The University of Washington’s rowing team won the NCAA championship over the weekend. While that might not be huge national news, it did push the Pac-12 to a huge historic milestone.
The title was the conference’s 500th all-time, a number that absolutely dwarfs all other college sports leagues. According to NCAA research, the next closest is the Big Ten with 308, then the Southeastern Conference with 220, the Big 12 with 198 (including titles won by schools that were in the Big Eight and Southwest Conferences) and the Atlantic Coast Conference with 149. (Totals are through May 30.)
It is the best all-around sports league in America, and it’s not close. It is the nation’s greatest Olympic feeder conference. It is a triumph of totality, a place where member schools strive to be the best in a lot of things, not just one big thing.
At a time when many universities fixate on King Football, the Pac-12 is the gold standard for broad-based athletic excellence and diversity. If you believe in college sports as more than just a multimillion-dollar business venture – believe in it as a means of enhancing campus life and attracting a wide spectrum of highly motivated student-athletes – this is your ideal league.
The dozen schools ranging from Tucson to Seattle are good at just about everything, not just the glamour sports. The proof is in the trophy cases.
The current smug slogan in the SEC is, “It just means more.” In the Pac-12, they just win more. Washington’s rowing crown is the league’s 12th natty of 2016-17, from seven different schools – both numbers that lead the nation this academic year.
Reaching 500 titles has touched off a celebration within the Pac-12, which is how I wound up talking to Bill Walton this week about the league he unfailingly refers to by its self-bestowed nickname, the “Conference of Champions.”
The 64-year-old Big Grayhead, former Big Redhead and eternal Big Deadhead might as well be the Pac-12’s Assistant Commissioner For Sunshine. The eternally cheery former UCLA and NBA basketball great, now America’s most delightfully unorthodox TV analyst, was more than ready to dish some positive vibes about the league.
(Of course, Walton being Walton, there were many random synapse firings along the way. He held forth on Teddy Roosevelt, Levi Strauss, renewable energy sources and Ducky Drake, the basketball trainer during his days at UCLA.)
“It’s a remarkable accomplishment,” Walton said in his distinctive deep voice. “It brings everything together in this harmonic convergence. All the things I believe in – pride, loyalty, gratitude – are on display in our Conference of Champions.
“We have the ability to deliver a message of joy and hope and optimism and celebration. Far too often the message is fear and negativity and intimidation – that’s the antithesis of what we’re about in the Conference of Champions. What sports means to us in the college setting, where so many people have a chance to chase their dreams and use athletics to help them build a future and to have opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have, that’s what we’re about.
“One of the things that sets America apart are the opportunities for everyone. And the coolest part of America is the West.”
The West is indeed the best when it comes to college athletics, particularly the state of California.
Only three schools have won more than 100 national titles, and all of them are from the Pac-12: Stanford and UCLA have 113 apiece, and USC has 104. All are more than double the fourth-place school (Oklahoma State with 51). And the Pac-12 has a fourth school in the all-time top 10, with California at 10th with 36 titles.
Given the fact that half the league resides in California and Arizona, it naturally excels in virtually every sunshine-favoring sport: a combined 76 men’s and women’s tennis titles; 60 in water polo; 54 in outdoor track and field; 51 in baseball and softball; 39 in swimming.
But there also was an NCAA boxing title for Washington State in the 1930s, a wrestling crown at Arizona State in the ‘80s and a combined 30 skiing championships from the Pac-12’s newest members, Colorado and Utah. The Utes won this year’s skiing title, and the Buffaloes have won two since joining the league in 2011-12.
UCLA set the standard for decades, becoming the first school to reach 100 national titles in 2007 and championing trailblazers like Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Rafer Johnson and Ann Meyers. But Stanford has become the broad-based power in the nation’s most powerful league.
The Cardinal is well on its way to a 23rd consecutive Director’s Cup title as the most successful overall athletic program in the country. The school has won at least one national title in a staggering 41 straight years, and claims four titles (so far) in 2016-17: men’s soccer and women’s volleyball, swimming and water polo.
Of course, a league cannot have great Olympic sports without also having great women’s sports. Since the advent of Title IX in 1972, no conference has been a more powerful engine for women’s athletic achievement than the Pac-12. With 173 women’s national titles, the league is 74 ahead of second-place SEC.
Commissioner Larry Scott noted with some satisfaction that the 500th title was won by a women’s team, from a school with a woman athletic director (Jennifer Cohen) and a woman president (Ana Mari Cauce).
“We have a historic culture in our conference of equity, inclusion and diversity,” Scott said. “There is a lot of pride in broad-based sports sponsorship, and a long-standing commitment to women’s sports. We know that sports help create leaders, and our schools have put a high priority on the cultivation of women leaders.”
The notable absences from the Pac-12’s brag sheet are recent championships in the sports that fans watch most: football and men’s basketball. No team from the conference has won a football title since USC in 2004, and there are no men’s basketball titles since Arizona in 1997.
Truth be told, Scott probably would trade a dozen rowing titles for a College Football Playoff championship or a Final Four victory.
“It’s important that we win national championships in those sports,” Scott said. “Until we do, it’s going to affect perception. To the winner go the spoils, the spoils being perception. But our trajectory is going in the right direction in football and both men’s and women’s basketball.”
Walton, who led UCLA to two of its 11 basketball titles, is unsurprisingly bullish on the conference in his chosen sport.
“Arizona has been the standard bearer of excellence for a couple decades, and should be No. 1 next year,” he said. “Oregon went to the Final Four and is on the rise as a program. UCLA is on the upswing. USC is going to be excellent next year.
“And Seattle has become a talent hotbed – who wouldn’t want to live in Seattle? It’s becoming the hub of the universe. Who wouldn’t want to live in Salt Lake City? In Boulder? Have you met Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State? A remarkable leader….”
The Assistant Commissioner For Sunshine kept going, and probably is still going. Bill Walton almost certainly is somewhere out there on the West Coast right now extolling the virtues of the Conference of Champions – and he should be. The Pac-12 has given him plenty to brag about.
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