Bill Oram: What it means to be a sports fan in Oregon amid unprecedented upheaval


A moment I’ll never forget: As UCLA sprints onto the field in Corvallis in 1999, a fan in the north end zone bellows for everyone around him, including a kid from the coast attending his first game, to hear: “They think they’ve already won because they have those blue and gold uniforms on.”

Oregon State wins 55-7.

That loud fan’s long-forgotten quip remained tucked away in some crevice of my memory for decades, until last month when the gut punch of UCLA and USC jilting the rest of the Pac-12 for the Big Ten brought it roaring back.

If as a kid I didn’t fully appreciate the disdain the conference’s flagships had for the rest of us, I certainly understood now.

Oregon and Oregon State thought they were part of the Conference of Champs. The L.A. schools saw it as the Conference of Chumps.

It is a complicated mess to untangle. Lousy leadership left the Pac-12 well behind the expanding Big Ten and SEC, and the same television networks that were quick to pluck your heartstrings with sepia-toned montages about tradition and heritage have no problem incinerating all that in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

To those financially motivated network bigwigs and the universities they’re plying with millions, I say this: No amount of money will ever be enough.

To USC and UCLA, I would also add this: Good luck finding greener pastures than the ones we have in the Willamette Valley.

With two years left before the Pac-12 disintegrates into some glorified version of the Mountain West, or aligns with the ACC, EPL, F1 or G7, the Big 12, Big 5 or Five Guys, I can’t help but hope the Beavers and Ducks channel Tom Berenger in “Major League.”

“It seems that Mrs. Phelps doesn’t think too highly of our worth …”

“Well,” Berenger’s Jake Taylor growls, “I guess there’s only one thing left to do.”

Regardless of whether the Ducks or Beavers win the whole (bleeping) thing before the infrastructure that defines our college sports fandom totally crumbles in 2024, it’s clear there is no going back.

Greed masquerading as progress will always be the nemesis of nostalgia. Ask the scattered members of the Southwest Conference. And at some point, whatever comes of the remaining 10 members of the Pac-12 will become the new normal, too. Look how quickly we adapted to a 12-team league with Utah and Colorado and before that the addition of the Arizona schools to reach 10.

There’s always someone yearning for their version of the Pac-Then. But this is as foundational a change as any institution could experience.

As a colleague recently said to me, when you take the soul out of something, you can’t ever get it back. This week the global track and field community will descend on Phil Knight’s track palace for the largest sporting event to ever land inside our borders. But plenty of people will tell you, wistfully, that that’s not Hayward Field. It’s what sits on top of Hayward Field.

Sports in our state are forever changed.

The rejection of USC and UCLA — arguably made necessary by the Pac-12′s lagging TV revenue, but rejection nonetheless — stings. It flames the primal insecurity that every Oregon sports fan knows: that somewhere, somebody isn’t taking us seriously. Do they even know that we’re here, up in the nation’s return-address corner?

That’s why being left behind hurts. And why Trail Blazers fans respond so favorably to the uncommon loyalty of Damian Lillard, who signed an extension to commit to the middling Blazers even as others around the league wonder openly why he isn’t begging for a trade to a contender.

We know how hard it is to get a player who gets it, who gets us, and wants to stay. That, in some ways, has proven even more elusive than a championship.

The link to powerhouses like USC and UCLA gave us the path to prove that not only did we belong, but we could also excel. Whether it was the Ducks beating USC seven out of their last 10 meetings (and UCLA nine of the last 10) and reaching the national title game twice in a decade, or Oregon State’s run of program-defining wins over the Trojans — from the Giant Killers of 1967 to Jacquizz Rodgers running through the top-ranked Trojans in 2008 to last year’s thriller at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum — breathing the same oxygen as the vaunted L.A. schools felt like our path to prominence.

With one quick single-day news cycle USC and UCLA robbed us of that. They told us we don’t belong. That product matters less than placement.

And, it seems, that what happens in Oregon isn’t as important as what happens in L.A.

Me? I say it is.

That’s why I left a job reporting on the biggest sports brand in the second-largest media market in the country to come back and chronicle the stories of my home state. For nine years, I covered the Lakers in L.A. I watched Kobe Bryant overcome one devastating injury after another to score 60 points in his last game and saw the fortunes of a lost franchise change overnight with the decision of The Chosen One. I saw ping pong balls determine a team’s fate and, in no less of a made-for-TV spectacle, I saw a championship. I fought, and later made up, with LeBron James. I earned glares from Russell Westbrook (not all that hard, come to think of it).

But it’s impossible to ignore siren song of home.

My ancestors arrived here on the Oregon Trail in 1845. My great-great-great-grandfather helped Sam Barlow cut the famed mountain route to the Willamette Valley and the family’s cemetery north of Corvallis is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the opening paragraphs of Phil Knight’s memoir, he recounts a teacher telling him of the Oregon Trail, “The cowards never started, the weak died along the way — that leaves us.”

As of this week, my two sons are eighth-generation Oregonians.

I’m proud of that.

A journalist knows to check his fandom at the door. Still, growing up amid the rolling hills and dense forests of South Tillamook County, I played sports poorly but cheered loudly — for the same teams that you root for now.

We suffered through BlazerVision together, my friends.

I understand the emotion and pride that gets packed into the four quarters every November when Oregon and Oregon State square off. And as college football is turned upside down, I know how vital it will be to maintain that tradition.

Yes, I was raised to be a partisan in that rivalry. Would you trust any Oregonian who wasn’t?

It is a profound and surreal honor to step into this role at this moment, following, somehow, in the footsteps of my real childhood sports heroes: the reporters who wrote about the games. The son of a music teacher, I was always the first kid at school and tore into the stacks of fresh newspapers waiting to be distributed to the classrooms.

The sports section was my front page.

Sentimentality aside, I recognize my arrival coincides with the most disruptive moment in the sporting history of our state.

Not only are Oregon and Oregon State scrambling with the remaining “others” of the Pac-12 to find terra firma, but after a series of organizational failures the Timbers and Thorns have lost the trust of a relentless faction of their fanbase demanding badly needed accountability.

The future of the Trail Blazers, too, is very much in flux. An actual white knight — the same Knight who has propped up so many of our institutions — has ridden in with a $2 billion offer to buy the franchise, only to be rebuffed by Jody Allen and a vague allusion that it could be sold in the next 10 to 20 years as her brother’s estate is slowly dissolved.

That’s not good enough. Blazers fans deserve a steady hand and a clear direction from ownership. Not to be left flapping in the wind for decades.

Portland State could be in the SEC by then.

These sudden changes are all profound enough to leave you contemplating the more existential questions about sports.

Like: Who are they for?

The games will keep pushing forward and will supply us with more incredible moments than we know what to do with. That’s the beauty of sports when they step outside of the boardroom. But in our rush to forecast what comes next, let’s not forget to pause and appreciate what is getting lost.

We can’t be expected to happily accept that tradition doesn’t matter when we’ve been told for a century that it does.

No one, and least of all me, knows where all this is truly going. We will find out together over the months and years to come.

Amid the splintering of the Pac-12 as we know it, please know that Oregon sports fans aren’t the ones getting most short-changed in this whole thing.

That would be USC and UCLA. They think they’ve already won? Not true.

They’ve lost us.

— Bill Oram | | Twitter: @billoram

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