The Pac-12 Conference staged its first, and presumably final, Orphan Bowl Saturday in Pullman. It featured the two universities whose athletic departments have yet to find shelter from the financial storm that ripped them from the only sports family they had known for a century or so.
After Washington State prevailed 38-35 over Oregon State, a chance was missed to present the winner with a symbol of the new relationship between the lonesome rivals — an empty soup bowl. Still, the post-game events were not without moment.
WSU coach Jake Dickert set aside discussion of the game that upped his 4-0 Cougars to 16th in the weekly Associated Press top 25 poll for a brief statement, preferring a figurative dive into the smarm enveloping the big-time college game.
“It’s well documented what ESPN has done to try and get our league into where it’s at,” said Dickert, offering out loud the part never addressed by insiders — the Disney-owned network dictates terms and conditions for nearly everything in the industry. He’s semi-directly acknowledging college football is a factory town subject to the business whims of the overlord. If the master no longer finds a conference useful, a change shall come to pass. The Pac-12’s final business mistake was getting a sixth-floor hotel room with a window.
Unfortunately, Dickert didn’t elaborate on his point, and apparently no follow-up questions were asked. What he did say was that he was annoyed with a remark made by longtime ESPN football semi-entertainer and former coach Lee Corso.
“I was watching (College) GameDay, and Corso comes on and he says (about the WSU-OSU matchup) ‘the no-one-watches bowl,” Dickert said. “And I don’t really understand that. What’s the merit, once again? Because the facts say people watch the Cougs.
“I would love to have a conversation with Coach Corso about the value that he sees in breaking up the premier West Coast conference. I would also love to have a conversation with Coach Corso about how he thinks student-athletes and mental health and flying them across the country is a positive thing.”
Dickert mis-heard Corso a bit. He said the “no one wants us in a bowl,” referring to the realignment frenzy that over two years has 10 members of the Pac-12 fleeing to conferences with more lucrative media-rights deals — the Big Ten (USC, UCLA, Washington, Oregon), the Big 12 (Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Colorado) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (Stanford and Cal). The distinction makes Corso’s remark less odious, but Dickert’s broader point is that the shunning of WSU and OSU over TV market size and not athletic program competitiveness was driven at least in part by ESPN’s business agenda.
At the very least, Corso and his company colleagues should consider in all public utterances refraining from mockery, insult or diminution of the Pac-12. All hands at ESPN are bloodied, and Dickert should feel free to go Yosemite Sam on the lot of them if they don’t own up to accountability.
Evidence for the position is not merely emotional. According to an examination of public documents done by USA Today, the University of Colorado was paid $2.5 million to break its bond with the Pac-12 and move to the Big 12. Shortly after that “signing bonus” was agreed upon, Colorado announced its decision to leave, a shocker throughout the Pac-12 because the school had given indications it would stick with the conference. USA Today said it had not received responses yet as to whether the other three schools also received $2.5 million to jump. None of the three, of course, have Deion Sanders and his traveling circus.
Just guessing here, but since most conferences don’t have $2.5 million in the petty cash drawer, ESPN might have been able to help out. Whoever laundered the money, the removal of the Colorado keystone in August set the Pac-12 wall to tumbling.
A good attorney could probably make a case that the money represented tortious interference in a contract with the Pac-12. But there’s nobody but WSU and OSU to make the case in a lawsuit, and those schools still want ESPN to telecast their games, not go to trial against them.
That attitude is also found at the University of Washington. At least, those who interact with president Ana Mari Cauce. She agreed to reject, along with her colleagues, the media rights offer that Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff presented from Apple TV that was streaming-only and light on front-end cash. As with several schools, UW has much debt service on facilities upgrades that are mandatory in the NCAA arms race, so eye moisture seemed minimal over the departure, however unwieldy.
“I think there’s certainly some sadness,” she told Christian Caple of On Montlake. “There’s no question we are very proud to have been part of Pac-12 history. Change is always difficult. But I’ll be honest — the number of emails that I’ve gotten saying, ‘Congratulations, thank you so much for doing this’ . . . when I parked downstairs (at the season opener), a couple of folks who are some of our biggest, biggest supporters said, ‘Thank you so much.’ It’s been generally very positive.”
Here’s hoping she doesn’t have to step out of her car in Pullman or Corvallis.
While it’s true the Cougars and Beavers can wrap themselves in victimhood, it’s not as if Dickert, et al, are not indirectly complicit too, in the layers of circumstances that contributed to the Pac-12’s pending dissolution. Dickert earned $2.7 million in 2022. His UW counterpart, Kalen DeBoer, made $3.2 million. Seven of the 10 highest paid state employees are affiliated with the schools’ sports programs. But the salaries are funded from their athletics departments’ own operations and revenues, most of which are from media-rights fees, not the taxpayer-supplied general funds. So Dickert might be justified with a single Orphan Bowl bleat, but consistent truth-telling about ESPN will get him some industry side-eye measured in megatons.
The chaos produced by ESPN hegemony, realignment, the transfer portal and private money for all athletes via NIL has not slowed in the slightest the marketplace for coaching salaries. A recent report produced by the Knight Commission, a private, independent non-profit that acts as a sort of conscience for a business low in that inventory, came up with a slick comparative. It identified a “crossover point,” defined as the point where compensation for 11 “countable” football coaches at each school exceeds the total spent on athlete scholarships and medical expenses for all college athletes at each school studied in NCAA Division I.
The report said in fiscal year 2022, nine of the 51 Power 5 public schools (none in the Pac-12) already surpassed the crossover point. Think about that: Salaries for 564 football employees cost more than the tuition, fees, housing, food, books, attendance stipends, medical expenses and insurance coverage for more than 30,000 athletes at the schools surveyed.
So far, no coach has volunteered to trim his salary to begin the realignment of the college football universe.
Yes, Dickert is justifiably aggrieved at the hand WSU and OSU was dealt. At least he won the Orphan Bowl and is compensated handsomely. He might someday chat up Lee Corso, but caution is advised. The narrow road of the honest man in college football is filled with treachery.