March 3, 2024 

Saying thanks to the Pac-12 for the memories

The Pac-12 Conference has come a long way. On the cusp of its last tournament, Michelle Smith reflects and remembers

I’ve been putting this off for months, but it is now unavoidable — it is time to bid farewell to the Pac-12 in the way that we’ve always known it.

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The brand will stay, the logo will endure, and I’m confident that Oregon State and Washington State and new conference leadership will keep good care of its history for at least the next two years, and ideally longer.

In my hopeful heart, the college sports universe regains its sanity and football becomes its own entity. This could allow the Pac-12 to put itself back together in a way that honors its geography and its history as a bastion for Olympic and women’s sports, as well as meeting the interests of its student athletes.

But we are not there right now. So, all we are left with is the bittersweet parting. It’s still surreal and it still hurts.

For nearly 30 years, I have covered sports in the Pac-12 from my Bay Area home base. I have primarily written about women’s basketball, but have also covered football, baseball, softball, men’s basketball, volleyball, tennis and golf. At some point, I’ve touched almost all of them.

During my years at the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle — cherished, beloved years of a job in print journalism that literally no longer exists — I was a traveling beat writer for football and women’s basketball at a time where traveling beat writers for women’s teams were not commonplace outside of Storrs and Knoxville.

I went everywhere that Stanford women’s basketball went for nearly a decade. I have spent days and nights in nearly every Pac-12 market (exceptions noted below) and a few other extremely cool places, like Knoxville and Hartford, not to mention the many places that the NCAA has taken us.

I’ll never forget Maples Pavilion. The floor used to bounce (it doesn’t anymore) and I used to have a courtside seat two chairs down from Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer as she coached her teams. I heard things I never wrote and would never have written. I heard things that made me understand the game, the players’ experience, and VanDerveer’s genius at a higher level. I’ve felt the electricity of a win that ended Connecticut’s record-winning streak, the view as Pat Summitt strode onto the court, and the disbelief of an infamous Harvard loss back in 1998. I brought my toddlers to practice so I could do my work, sold countless Girl Scout cookies to Stanford staff, and brought my kids back as young adults to see for themselves the thing that took mom away for birthdays, class plays and baseball games.

Across the bay at Cal’s Haas Pavilion, one of the loudest places in the conference when the building is full, the noise emanates from seats so close to the out-of-bounds plays that the players could literally feel people’s breath and hear it reverberate off the walls. Memories of Haas Pavilion include squeezing into the old press box seats with the patrons behind you poking their knees into your back; watching Ashley Walker, Alexis Gray-Lawson and Devanei Hampton (the local girls who remade a program); and witnessing Layshia Clarendon, Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd reach a Final Four.

The Next reporter Michelle Smith does a courtside radio interview at Cal's Haas Pavilion.
The Next reporter Michelle Smith does a courtside radio interview at Cal’s Haas Pavilion. (Photo credit: Michelle Smith)

Seattle’s Hec Ed Pavilion reminds me of watching a passionate Northwest fan base pack the place to watch the Mendiola sisters, Giuliana and Gioconda in the early-aughts. It also brings back memories of the miraculous comeback of Kayla Burt, who nearly died of a cardiac arrest in the middle of the season, and Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor‘s record-breaking Final Four run. Seattle has become one of my favorite places on the planet; nothing beats a bustling Saturday morning at Pike’s Place Market with Beecher’s Mac and Cheese and some mini-donuts, as a chilly breeze comes off the Sound. And, not to mention, watching a run of Pac-12 Tournaments that were among the best the conference ever put on.

Ah, Pullman. Long rides from Spokane to Beasley Coliseum, through a landscape that, at times, seemed so desolate it didn’t look real, would ultimately land me in a homey college town. There was the one time that Cardinal associate head coach Amy Tucker insisted that I hop on the bus to avoid a rental car ride in some lousy weather. VanDerveer picked out my seat, and when the game was over she told me to hurry up, because the bus was going to leave without me.

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Eugene, Oregon was another favorite road trip spot, thanks to a direct flight and the ability to stay at what I believe is one of the best hotels in the conference footprint — the Valley River Inn. The Inn, with its overstuffed chairs, roaring fireplaces, and view of the Willamette River from the bar, was unbeatable. And, of course, Mac Court. McArthur Court, which opened in 1927, has iconic narrow seats, wooden bleachers, and doorways that led you to a court from another era. No one played better than the Oregon pep band at Mac Court. The trip into the basement for post-game interviews was always always an adventure. And it will forever be the spot of the first-ever Pac-12 Tournament, and also the place where I locked my keys in the rental car in the pouring rain.

The Next reporter Michelle Smith covers a game at Oregon's McArthur Court.
The Next reporter Michelle Smith covers a game at Oregon’s McArthur Court. (Photo credit: Michelle Smith)

This brings us to Corvallis. I have a confession to make — I have never spent a night in Corvallis in all of the years I spent covering basketball and football. I’m not proud of it. But the pull of being close to the airport in Eugene, and sometimes Portland, was always too strong. The gorgeous rural drive between Eugene and Corvallis (a little over an hour) always meant a stop at a Dairy Queen in Junction City. And I’ve never gotten more soaking wet in the walk from the car to the gym that I did in Corvallis.

Utah and Colorado joined the Pac-12 in 2011, and I was no longer traveling at that point. More confessions I must make — I haven’t been to the home court of either the Utes or the Buffaloes, and I’m sure that’s my loss.

Heading south takes us to L.A. for what was always a memorable weekend. Covering USC games at the Los Angeles Sports Arena always felt like a slightly risky endeavor. The gym was old, the parking lot walk was far, but the burritos at the El Huero drive-through on Figueroa never let me down. Moving eventually to the Galen Center was such an upgrade from a basketball perspective, and the view of the L.A. Skyline at night was spectacular.

Pauley Pavilion has forever been a fascinating gym to me. For all its history, the space around the floor always felt like it didn’t quite fit, like Pauley was supposed to be a band box and not a sprawling facility. But the press seats were always right behind the band, so, the eight-clap — well, it sticks with you. Stanford always stayed in Marina del Rey back in those days, splitting the difference between the two L.A. schools. I could count on two hands the number of times I heard VanDerveer playing piano through the lobby from the team’s meal space. For me, L.A. was always the piano place.

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A trip to Arizona State always meant a competitive, hard-nosed game, and it also had the bonus of allowing me to spend time with one of my best friends and her family near Mesa. Additionally, these trips enabled me to make annual stops at Los Dos Molinos for the garlic pork roast platter and Oregano’s for the P-Zookie (if you know, you know).

Finally, Tucson, another place that I usually drove into rather than staying over. I’d take the 113-mile drive on Interstate 10 to and from Phoenix, driving past the casinos, the cacti, and Picahco Peak, and straight into the desert city that houses the McKale Center, one of the most storied gyms in college basketball. Back in the days of Adia Barnes, Shawntinice Polk and Ify Ibekwe, fans in Arizona were some of the most vocal in the Pac-12 when it came to officiating. And McKale had some of the best in-arena food in the Pac. My most unforgettable day there was a day back in January 2011, when I traveled to Tuscon to cover a game the day after the horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 18 others. The ride to campus took me past the hospital where Giffords was being treated, where dozens of news trucks and satellite dishes were stationed outside. The emotion in the gym that day was palpable, the air felt heavy. I will never forget it.

For both myself personally and for an entire group of schools, cities and fanbases, there’s a lot of history in the Pac-12. The conference has come a long way from Stanford-and-everyone-else to the powerhouse that it is now. On the cusp of the final Pac-12 Tournament (for now), we have a chance to remember, to reflect and to say thank you.

It’s just been the best.

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Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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