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A look at the final drive for Pac-12 football through the eyes of fans, coaches, players

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The final football season for the Pac-12 with its current membership is coming to a thrilling conclusion.

The conference wrapped up regular-season play on Saturday. Washington and Oregon still have hopes of getting the Pac-12 its first College Football Playoff berth since 2016 when they meet Friday in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 title.

Even though there is plenty of excitement on the field, there remain some who are sad about the breakup of the conference, along with the end of traditional rivalries.

APis taking a look at the final weeks through the eyes of players, coaches, broadcasters and longtime fans.

THE LAST PAC-12 AFTER DARK

The significance of California’s 33-7 victory over UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night was not lost on the Golden Bears players. Not only did they win their third straight game to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2019, but Cal will go down as the winner of the final Pac-12 regular season game.

“I watched Pac-12 After Dark since I was a kid. Those were some of the most fun games I’ve watched and I never would have thought that one day I would be playing in it, and playing in the last one. There’s no better way to go out than with a win,” said freshman linebacker Cade Uluave, who had 12 tackles, one sack and an interception.

Cal players lingered on the field and celebrated with fans, cheerleaders and the band.

“This is a game that will be talked about for a long time to come because it was one of the last games. I’m just grateful to be a part of history,” said senior David Reese, who had three of Cal’s six sacks.

UCLA and Cal fans tailgated together in the Rose Bowl parking lots before the game. The two schools have played every year since 1935, but the series is likely to go on hiatus for a while as the Bruins join the Big Ten and the Golden Bears move to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Cal coach Justin Wilcox said he would wait until the team’s postseason meetings to ponder the significance of Saturday’s win.

“I didn’t pick the time of the game,” he said. “I would have been fine if we kicked off at 10, 11, noon or 3, whatever. They put it at 7:30, and we’re glad to play at 7:30 as well. Maybe someday, I can put a little more thought into answering that.”

UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who became one of the nation’s top coaches during his five years at Oregon, has been wistful all season about the end of the conference.

“For this to be the last game this league has, it’s sad,” he said earlier in the week. “I grew up in this league as a head coach. I think there’s some sentimental things about just the league in general. There’s so much history and tradition that for the fact that we’re not going to play Stanford or Cal anymore in the foreseeable future. We’re not going to play Utah, Oregon State, Washington State or the Arizona schools. I think that’s the reality that we’re living in, but it doesn’t mean you have to like it.”

VERY LITTLE FANFARE

There was hardly any mention across the conference stadiums on Saturday about this being the final weekend of conference play.

As UCLA fans left the Rose Bowl, the scoreboard showed the 2024 home schedule with the promotional tag “B1G Things Are Coming” to highlight the Bruins’ move to the Big Ten.

The Pac-12 Network aired a over the past 12 years after the Stanford-Notre Dame game.

UNCERTAIN FUTURES

Jeff Nusser is a high school English teacher by day, but much of his free time goes to the Cougars, either watching as a fan or podcasting about Washington State sports.

So yes, he’s bummed about the demise of the Pac-12.

“Do I have to use words that don’t involve four letters?” he said. “It feels horrible. I don’t think that I’ve really been able to reckon with what it actually means.”

Nusser is such a passionate fan that he was a founding editor of Coug Center, an SB Nation website, launched in 2008. That sprang from a couple of Washington State blogs, Stadium Way and WSU Hoops.

Now he writes an occasional guest post while co-hosting a Cougars podcast, “Podcast vs. Everyone.”

“There’s just so many emotions and memories wrapped up in it and I’m trying to stay away from dwelling too much on the ‘this is the last’ whatever — it’s going to sound super dramatic, but it’s for my own mental health, because it is just such a downer and something I have absolutely no control over,” he said.

His concern now is with the WSU athletic department as a whole, because he sees athletes transferring out and revenues from sports dropping precipitously. That also goes for Oregon State, the only two remaining teams in the conference following realignment.

For the Pac-12 teams that have departed, he worries about athletes for the minor sports and how the travel will take a toll.

But Nusser also believes there will be another shakeup in the college football landscape in the coming years, and perhaps it will all work out.

“I am hopeful that eventually, some sort of sustainable model comes around that allows what we love about college sports to continue to exist, and that there will be a place for schools like Washington State and Oregon State within that ecosystem, in a way that makes sense for those schools,” he said.

RIP CONFERENCE OF CHAMPIONS

Daniel Norsworthy was at a tailgate party before Friday night’s rivalry game between Oregon and Oregon State — the last for the foreseeable future after the Pac-12’s collapse.

A banner hanging over the tailgate tent said “RIP Conference of Champions.” Ten of the Pac-12’s teams are bolting next year, leaving just Oregon State and Washington State behind.

Norsworthy lamented the demise of what has long been a Thanksgiving weekend tradition in the state.

“It’s a time to come together as a community,” said Norsworthy, an Oregon State alum. “My friends who I went to college with, who I grew up with going to Oregon State games and Oregon games, for (our kids) to play together and get to experience something unique.”

He blamed the Pac-12 front office for the league’s breakup, namely former Commissioner Larry Scott and his successor, George Kliavkoff.

“It’s a shame. But I don’t necessarily put it on the schools, I put it on Larry Scott and George Kliavkoff,” he said. “Textbook mismanagement of a giant corporation. I mean heads in the sand, not listening to outside sources, thinking they’re worth more than they are. Huge disappointment.”

FAMILY LEGACY

Oregon State quarterback DJ Uiagalelei is a California kid who grew up watching the Pac-10, and then the Pac-12.

Next season, Oregon State will be left alone with Washington State in the once-proud Conference of Champions. The 10 other schools have bolted in realignment.

That means that Friday night’s rivalry game between the Beavers and the Ducks might be the last for the foreseeable future. Oregon is going to the Big Ten.

“When you think about the Pac-12 Conference, what it’s been to me, the Pac-10 before, I grew up watching this conference, loving this conference, everything that it was about,” Uiagalelei said. “Being able to play here and play against the teams in the Pac-12 and play for Oregon State with the Beavers, this is an unbelievable conference, and definitely sad it’s coming to an end. But at the end of the day, it was a great conference, and just thankful to be able to play this last year here at Oregon State.”

While Washington State and Washington have agreed to keep the Apple Cup alive as a nonconference game, no such agreement exists between the two Oregon schools. That means Friday could be the only time Uiagalelei plays against his younger brother Matayo, a freshman defensive end for Oregon.

Oregon State’s season isn’t over — the Beavers are bowl eligible — and Uiagalelei, a junior, hasn’t decided what next season may hold for him.

EMOTIONAL WEEKEND

Despite growing up on the west side of the state and eventually entering a pipeline that fed into the Washington football program, Brock Huard had childhood memories of the Apple Cup that were rather crimson in nature.

“Family friends? Lot of Cougs. Teachers? Lot of Cougs,” Huard recalled.

Huard eventually went on to wear the purple and gold of Washington, just like his brother Damon and like his nephew, Sam. All three quarterbacked the Huskies in the Apple Cup with varying degrees of success.

Sam was the most recent, thrown into a terrible situation two years ago of making his first college start against the Cougars. Damon won two of the three Apple Cups he played in.

And Brock? He went 2-1 against Washington State, winning twice in Pullman. But Huard and the Huskies lost at home in 1997, and Washington State advanced to the Rose Bowl, in perhaps the most famous Cougars victory in the history of the rivalry.

“At that time, it was deeply personal. Oregon has grown into the more hostile, personal rivalry, but at that time it was all personal,” Huard said. “Coming out and hearing things from the student body I wouldn’t hear anywhere else. Like, ‘Wow, that’s creative.’ What an awesome, deep-cut shot right there.”

Now 25 years removed from last playing in the game, Huard has a different forum as a college football analyst for Fox Sports and a radio host in Seattle. He’s been open with his anger and disappointment over the collapse of the Pac-12.

“Absolutely hate it. I’ve made that very clear from day one of all of this chaos and all of this mess, it stinks,” Huard said.

ERICKSON: ‘IT’S SAD’

As the former coach at Oregon State, Washington State and Arizona State, Dennis Erickson has strong feelings about the demise of the Pac-12 as we know it.

“To me it’s sad, and I think it’s ridiculous, to be very honest. This whole move is about money. We’ve got all these school presidents talking about being together, learning, and doing all the right things as far as academics,” Erickson said. “And now they’re all about money. It just blows my mind.”

After a career spanning 47 years in college football, Erickson is retired and lives in Idaho. He still actively follows college football, frequently going to games throughout the region and keeping an eye on son Bryce, an assistant at Montana. Erickson recently attended Oregon State’s 62-17 thrashing of Stanford.

As head coach at Washington State in 1987 and ’88, he led the Cougars to a 9-3 record in his second season before departing to become the coach at Miami. After a stint in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks, he became coach at Oregon State in 1999 and remained there for four seasons. He took the Beavers to the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, where they beat Notre Dame. Current Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith quarterbacked that team.

He also had a five-year tenure at Arizona State from 2007 through ’11.

“All that history, it’s all being pushed aside,” he said. “It’s just confusing to me. I don’t know what’s going on in college football. It’s just like the NFL anymore. That’s how I feel about it: It’s destroying a lot of the values you learn in college football.”

THE BAND PLAYS ON

The Spirit of Troy’s annual senior road trip to San Francisco during football season will end after this year, but the Southern California band will continue to go on the road for all football games, even though it will require more logistics to travel.

“A lot of the feelings that I have had this year are cherishing the moments and every little tradition that we do. The trip to San Francisco meant a lot to the seniors knowing that our underclassmen won’t have the chance to experience that,” said senior Jacobo Herrera, who is in his second year as the band’s drum major.

The band has traveled to all Trojans games since 1987, something that will continue with the move to the Big Ten. Some of USC’s road conference games next year include Michigan, Minnesota and Maryland.

“It’s pretty crazy being on the phone with Southwest and figuring out how to get 16 tubas across the country,” said Herrera, who doubles as the band’s general manager.

COLORADO SUPERFAN

Around these parts, Colorado superfan Peggy Coppom, who turned 99 this month, is royalty. She’s a fixture at Buffaloes football and basketball games and couldn’t be more elated that after 13 seasons in the Pac-12, the school is making the switch back to the Big 12 next year.

“I think we have more in common with sunflowers and corn than we do with the ocean,” Coppom said of the Big 12 switch. “I feel more closeness with the states in this area.”

Coppom has been attending football games since her family moved from eastern Colorado to Boulder around 1940. She has prime viewing for football games with her seats at Folsom Field located near the 45-yard line.

She’s missed only a couple home games since she said she and her late husband bought season tickets in 1966.

For so long, right next to her and rooting on the Buffaloes was her twin sister, Betty Hoover, who died in 2020. “The Twins,” as they’re known, have long been iconic figures.

The twins were front and center at the Orange Bowl in Miami when Darian Hagan helped guide the Buffaloes to their lone national title following the 1990 season. She said that also happened to be one of the first times she and Betty were on TV.

ASU FAN LAMENTS END OF RIVALRIES

Rudy Burgoz has been an Arizona State football fan since he started attending the school in 1959.

The 82-year-old has missed only six home games since then – due to illness or emergency – and has been a regular at many road games through the years, including against UCLA this season.

Burgoz will continue to be a fan when the Sun Devils leave the Pac-12 for the Big 12 next season, but it’s not going to be the same.

“It’s just unfortunate and I hated to see it,” Burgoz said. “I can understand why. It’s a money situation. The LA schools started it and they broke up what I think is a great conference.

“I’m going to miss the trips to Oregon, but I’m not going to miss the rain or the cold in Washington. I enjoyed going to the Stanford games — it was quite an atmosphere. The Cal games, the climb up Strawberry Hill was a bear. But I’m really sorry to see it break up because I think we’ve got a great conference.”

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Associated Press Sports Writers Anne Peterson in Portland, Oregon, Tim Booth in Seattle, Joe Reedy in Los Angeles, Pat Graham in Denver, John Marshall in Phoenix and freelancers John Coon in Salt Lake City and Edward Elston in Eugene, Oregon, contributed to this report.

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