People talk about Colorado’s move to the Pac-12, making it seem like only two sports exist.
Pundits and gold-shirted fans lecture that football coaches will now recruit blue-chippers from California like trout from the neighborhood creek. Or, they discuss how Tad Boyle’s basketball program can surge over an open-field of competition without a giant like Kansas to hog the crown.
They forget all other sports because their mouths know where the money is.
Commissioner Larry Scott’s TV deal tying together ESPN and Fox Sports gives the 12 members an amount of national exposure that most (except maybe USC) never had the chance to feel. Of course, all but the crust of the pie goes to football and basketball – per the deal set to begin in 2012.
So, what about the sports that stay largely hidden from the networks’ cameras and checkbooks? Disregarding the financial prospects, the Buffs throw themselves into unchartered waters of competition and travel.
It’s time to sink or swim for these three sports in particular:
The change in conferences may prove to have little effect on Coach Mark Wetmore’s runners. Cross Country does not play a set conference schedule; however, the Pac-12 does compete in a conference championship at season’s end.
After a year when Coach Wetmore’s women’s team finished 6th and his men’s team ended 15th nationally, the program should consistently finish top among league members. And, Wetmore is not about to be modest when talking up his championship program.
“Colorado, being one of the stronger teams of the Big 12, leaving and moving to the Pac-12 makes that a much stronger conference than it’s ever been,” Wetmore said. “It will be the best Cross Country conference in America – both men and women.”
Unlike previous years, the Buffs have no room to trip if they expect to contend for the conference ring. Though a Big 12 team won an NCAA championship last season, Wetmore insists the Pac-12’s tradition remains stronger over a longer period.
“If we went normally to the Big 12 and had an off day, we’d finish 2nd,” he said. “Now we can have an off day and finish 5th.”
In the Big 12, the Buffs gathered enough championship hardwood to construct the tallest building in Boulder, with 25 conference titles and four national titles. Another 25 championship teams may prove harder to come by among the likes of historically powerful Stanford, Oregon, and Arizona.
From the perspective of the women’s soccer squad, the grass stains are already looking greener on the Pac-12 side. They started their season by trumping both Colorado College and Northern Colorado in the first ever Colorado Cup, Aug. 20-21.
Unfortunately, no one is bringing balloons or cupcakes to their celebration party as the meat of their conference schedule lingers ahead. The level of competition in the Pac-12 is a mile above the playing field on which the Buffs are acclimated.
Seven of last year’s ten teams from the conference made it to the NCAA tournament compared to only four from the Big 12.
“Obviously that’s a much higher standard than we’ve ever seen before,” said head coach Bill Hempen.
A season in which they finished one game below .500 and missed the 64-team tournament by just as much has hardened a veteran group that returns 16 women. Plus, this won’t be CU’s first dance with some of the league’s members.
“Having played UCLA and Washington State, and we played Stanford a couple of years ago which was very good, we know what’s there,” Hempen said. “We know what’s coming.”
Another advantage the team maintains is that nearly all other Pac-12 campuses are located close to the mountains. That was not the case when having to travel to the flatlands of Texas.
“It’s going to be a lot easier for us,” Hempen said. “Last year, we took a bus from Lubbock to Waco. That’s a seven-and-a-half hour bus ride. So, that was a real treat that will no longer be on the sheet for us.”
No program will meet a tougher challenge in adapting to the new competition than Liz Kritza’s volleyball squad. Of the top seven teams nationally, more than half hail from the Pac-12.
“Getting acclimated to the new league is an exciting challenge that we are ready to undertake,” Kritza said. “But it will be very difficult to break in to the top part of this tough conference because this is the best of the best as far as NCAA volleyball is concerned.”
The Pac-12’s 13 national championship teams are by far the most of any league in volleyball’s NCAA history. The gold-plated histories of USC, Stanford, UCLA, and Washington may more than intimidate a CU program that holds one league title (1993) and has never advanced further than the Sweet 16 (last time was 1997).
Kritza’s women can expect larger turnouts for away and, eventually, home matches. Taking their show on the road to what Kritza calls “volleyball friendly areas” will only increase the recruiting influence in California, Arizona, and Washington over the years.
For now, they start the long climb from the bottom.
“We have a shot at a top team and we will continue working diligently until we beat those teams,” Kritza said. “Because it is only then that our goals for this program will be realized.”
A conference that won nine NCAA championships last academic year (the most of any in the nation) can only serve to increase the quality of all CU athletics.
CU left the decaying Big 12 when the leaving was good. Behind them the conference they helped to establish hangs under a burnt orange dust cloud the shape of Texas.
And, as the sun rises in its undying race to the western front, the future shimmers a little bit brighter over the front range of the Rockies. This fall season marks not only CU’s official arrival in its new conference home, but the origin of a history which will absorb meaning from many teams’ continued work and accomplishments.
Though the dollar tells a different story, each of CU’s teams enters this history together: hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder.