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Pac-12's epic collapse picked as story of the year

Jan. 2—The last time Washington State wasn't a member of a full and functioning Pac-12 Conference, the school was known as Washington State College, Pullman's population was a paltry 2,500 and World War I was well into its brutal third year.

Then known as the Pacific Coast Conference, the Cougars joined the University of California Berkeley, the University of Washington, the University of Oregon, and Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) in the league in 1917.

Fast forward 106 years, and suddenly the historic conference that later became known as the Pac-12 has collapsed.

In 2022, mainstays USC and UCLA announced they will leave the league. In 2023, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, California, Stanford, Arizona and Arizona State all followed suit. Those 10 will join conferences like the Big Ten, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference in 2024.

Only WSU and Oregon State remained in the rubble of the West Coast's premier NCAA sports league, left out of the conference realignment that claimed their former peers.

It's unprecedented waters for the Cougars and Beavers, who never had to worry about finding a new home during the lifespans of all their current staff, administrators, athletes and fans.

"We belong in the Power Five," a passionate WSU football coach Jake Dickert said after his team upset Wisconsin on Sept. 9 at Gesa Field — a statement the coach would repeat numerous times over the next four months.

Money makes the world go 'round, and that's even more apparent in the multi-billion dollar industry that is the NCAA.

The rise of Name Image and Likeness deals for athletes, multi-million dollar contracts for coaches, transfer portal rules that have players leaving in groves in search for greener pastures and universities forming "super conferences" via conference realignment are all products of that.

The Pac-12 was a victim of the mayhem.

Part of the Pac-12's downfall came about because of its own money issues and blunders. The conference failed to secure a new media rights deal before 10 of its members left.

While the SEC was securing a 10-year contract worth $3 billion with Disney (ESPN/ABC) that starts in 2024 — and conferences like the Big Ten and Big 12 were finalizing similarly gargantuan deals — the Pac-12 failed to come to a pending agreement with AppleTV.

The Pac-12 is also dealing with an overpayment scandal with Comcast from a previous deal.

Despite all the issues, WSU and OSU have hopes of rebuilding the "Pac-2" back into a full conference and will have two years to try to make it happen, under NCAA rules.

It will be easier said than done, but the two schools have made some progress in recent months.

WSU and OSU were granted control of the Pac-12 and its board of directors going forward after a judge ruled in the schools' favor and the departing schools agreed to end a legal battle against them in December.

WSU also made a scheduling agreement with the Mountain West Conference for 2024 in football and a two-year agreement with the West Coast Conference — home of Gonzaga — in 10 other sports including men's and women's basketball.

"In September, as the two remaining members of the Pac-12 Conference, Oregon State University and Washington State University were forced to act swiftly to protect the future viability of the Pac-12," WSU and OSU Presidents Kirk Schulz and Jayathi Murthy said in a joint statement earlier in December. "Thanks to the determination and strength of Beaver Nation and Cougar Nation and the excellence of our student-athletes, coaches and staff, we are now closer to achieving our goal."

Even though optimism remains high among the universities' leadership, the Pac-12 will never look quite the same, if it even survives at all.

The "Power Five" has turned into the "Power Four" and changes in major college athletics aren't done yet.

The West Coast has lost its premier college sports league as we know it. And an NCAA landscape moving forward without the historic "Conference of Champions" takes the spot as the Daily News' sports story of the year.

Wiebe may be contacted at (208) 848-2260, swiebe@lmtribune.com or on Twitter @StephanSports.