Let’s Create a California Conference

Stanford and Cal, Instead of Running Scared to the Atlantic Coast, Form a Statewide Athletic League of Your Own

Let’s Create a California Conference | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Stanford and Cal: Stop panicking and start thinking intelligently. The best opportunity to build your athletic future is right here in California, writes columnist Joe Mathews. John Martinez Pavliga/ Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Dear Cal and Stanford,

Why are you running away from California?

Yes, the collapse of the Pac-12 Conference—occasioned by the departure of eight schools seeking better TV contracts—leaves the two of you without a home for your sports teams.

But your flailing around for a new sports home on the other side of the country looks pathetic. Your desperate appeals to join the Atlantic Coast Conference would be a joke, if it weren’t such a crime against geography.

And if that doesn’t work out—and it’s not looking good, since those Atlantic schools don’t want to share their TV sports revenues with West Coast interlopers—what’s next?

Are you going to play in the Arab League?

Instead of seeking unworkable new affiliations three time zones away, please take a breath and a good look at your home state. If you stop panicking and start thinking intelligently—and intelligent thinking is supposed to be your brand—you’ll see that the best opportunity to build your athletic futures is right here in California.

You two, as educational leaders, are naturally positioned to bring together universities from every region of the Golden State to form a new college sports powerhouse.

Call it the California Conference.

This is not a new idea. Intriguingly, sports leaders also suggested it the last time your conference broke up. It was the 1950s, when you played in the Pacific Coast Conference.

As recounted in the book Roses from the Ashes: Breakup and Rebirth in Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Athletics, conference officials discovered in 1951 that the University of Oregon’s football program paid student-athletes from a secret slush fund; the University of Washington, it turned out, did too. The ensuing turmoil resulted in the PCC’s dissolution in the 1958–59 school year.

During the scandal, Los Angeles oilman Edwin Pauley—a longtime UC regent so devoted to college sports that UCLA named its basketball arena after him—suggested that California schools form their own conference. That didn’t happen. But the two of you, Cal and Stanford, helped create a new conference of schools from Western states. This became the Pac-8, and, with subsequent expansion, the Pac-10, and then the Pac-12.

You should start your own conference again. But this time, with the growth of California and its universities, you won’t have to look outside the state for partners.

I, for one, can hardly wait to see Cal or Stanford go to Bulldog Stadium on a Saturday night with a conference title at stake.

Football is the revenue machine that drives college sports, and California now has 11 universities that play in the highest division. Two of these schools—USC and UCLA—have gone to the Big Ten for now. But the other nine—you two, plus Fresno State, Sacramento State, San Diego State, San José State, UC Davis, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and the University of San Diego—could make an entertaining and diverse conference for football. These California teams might be happy to jump from their current, non-elite conferences (the Mountain West and the Big Sky) to a potentially higher revenue-producing California conference.

For sports beyond football, the California conference could include more than 20 universities, including seven University of California schools, and 10 Cal State campuses. The California Conference would be a basketball powerhouse, raising the profile of outstanding but lesser-known programs, like St. Mary’s and CSU Bakersfield.

You’d remain the top dogs, academically and athletically, but by bringing in the California schools, you’d elevate them in a way that might ease resentment of your elite institutions.

You should know, though, that a number of these schools can hang with you. Take San Diego State. Its football team is often better than yours. Its men’s basketball program just made the national finals. San Diego State is also a rising academic power, second in selectivity among the Cal State schools only to Cal Poly SLO, whose graduates make nearly as much money as yours do.

A California Conference schedule wouldn’t be a big adjustment, because you already play many of these California schools in many sports. Both of you have a long history of playing football against San José State (the Stanford–San José State rivalry even has a name, the Bill Walsh Legacy Game, in honor of the late Stanford and 49ers coach, a San José State alum).

Sports media executives may question whether intra-state games will draw audiences, but that’s because they don’t understand California. College football is about rivalries between regions, and California’s regions are as populous as most states. I, for one, can hardly wait to see Cal or Stanford go to Bulldog Stadium on a Saturday night with a conference title at stake. You’ll see how Fresno State’s storied football program produces more passion than your wine-and-cheese fan bases might muster in a decade.

The new conference also could spawn cross-cultural local fights—working-class Sac State against hippie UC Davis, or the uptight Catholics of the University of San Diego against loose-living San Diego State.

A California Conference would have ancillary benefits. For example, it might revive the Rose Bowl, an essential California New Year’s tradition killed off by the same forces that exploded the Pac-12. Instead of becoming just another quarterfinal game in a national college football playoff—its current fate—the Rose Bowl could pit the California Conference champion against the best team it can get from the rest of the country.

And with any luck, this new athletic union would forge more academic collaboration between California-based schools, who face the same threat—a United States that is increasingly hostile to higher education, non-partisan teaching, and California’s liberal values.

The California Conference would start with one void: It wouldn’t have USC or UCLA. But if the conference could launch and perform well, it’s easy to see those schools leaving the Big Ten and coming home. USC and UCLA athletes, after a few years in the Big 10, may discover that they prefer less travel, fewer missed classes, and better game weather.

It’s also going to be hard to justify, to the state of California and on-campus constituencies, the climate impacts of burning all that additional jet fuel. Teams in the California Conference could get to most games by train or electric bus.

So that’s the pitch—save the planet, save college sports, connect California. Why not take a swing?


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