On the first day of Oregon State football practice, the music pulsating from the speakers shook Prothro Field. Coming off their best season since 2013, the energy and optimism of the players seemed to match the music in the air.
“They love this game,” coach Jonathan Smith, “and you can see that.”
But even if everything about this Wednesday morning in Corvallis felt like a normal start to the college football season, change is coming. A month ago, Oregon State’s Pac-12 Conference peers UCLA and USC announced their departures for the Big Ten conference.
The move shocked many across the college football landscape, leaving Oregon State and the nine other remaining teams in the Pac-12 with uncertain conference futures.
“College sports is trying to figure out what it’s going to be,” Nicole Auerbach, a senior writer for The Athletic, said. “Everyone is trying to scramble to figure out how that’s going to work.”
What is known is that UCLA and USC are moving to the Big Ten in 2024 after more than 94 years of playing in the Pac-12. The motivation, according to Auerbach, is money. Lots of money.
“They are betting that they can make so much more money in the Big Ten that they can essentially chart their own course and have a say,” Auerbach said.
According to NCAA financial reports, the Pac-12 paid each of its member schools roughly $34 million for fiscal year 2020 and $20 million for 2021 — a reduction due to the pandemic. Auerbach said teams could bring in upwards of $100 million annually from the Big Ten after the conference negotiates its next television contract.
This is not the first time college sports conferences have had teams leave or move. Two years ago, Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, raising many of the same questions the Pac-12 faces now: Will the Pac-12 invite new teams? Will more depart? What if there aren’t any greener pastures available?
“If you’re not going to go to the Big Ten or SEC, where would you go?” Auerbach said.
With everything up in the air about the future, Oregon State players continue to be focused on the present, Smith said.
But this limbo period impacts more than just the team.
“It affects me just on a very practical level, in the sense of the job that I’ve had for 24 years,” said Mike Parker, a 1982 University of Oregon graduate who has been Oregon State’s play-by-play voice since 1999. “If the Beavers end up going to a smaller conference, with less money, do we still have all of our games broadcasted the way I’ve been broadcasting them? Do they ask me to take a pay cut because they have less money coming in?”
Parker, 64, said that he is still often recognized by fans because of his association with Oregon State. While recently in Walla Walla, Washington, Parker was calling a Corvallis Knights baseball game and had multiple fans approach him and say, “Hey Mike, go Beavs!” he said.
With the possibility of college football becoming more of a national game than a regional game, as Auerbach described it, Parker worries that the intimacy of the community could be lost.
“I don’t see anything good in it for us, for the conference,” he said. “I don’t think there is any silver lining. There may be down the road, possibly, but I’m not seeing it. I don’t think it’s good for anybody.”
Still, there’s a season to be played — one that many in Corvallis are anticipating after Oregon State’s 7-6 record in 2021.
“The thing I am most looking forward to is simply a football season — that is, a Pac-12 football season,” Parker said. “Maybe the last we’ll ever know.”
But even with everything unknown right now, the Beavers will keep practicing to get ready for their first game on Sept. 3 against Boise State.
“You just have confidence in the conference itself and the leadership we have,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of history and tradition of playing the schools, a lot of big time football and big time players. So you control what you can control. And we’ll find out as we go on.”
— Zoe Toperosky, Ida B. Wells High School
— Madysen Ollian-Williams, South Albany High School
This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.