Mandel: The Pac-12’s final farewell was a spectacle worthy of a conference of champions

LAS VEGAS — A 108-year-old football conference breathed its last here Friday, surrounded by 65,000 spectators dressed in purple or neon green, with millions more watching appreciatively from afar.

On its last day on earth, Pac-12 football enjoyed the best night of its life. He was nervous. It was exciting.

That was a terrible irony this That’s how it ended.

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As purple confetti rose toward the roof of sold-out Allegiant Stadium, third-seeded Washington celebrated a 34-31 win over fifth-seeded Oregon, its third stunning victory over its border rival in the past 13 months — and one that netted much higher stakes. When Washington’s Dillon Johnson broke away for an 18-yard run to seal the game, the Huskies guaranteed themselves a 13-0 regular season, a Pac-12 championship and their first trip to the College Football Playoff since 2016, also ending the Pac-12’s drought.

Watching Heisman contender Michael Penix Jr. drop dime after dime to one of his elite receivers, only to have his Oregon counterpart Bo Nix lead his team right down the field, you’d never know this was anything other than the product of a thriving conference made for must-have television. Watch it on a near-weekly basis throughout the season. In addition to Penix and Nix, there was USC’s Caleb Williams, a Heisman Trophy winner, and Arizona freshman Noah Fifita, a rising star who led his team to its best season in a decade.

“We play great football here on the West Coast,” Oregon State linebacker Jeffrey Basa said after his team’s loss. “The amount of (great) quarterbacks I’ve seen this year from week to week has been crazy.”

Washington jumped out to a 20-3 lead in the first half, only for Oregon to come back and take a 24-20 lead. That was followed by back-to-back Huskies touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to put the matter out of reach. Watching it all, it was easy to forget the 13-month saga of failed media rights negotiations, which torpedoed a century of tradition and sent 10 of the league’s 12 schools into the running to the exit. #Pac12Refs even threw some trick calls (that were flipped on the replay) that suited the occasion.

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“The historical tradition of what this conference has done, the great teams over the years…it’s sad to see that happen, and for that to be the last football game,” Washington coach Calen de Boer said.

Battle-tested Washington breaks the Pac-12’s streak of missing the College Football Playoff, and it comes during the final season of the league’s existence as fans know it. (Kirby Lee/USA Today)

The tense events on the field Friday, coupled with the electric stadium atmosphere, reflect how much Pac-12 football has improved over the past several seasons. For nearly five years now, Washington has beaten Utah in the bleakest Pac-12 championship game between a pair of 9-3 teams, played in front of just 35,000 fans at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Washington’s 10-3 win (the only touchdown scored by the defense) looked more like the old Foster Farms Bowl than the Power 5 championship game.

It marked the final night of a tumultuous season that included a scandal in which a conference executive interfered in the decision to replay the field, and then-commissioner Larry Scott spent his pregame news conference answering questions about his exorbitant salary. The Pac-12 was undoubtedly in dire straits. But even then, no one expected that one day he would completely die.

Friday, Scott’s successor, George Klyafkov, the man who led Waterloo in the league, appeared on stage to hand DeBoer the championship trophy. The juxtaposition of a lame-duck commissioner standing next to one of the fastest-rising coaches in the sport was a telling image of what has been a crazy year for the conference.

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Just months after Lincoln Riley and Williams made USC interesting again, after Colorado hired long-forgotten headline-grabbing Deion Sanders, and on the verge of dominant seasons at Washington and Oregon, the television networks that effectively run college sports have decided they Can live without buck. 12 football on their airwaves.

There’s no point in rehashing the decade of bad decisions and misguided arrogance that led to the league’s demise. It happened. I finish.

But that didn’t make saying goodbye to Friday seem any less surreal.

The familiar Pac-12 logo painted at midfield on Friday will soon be relegated to scrapbooks, YouTube videos, and, at least for one year, to the patches of Oregon State and Washington State jerseys. A year from now, if Oregon and Washington State were to play in another conference championship, their fans would have to fly to Indianapolis in three time zones to see it. Las Vegas, an emerging sports city, may host more Mountain West tournaments in the future than a similar Pac-12 league.

It’s heartbreaking. It’s crazy. Worst of all, it was all avoidable.

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But Washington will represent the Pac-12 for at least another week — perhaps, poetically, against Big Ten champion Michigan in the Rose Bowl. No team in the league has won a playoff game since the first, in 2014, when Marcus Mariota’s Oregon crushed Jameis Winston’s Florida State 59-20. Penix, who sang “Heisman” chants on the Trophy stage after the game, has a chance to leave the same legacy left by previous West Coast greats like Mariota, John Elway and Andrew Luck.

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The Huskies should be underdogs to a Big Ten or SEC opponent, but don’t count them out. For once, a Pac-12 representative may enter the field as the most battle-tested of the group. Washington’s 13 wins include four teams ranked in the committee’s most recent top 25 (No. 5 Oregon twice, No. 14 Arizona and No. 20 Oregon State), and a fifth, Utah, which has spent all but the last two weeks in the polls.

“He understood how strong the conference was this year. There were (nine) teams that at one point were ranked in the top 25, and we played the best teams — and we played one of them twice,” De Boer said. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in “The country went through what we went through.”

After the confetti stopped and the field was cleared, with the teams returning to the locker rooms or being loaded onto buses, a final celebration – or wake – was held on the field. As a group of Pac-12 employees gathered on abandoned risers, the stadium’s video board played movie-style credits like Green Day’s “Good Riddance” from the stadium’s speakers: “I hope you had the time of your life.” They clapped, and smiled. At least two of them wiped away tears.

With this we bid farewell to our late friend.

All 12 schools will continue to play football in their various new regions. They will produce more great players. They will win big games, and maybe more championships.

But college football on the West Coast may never enjoy another night as perfect as Friday night.

(Top Image: Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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