Oregon State, Washington State and the mighty Pac-2 aren’t going away

The best matchup of this Last Supper college football season takes place Saturday in Pullman, Wash., a small town nestled in the rolling hills and wheat fields of the Palouse. It is the home of Washington State, which will host Oregon State in a game featuring the two stranded Pac-12 programs.

It has been dubbed the Pac-2 Championship. No game this season will depict the peculiar state of college realignment better — or more depressingly — than this showdown. The Beavers and Cougars are top 25 teams, yet they’re stuck in an existential predicament. If you have been pretending that merit is the bedrock of this sport, look at these schools and wonder why they deserve such uncertainty.

“Ironically, this is not a case of two underperforming teams being relegated,” Washington State President Kirk Schulz said.

This is a case of two remote locations being misrepresented as unattractive in a television market-obsessed environment. Media executives have gained disproportionate influence, getting to function as puppeteers because universities are thirsty for money, desperate for relevance and willing to make extreme, foundational concessions.

Over the past 14 months, Oregon State and Washington State have watched their conference whittle away. From 12 to 10. Nine. Seven. Four. Two. The worst day was Aug. 5, when five teams left, including their Northwest siblings, Oregon and Washington.

“The whole idea of a conference that has been around for over 100 years literally self-destructing in an afternoon is not anything that’s in any book that you go look at,” Schulz said.

So they looked to each other. When California and Stanford committed to join the ACC three weeks ago, Oregon State and Washington State were officially a duo. They’re either the last teams standing or the two left behind. However you view them, they’re still here. They know they belong as power conference schools, even though realignment just took most of the power out of their conference.

“While the current state of the Pac-12 conference was not a situation of our making, we refuse to let it define us,” Schulz said. “Oregon State University and Washington State University are both land-grant schools. We are charged with solving the thorniest problems facing our states. And we will solve this problem as well.”

For all their determination, there is no clear path to stability. They filed a legal complaint against the conference and its commissioner, George Kliavkoff, in an effort to clarify that their schools have decision-making authority. They won a temporary restraining order last week that kept the exiting Pac-12 schools from staging a scheduled conference meeting. Oregon State and Washington State want to preserve the conference as an active brand, retaining all the assets and intellectual property, and eliminate the possibility that their departing partners could discontinue the conference because they want a clean break.

During a virtual news conference with the athletic directors and presidents at both schools, the leaders intimated that they could have a strong enough sense of their legal standing and the viability of sustaining the Pac-12 within the next 30 days. Speculation about the future has been rampant: jumping to the Mountain West and dissolving the conference; merging with the Mountain West under the Pac-12 banner; operating within NCAA bylaws as a two-team conference for up to two years to rebuild gradually.

Yahoo sportswriter Ross Dellenger, with insight from an unnamed Mountain West AD, explored the idea of a promotion-relegation agreement between the Mountain West and a revised Pac-12. On Thursday, Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes said of the Europe soccer-style model: “Certainly, it’s worthy of our study.”

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Until there is resolution, every idea is worthy of study. Spend an hour with these administrators, and they inspire faith that they will make what they can of a bad situation. They’re agile thinkers. They’re gritty. They’re subversive, fighting a system that seems fine with letting them be collateral damage. And in each other, they have found a kindred spirit. They’re underdog schools that should not be underestimated. Although they don’t have endless resources, they are good football programs that flash greatness from time to time. Their lack of privilege is their advantage.

They help make college sports a major sporting enterprise, too. The heart of collegiate athletics may be places such as Austin; Lexington, Ky.; and Columbus, Ohio. But if you’re looking for a soul, you must visit Pullman, Wash., and Corvallis, Ore. You’re more likely to find it in Manhattan, Kan., than New York City. Dynasties can be built in Storrs, Conn. The mighty SEC has nine members from cities with populations of at least 100,000, but it wouldn’t be as rich without Auburn, Ala., and the Mississippi towns of Oxford and Starkville.

It’s dangerously facile to think viewer intrigue is limited to major television markets and name-brand institutions. Washington State is a neighbor’s fence away from Idaho, but with a huge base of alumni living in western Washington, the Cougars have a captive, quantifiable Seattle audience. The Beavers are a similar factor in Portland. Those programs won’t carry a conference, but they are assets.

Oregon State and Washington State risk being victims of a de-emphasis of regionalism that conferences will regret sooner than they realize. Still, they fight.

“I was in Eastern Washington last week, and, my gosh, every town there was a huge outpouring of support,” Oregon State President Jayathi Murthy said. “You’re talking about people worried about their identity, and in a strange way, this has actually knit our identity together and brought us so much closer to each other.”

Abandoned Washington State crafts fresh, new category in field-storming

On Saturday, the No. 21 Cougars and the No. 14 Beavers will meet at Martin Stadium. They’re the only top 25 teams not named Notre Dame, which chooses to be independent, without a solidified position in a power conference after this season. So at 18 minutes before kickoff, Washington State will make an atypical gesture. The band will play the Oregon State fight song.

“We’re going to ask as a show of respect that our fans applaud that fight song because the two universities are in a fight together,” Washington State athletic director Pat Chun said.

Together, they have plunged into the unknown. They have embraced the obvious, too.

As the athletic directors and presidents spoke, they shared the same virtual background. It was a simple backdrop, white on top of gray, with images of their Cougar and Beaver logos.

The Pac-2 is not just a joke. It’s a pair. Unlike other tenuous partnerships in college football, neither side fears a knife to the back.

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