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Downtrodden Pac-10 Conference Finds There's Nothing Funny About Any Bottom-10 Jokes

August 26, 2000|JIM HODGES

Between golf outings and chicken dinners spent with alumni, explaining why they should write checks to a football team that won three games, there are family renewals at the beach house and trips to trout streams in Idaho and Montana, where the soft sound of running water drowns out reporters.

And there are meetings, social gatherings really, where Pacific 10 coaches tell war stories and commiserate about the one that got away.

A fish. A running back. They complain about officiating.

"The whistle blew in the third quarter and he hit my guy on the way to class Monday. No flag. Then I get 15 for yelling at the zebra." And about one another's recruiting.

"That damn Neuheisel." And this year, they bowed their heads and pondered five bowl games.

One bowl victory.

And they circled the wagons, aware the attack could come from anywhere.

And everywhere.

Losses to Wisconsin and Kansas State, sure, but to Wake Forest and Hawaii?

Then they considered Stanford winning the league title and Rose Bowl berth after losing to, gasp, San Jose State.

Arizona State losing to New Mexico State.

Oregon State struggling with Georgia Southern. Division I-AA Georgia Southern.

USC working hard to beat San Diego State.

Last season, the Pac-10 was 1-4 against the Big Ten, 1-4 against the Mountain West, which didn't exist two years ago. Only 3-3 against the Big West, and there's nothing big about the Big West.

Can it get worse?

Can it get better?

And when?

"There's no question we're kind of carrying the banner for the Pac-10, at least in this game," Trojan Coach Paul Hackett says of playing Penn State today.

"At the Pac-10 coaches meeting, they all turned to me and said, 'Paul, it's in your hands.' "

And try not to fumble it the way your bud Dick Tomey did last season. Arizona was ranked sixth going into its season opener with Penn State, which hammered the Wildcats, 41-7, at the Meadowlands. It was a better barometer for Pac-10 football than anyone believed possible, and Arizona disappeared into the desert, never to be heard from again.

Everybody knows.

"The Pac-10 has lost a lot of respect for the past couple of years, in the Rose Bowl and Arizona losing [to Penn State] last year," USC quarterback Carson Palmer says, acknowledging the challenge, taking up the cause.

It's a difficult challenge, maybe a lost cause.

Past couple of years?

The Pac-10 champion has lost seven of the last eight Rose Bowls.

Well, almost everybody knows.

Ever the champion of West Coast football, former UCLA coach Terry Donahue, now with the San Francisco 49ers, says Pac-10 critics miss the point.

"If you take the number of players in the National Football League, the Pac-10 is still very elite," he said. "In relationship to [NFL] scouts and personnel people, it doesn't matter if the league is good or not. We look for individual players. The league is still producing a number of quality players."

It's an argument often heard in defense of the Pac-10, and one that ignores the reality that most of us watch our football in small towns like Corvallis or Pullman or Los Angeles, where there is no NFL. Our NFL is UCLA and USC.

And if the NFL is going after players who went 3-3 against the Big West--sob, the Big West!!--no wonder 8-8 teams make the playoffs.

The reasons are there for everybody to see. Even Hackett, a member of the fraternity, acknowledges them.

"Penn State plays a rough-and-tumble, physical style of football," says Hackett, still focused on the weekend.

"It's the power running game that quite frankly is not played much on the West Coast."

It used to be played at USC, back when the Trojans were winning championships, but that was before anybody on the current roster was born. Nowadays, you sense that Big Ten teams and the Nebraskas and Florida States of the world would be at Muscle Beach, while the Pac-10 teams would be at Venice, catching some rays.

The Pac-10 was 7-1 against the lightweight WAC. Surf's up!

Kinda makes you look at the Big West in a new light, doesn't it?

So the coaches gather and talk. And the paying customers gather and criticize. Sometimes they write letters instead of checks, and they are told that they can watch entertaining football in the Pac-10, where the offenses light up scoreboards and where defensive coordinators are replaced by other coordinators whose defenses bend.

Then break.


And then showed-up time.

"Look at the Rose Bowl," UCLA Coach Bob Toledo says. "Stanford has the No. 1 offense and the worst defense last year. The year before, we had the best offense and worst defense."

It's a formula for a track meet. Or a train wreck. Texas beats Stanford, 69-17, and Stanford makes the Rose Bowl, where the annual Big Ten whipping takes place.

Repeat after me: The Pac-10 was 3-3 against the Big West.

But wait.

Be patient, Toledo counsels. What goes around comes around.

"Three years ago, we were in six bowls and won five," he reminds.

True enough.

But two years ago, the Pac-10 also was 1-4 in bowl games. And before the 5-1 came seasons of 1-4 and 1-3.

"It's cyclical," Toledo says, and talks about quarterbacks who have come and gone, the class of two years ago being replaced by callow youth.

But the peaks are separated by long valleys. It's a desert and people are asked to pay $40 a ticket to sit in the sand.

That's a lot of money to be thirsty.


1999 Pac-10 Standings


Conf. Overall Team W L W L Stanford 7 1 8 4 Oregon 6 2 9 3 Washington 6 2 7 5 Arizona St. 5 3 6 6 Oregon St. 4 4 7 5 Arizona 3 5 6 6 USC 3 5 6 6 California 3 5 4 7 UCLA 2 6 4 7 Washington St. 1 7 3 9


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