A Brief History of Conference Realignment, Part 6: How the West Was Won

A Brief History of Conference Realignment is a study of how we got where we are today, the traditions that we are burning like bridges in the chase for television money and the ones we burned long ago for far stupider reasons.

Citing artistic differences the band broke up in May
And in June reformed without me
And they got a different name

--Ben Folds Five, "Army"

After a round of expansion that ended in 1928, we effectively had a Pac-10 conference. Then the Pacific Coast Conference, the predecessor to the Pac-10 included Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Montana, and Idaho.

The Pacific Coast Conference was fractured from the start, due in large part to the University of California system. Cal regent Edwin Pauley (who you might know from Pauley Pavillion, the UCLA basketball arena) disdained the Oregon and Washington schools for what he perceived as poor academics. He supported a breakaway by the conference's California schools, and he and Cal president Robert Proul pushed for increasingly high academic standards across the PCC, leading to the suspension of USC's football team in 1924. The PCC was among the first conferences to review player eligibility and adopt a code of conduct.

But the draw of competitive football and the huge intra-conference rivalries -- the beauty of the PCC/Pac-8/10/12 are the built-in regional duals, whether it be the Apple Cup, the Civil War, the Big Game, the Territorial Cup, or UCLA-USC -- eventually got the better of many of the conference's programs. The end of the Pacific Coast Conference is the story of the first great booster scandal in college football.

In order to properly compete for California recruits, each program began forming local alumni groups to help locate and woo potential players with, among other things, promises of part-time jobs (which were permissible at the time, so long as they were, you know, actual jobs). These clubs quickly morphed into unregulated booster clubs, handing out favors to recruits. The PCC attempted to govern the clubs, administering a $40 per week maximum wage to players among other things.

By 1950, the PCC had been reduced to nine teams by the defection of the noncompetitive Montana Grizzlies for the Skyline Conference, and the effects of the conference's dependence on California recruiting were starting to show. UCLA had built an honest-to-God post-war football powerhouse in Westwood, going 34-5 from 1952-55 and finishing in the national top 10 in all four seasons. Their Los Angeles counterparts, USC, weren't much worse; both schools finished in the confrence's top three in every season from 1951 through 1955. Cal and Stanford routinely finished in the conference's top tier; in 1951 and 1953, the California schools took the top four spots in the PCC standings. The schools of the Pacific Northwest got into the booster game just to stay competitive. And after the 1955 season, it was one of those Pacific Northwest schools that lit the fuse on the PCC's detonation.

John Cherberg was the head football coach at Washington in 1955. It was his third season with the team, and his teams were not good. He had a 10-18-2 overall record after the 1955 season when his players staged a mutiny and demanded his ouster. When the Washington athletic director obliged them and fired the coach, Cherberg revealed the details of a booster group named the Greater Washington Advertising Fund, a slush fund to pay players. The fund, run by Seattle printer Roscoe Torrance, found jobs for players and routinely funnelled money in excess of the $40 per week mandated by the conference to star athletes. In his autobiography, Torrance was unapologetic about the group:

"I organized a group -- mostly of downtown businessmen -- with the goal of putting Washington back on the athletic map as well as the academic one ... There was nothing devious about our organization. The leading citizens in our community participated in it, and it was of general knowledge to the newspapers because Charles B. Lindeman of the Post-Intelligencer and Bill, Jack, and Frank Blevins of the Times all contributed to it. We had nothing to do with the actions of the coaches. We never told them who to play, when to play or what athletes to go after. Our purpose was to support the program and the kids. There were 75 or more individuals involved at one time or another. Some gave money, some provided jobs or both"

The NCAA slapped a two-year postseason ban on the entire athletic department and went fishing for other PCC activity. Washington had not been the first PCC program to be found in violation of NCAA rules regarding player payments -- Oregon's basketball coach had resigned in 1951 over the same sort of activities -- but both programs had quickly pointed the finger at Westwood when caught. The Bruins were in the crosshairs for both regulators and reporters, and the reporters got there first. In March 1956, two LA newspapers reported the illegal activities of the Bruin Bench and Young Men's Club of Westwood, as told to them by a player who had transferred from UCLA to Cal. UCLA attempted to block the investigation, refusing to allow conference and NCAA officials to investigate the clubs for ten weeks. After finally admitting that coaches had consented to booster payments for years, UCLA did what one would expect UCLA to do: It accused Southern Cal and California of doing the same thing, which, of course, they had.

UCLA and USC each received three years of crippling sanctions: Postseason bans, television bans, scholarship reductions, etc. from the PCC. Cal received slightly less punishment for its part. But the mere fact that the punishment was being handed down on the dominant California schools by the non-Californians was enough to start the PCC death sequence. Proul enacted a five-point plan for academic excellence at the two UC campuses, a plan that included separating from the PCC. By 1957, the PCC had effectively disbanded, and it officially ceased in 1959.

Cal and UCLA had used their perceived academic superiority as a cleaver to break apart the PCC. Now they used it to put some of the conference back together. In 1959, the Cal system schools joined fellow scandalmates Washington and USC, picked up Stanford, and started the Athletic Association of Western Universities.* By 1961, the AAWU had signed an agreement to send its winner to the Rose Bowl (the Granddaddy of Them All had taken AAWU champion Washington in the two intervening seasons regardless). With their power play against the also-rans of the PCC complete and the standards that Cal wanted in place, the conference set about pulling itself back together. In 1962, Washington State rejoined. Oregon and Oregon State reentered in 1964, with the Beavers winning the conference championship in their first season. The conference officially changed its name to the Pacific 8 in 1968. Idaho grew a mustache and mullet, got a job at Chick-fil-A.

* -- During initial discussions regarding the formation of the AAWU, retired U.S. Navy Admiral Thomas Hamilton floated the idea of a cross-country "Airplane Conference" with like-minded institutions like Army, Navy, Notre Dame, Penn State, Air Force, Penn, Duke, and Georgia Tech. The AAWU instituions briefly pursued the idea before a Pentagon official nixed it, taking out the service academies and effectively shutting down the proposed conference. So when you make fun of the Big East for pursuing San Diego State, just know that it's nothing new.

Arizona and Arizona State became charter members of the Western Athletic Conference in 1962 with BYU, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. But booming population growth in Arizona, combined with not-so-booming growth in the other states, meant that the Wildcats and Sun Devils had outgrown their upstart league by the mid-70s. The higher-profile Pac-8, with its Rose Bowl tie-in (and recent decision to allow more than one team to play in the football postseason) was a perfect fit, and the schools made the jump in 1978. Despite a brief dalliance with Colorado and Texas when the Southwest Conference disintegrated in the early 90s, the ten schools of the Pac-10 remained intact from the league's formation until 2010.

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