Followers of my musings back to the days of the Seattle P-I know that the sordid business of big-time college sports has inspired a number of cudgelings, caterwauls and condemnations. The principal felony was that universities, using the sham shield of amateurism, exploited in dubious ways their athletes for big TV revenues for more than a millennium.
Finally, that is changing. Court rulings have allowed college athletes to be paid, albeit via opaque, unaccountable private funders who often bid rules-free on the services of 17-year-olds. But that inscrutability is temporary. In a time not too distant, a fully professionalized college sports monopoly run by the TV networks/streamers is coming to a big college near you.
Until then, the game on the field continues apace. In fact, the one at Husky Stadium Saturday is of sufficient magnitude and pulchritude to make it easy to look away from the business detritus, which includes the imminent expiration of the Pac-12 Conference. This breakthrough moment is what longtime sports fans used to call fun.
Two undefeated (5-0) teams, the seventh-ranked Washington Huskies and the eighth-ranked Oregon Ducks, begin trading taunts at 12:30 p.m. on national TV (ABC). It is the fruited plain’s largest game of the week, so naturally, the relentless ESPN hype machine, College GameDay, will be on campus Saturday morning. The pre-func is a delight for 20-year-old frat boys, who are obliged to arrive pre-drunk and wave smart-ass signs in the TV background in hopes of landing a role as social media influencer. It is the acme experience for today’s hipster college student.
As always, the real fun remains on the field, particularly when it’s Ducks-Huskies, whose legions regularly scrunch their faces at one another as if swallowing mayonnaise left on the picnic table all day.
Over the past six games the rivalry is 3-3, including Washington winning a howler in Eugene last year, 37-34. Both teams have senior transfer quarterbacks who are on the short list for the Heisman Trophy — each skipping the past April’s NFL draft mostly because the money now in college is too good — and the schools joined together in August to leap off the sinking Pac-12 to the relative financial safety of the Big 10 Conference. So really, these programs are more alike than different. Can’t we all just get along?
No. There’s no clicks in pleasantness.
The programs also share an inheritance: A surrender to the Air Raid style of offense championed by the late Mike Leach at Washington State. Once derided as a gimmick for sissy teams that can’t run the ball, its various forms have been rapidly adopted by even the biggest programs. Apparently, if mullets can come back, anything is possible in American pop culture.
Washington leads the nation in offense at 569.4 yards a game, 446 through the air, and is third in scoring (46 points a game). QB Michael Penix leads the nation individually with 399.9 passing yards a contest. He’s been sacked just three times in 202 dropbacks, suggesting that the Huskies O-line is worthy of mention too.
Penix’s Oregon counterpart, Bo Nix, leads the nation in completion percentage (80.4), and is only the third QB in the past 20 years to maintain through five games a success rate above 80 percent. Additionally, the Ducks are fifth in scoring defense, allowing only 11.8 points per game.
For Washington, a triumph would mark a turnaround that even the most purpled of Montlake people could not have foreseen. It would be the 13th win in a row and 17th in 19 games since the head coaching job was taken by Kalen DeBoer, who followed Jimmy Lake after a 4-8 record, worst in 14 years, that got him fired before the season was done. After Lake’s dismissal, a number of top-tier players fled the program through the transfer portal. Football prospects were bleak. But DeBoer’s work to get Penix to transfer to Seattle was a pivot point in a rapid renaissance that has the UW program nationally prominent again.
Just in time.
The abrupt move to the Big Ten that begins the next year is a swift step up in intensity, as exemplified by the bold poaching of UW athletics director Jen Cohen by USC, which, along with UCLA, began the Pac-12 collapse a year earlier by taking the huge LA market to the Midwest conference. The vacancy in the AD office seemed to come at a bad time for Washington. Until this week, when successor Troy Dannen won the press conference following being poached from Tulane University.
Dannen, 57, obviously will have no influence on Saturday’s events, but his success at Tulane, a private research university of 14,000 students in New Orleans with a $2 billion endowment, suggests that he may be the same kind of fit in his job that DeBoer has been in his.
Dannen was a finalist for the Sports Business Journal’s Athletic Director of the Year award in 2022 in recognition of the transformation of sports at Tulane, a member of the American Athletics Conference in the Group of 5 category. The 12-2 Green Wave football team in 2022 finished ninth in the final AP poll, beat USC 46-45 in the Cotton Bowl, and set a department record with a 93 percent graduation rate.
As importantly, Dannen has served on a number of NCAA committees dealing with college sports’ chaotic future. He was asked at his introductory presser about the most important issues faced by the faltering organization.
“Anti-trust and labor,” he said. “Easy.”
That expression from a Power 5 AD may be the first of its kind, and the necessary way for college sports executives to think. Why? He explained it adroitly.
“If you think the last three to five years has been tumultuous,” he said, “the next three to five are going to put it to shame.”
Litigation regarding whether to categorize athletes as employees of universities is moving through the court system. If the NCAA loses — which it almost always does in these matters — complete professionalization will be imminent.
“We have to be prepared for those outcomes,” Dannen said, “and how do we accept whatever happens and then run with it?”
The demise of the Pac-12 has been brought about in large part by an inability within school leaderships to discern the future in the valuable, volatile media-rights business. Not an easy thing, certainly, but serious attention, then and now, has to be devoted to outside forces.
“You’d be surprised,” Dannen said. “There are so many people who are unwilling to worry about the future . . .
“A lot of schools, they’re sitting on the railroad tracks looking back at history, yearning for the past, and they’re gonna get run over by the next train. What I know about UW, though, is we’re going to look around the corner, so the train doesn’t catch us. We’re looking to make sure we stay ahead of the train.”
Well, here we are again, talking about the business of college sports, instead of the fun part. But as Dannen certainly understands, the narratives are inseparable. That doesn’t mean that Saturday at sold-out Husky Stadium can’t be the thrill ride that top-shelf college ball often has been. The more significant outcome is to be in the train, not on the tracks.
Ask Washington State and Oregon State.