.

After starting his new job in March, the former governor of Massachusetts was on a mission – to tour the conference realignment wreckage at Washington State University, sort of like how U.S. presidents often visit cities recently clobbered by hurricanes.

He wanted to help and show support.

But how? Washington State is in crisis mode, along with Oregon State, the two schools left behind after the rest of the Pac-12 Conference realigned with the Big Ten, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast conferences starting next year.

“We’re gonna try and do what we can to help them deal with the circumstance as they go forward,” Baker told USA TODAY Sports in an interview during his visit Nov. 17. “I do think also, having talked to a bunch of the student-athletes here, they really love the place. I think it would be unfortunate if we can’t find a way to help these guys find a way, along with Oregon State.”

The problem is there’s not much he can do. Media companies and the people in charge of those other Power Five conferences decided which schools would be left without a place to sit after this latest high-stakes game of musical chairs. The NCAA president doesn’t have the authority to change it.

But what he can do is listen – and then take what he learns to Congress. There was plenty to hear. Ask Pat Chun, the Washington State athletic director, who said he invited Baker to campus to “get a feel” for how realignment has impacted a school.

“This is just more education for him about all the failings of our current model” in college sports, Chun said.

How has realignment impacted Washington State?

After the Pac-12 fell apart, the Cougars and Beavers essentially were orphaned and abandoned from the conference shelter that gave them a regular schedule of opponents and revenue. Now they have to scramble to fill largely vacated sports schedules for next year while hoping their athletes and coaches don’t abandon ship amid the uncertainty.

Also, who’s going to televise their football games even when they fill their schedules? Where will the revenue come from to replace the $37 million they were getting in the Pac-12 in revenue-sharing? Will they join the Mountain West Conference or let Mountain West teams join them?

“Since Aug. 4 and even before that, this has been an all-consuming thing in what was already an all-consuming job,” Chun said in an interview in his office.

A day that will live in infamy in Pullman

Aug. 4 is the date that Chun brings up often, the day that the Pac-12 crumbled with the announced departure of five schools to other leagues in 2024, including Oregon and Washington to the Big Ten.

His answer to many of the big questions about the future since then is “TBD” − to be determined − though some answers are coming into focus.

In football at least, it’s likely Washington State and Oregon State will fill out a large part of their schedule with six games against teams from the Mountain West. They will also play each other, along with previously scheduled non-conference foes. Beyond that, Washington State’s annual Apple Cup rivalry with Washington will continue through at least 2028, including Saturday in Seattle.

Basketball and other sports present whole other scheduling problems after the breakup of a league that's included Washington State as a member since 1962.

“Soccer is an issue; volleyball is an issue,” Chun said. “Soccer’s (transfer) portal already opened up. So these are real-time pressures and tensions in our athletic program right now.”

What about the athletes?

During his trip, Baker spent time with Washington State athletes, including football edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. They talked about the impact of realignment.

“It’s just going to be cause for a lot of panic,” Stone told USA TODAY Sports. “A lot of people sign on to play Power Five Pac-12 football or whatever sport and dreamed of playing in the Pac-12 and at the Power Five level. For a lot of people, that just changed drastically.”

Stone also is aware of the risk of a mass exodus at Washington State in this new era of college sports. Since 2021, players have been allowed to transfer freely to other schools. They also now can earn money from their names, images and likenesses (NIL), especially in bigger TV markets for teams that have games on television. Why should Washington State athletes stay amid the uncertainty if they can make more money and play in a stable league somewhere else?

“It’s a lot of confusion and uncertainty for people,” said Stone, a senior at Washington State. “And uncertainty just causes a lot of doubt. That was one of the bigger things we talked about … When you tie in the transfer portal and NIL to a situation like this, it has a major effect on what can happen to the future for a lot of the student-athletes here.”

Asked if teammates are considering transferring, he said, “Absolutely. I think that people are just gonna transfer in general. I think the transfer portal will be filled up every year at the end of every season just because of NIL.”

Will they really be the Pac-2 Conference?

Yes, for now, and that’s part of the plan, Chun said. NCAA rules in the Football Bowl Subdivision allow a two-year grace period for schools in a league that’s shrunk below the minimum eight members. Asked what the goal is right now, Chun said, “Give ourselves as much time and options as possible, which at the max would be two years.”

He said this time is beneficial because major college football remains unsettled and could realign again within two years in ways that are impossible to predict now. That could mean Washington State ends up in another league or works with Oregon State to build out a new Pac-12 of sorts with the Mountain West.

Washington State and Oregon State won a key court ruling recently when a state court judge gave them control of the Pac-12’s governing board despite opposition from the 10 departing members. The state supreme court since has put a stay on that ruling, but Chun called the ruling a “half step forward.”

Gaining control of the league means gaining control of its assets and liabilities. After the departure of the other 10, it also means gaining control of around $150 million in revenue by Chun’s estimate. That will help bridge the gap over the next two years in a Pac-2.

Oregon State Beavers fans hold up a sign during a game against Washington State at Gesa Field at Martin Stadium.
Oregon State Beavers fans hold up a sign during a game against Washington State at Gesa Field at Martin Stadium.

What can the NCAA do?

It’s arguable that the Pac-12 dissolved and essentially orphaned two schools because college football has nobody in charge looking out for the overall, national interest of the sport. In a perfect world, somebody like Baker would be able to step in as a college football commissioner and prevent what’s happened to the Pac-2.

It doesn’t work that way, however, in large part because of a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that broke up the NCAA’s centralized power over television. “The Supreme Court spoke on this in 1984 and said they wanted this stuff done at the conference level and not the national level,” Baker said.

But Baker can pull the levers of power somewhere else – Washington, D.C. One reason he was hired was to get in the ear of Congress as the NCAA seeks legislative help on various fronts in a turbulent era of college sports, including getting national standards for NIL.

“The challenge on some of these issues is it would be very hard to do it without sort of a Congressional decision on it,” he said.

In the meantime, he can survey the realignment rubble and listen to the fallout. And try to help. Somehow.

“We’re going to try to be as flexible as we can,” Baker said.

‘Terrible for student-athletes‘

If it were up to Stone, the football player, he knows what he’d do.

"If I had it my way, there’d be no realignment at all,” Stone said. “Just because this is such a historic conference, so much tradition held in it and rivalries between different teams.”

He cites the departure of Cal and Stanford to the Atlantic Coast Conference as one example. Next season, one or the other will be playing at Florida State, Syracuse, North Carolina State, Clemson, Pitt and Wake Forest. Those games replace the easy trips they made in the Pac-12 to Los Angeles, Phoenix and other regional airports.

“That’s terrible for student-athletes,” Stone said. “You’re making it so much harder for student athletes to be students.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email:

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How conference realignment chaos still shakes Washington State Cougars