The Conference of Champions is dead
Mourning the end of a strange, endearing Pac-12 hoops era
I wonder if anyone thought about it. I wonder if — at any point Wednesday and Thursday, as the Colorado Board of Regents were meeting and deciding to leave their current conference for the Big 12, or when the Big 12’s board of directors were meeting Thursday to approve Colorado’s membership into their disruptively expanding league, or when remainders of the Pac-12 sent out another limp statement Thursday night — anyone in a position of college athletics power stopped and thought to themselves:
“What does this mean for Bill Walton?”
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Someone should have. What Would Bill Walton Make of All This is a guiding pillar of all great moral codes, not to mention a great potential podcast title. Then again, if such consideration was ever going to happen, it would have happened last year, before USC and UCLA departed for the Big Ten. Walton made clear his feelings on his alma mater’s move in a statement last November. The statement, which begins with “All progress requires change … not all change is progress,” managed to both be a successfully articulated argument and some fittingly lost form of off-kilter beatnik poetry.
I’m Bill Walton,
I’m a California native, resident, engaged citizen, voter, and taxpayer,
I’m a product of California’s terrific public school systems,
I’m a proud UCLA alum,
I am not in favor of UCLA’s recent announced decision to leave the Pac-12 Conference of Champions, nor their desire to join the Big 10,
I don’t like this attempted move,
I don’t support it,
I hope it does not happen,
And so on. It was a very Bill Walton piece of content.
He talked about the logistical difficulties the change presented to UCLA’s many coaches and athletes, and he wasn’t wrong, but he also wrote: “I went to UCLA— gladly, willingly, and proudly, it was my dream, that dream never included the Big 10.” Which, yeah, that’s the real crux. The culture is the thing.
There is no greater cultural force in modern Pac-12 athletics than Bill Walton. He is the face of the league. He has spent his whole life but especially the past decade-plus being a gleeful, silly Pac-12 homer, defending and protecting his Conference of Champions at all costs, while consistently goofing on the Big Ten et al. as “truck stop” leagues. (Your understanding of what that term means may vary. I was always reminded of the Flying J-dotted midwestern highways that connect Big Ten college towns in a spiral outward from Chicago. Oh, and also the classic Barbasol ad from the early days of BTN. For me, it is an extremely evocative image.)
Walton treats every Pac-12 college town like Instagram influencers treat the Amalfi Coast, except he seems to actually enjoy being there. To be fair, the western half of the country is incredibly beautiful and nice! He’s not wrong! He loved visiting all of it, talking about every place, gushing about some highly altered experience he had under the stars seeing one old beloved hippie-era music act or another. Never in a million years would the guy who once picked five Pac-12 teams to play in the Final Four thought he’d be watching his Bruins play high-profile early-February league games in West Lafayette, Ind. Walton loved going to Boulder, grinning widely atop a mountain in a tie-dye, while ESPN’s crew filmed some b-roll. It was obviously his favorite part of the job.
He doesn’t get to travel to Boulder on Thursdays anymore. That Pac-12 — the 2011-2023 Pac-12, the Pac-12 of Bill Walton, the quote-unquote Conference of Champions — is dead now. It’s never coming back.