‘A bittersweet season’: On the ground at Reser Stadium, where Oregon State’s future casts cloud over Beavers’ success
Left out in conference realignment, here’s what the atmosphere was like at Reser Stadium in Pac-12’s final season
CORVALLIS, Ore. — Utah’s trip to Oregon State on Friday felt like a big-time college football matchup.
Two top-20 teams, a picturesque setting as changing leaves began to show, an early-arriving, packed student section that wrapped from end zone to end zone along the home sideline, and the smell of tailgaters smoking meats filling the air, which had a slight fall chill to it.
“We’ve had so many years we struggled, finally got to a respectable position ... the new stadium. So it is a bittersweet season.” — Oregon State fan Scott Tumbleson
Taking in the scene at Reser Stadium, which was hosting its first big game since the new renovations, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that there may be no Power Five (or Power Four) games in this venue going forward.
You know the story by now. This round of conference realignment started in 2021, with Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, effective in 2024. Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark pounced, inviting BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston to try and strengthen the league.
In 2022, USC and UCLA, unhappy with the Pac-12, left to join the Big Ten starting in the 2024 season. The loss of the Los Angeles market weakened the Pac-12’s position when searching for a new TV deal, and then Yormark beat Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff to the punch, securing a new media rights deal from Fox and ESPN.
With plenty of inventory from the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12, the TV networks didn’t need to offer the Pac-12 a deal that surpassed the Big 12’s $31.7 million per school per year, and the best offer the conference got was a reported $25 million per school streaming-only deal from Apple, with subscription incentives that could raise the total pie.
Colorado didn’t stick around long enough to hear Kliavkoff’s pitch, bolting to the Big 12 before the deal was presented. Utah, Arizona and Arizona State followed Colorado on Aug. 4 as the conference completely crumbled in the wake of Oregon and Washington going to the Big Ten. A month later, Stanford and Cal accepted invites to the ACC.
Oregon State and Washington State were left out in the cold.
After over 100 years of membership in the various forms of the Pac-12 Conference, the Beavers and Cougars have no Power Four home. No invite has come from any power conference. The rivalry between Oregon and Oregon State, which has been played annually since 1894, isn’t guaranteed to take place anymore.
The two schools are working together to find an option to move forward, whether that’s holding onto the Pac-12 name and inviting the best Group of Five schools or merging with the Mountain West Conference.
Either option will be a downgrade from the current situation. The two schools will have a lot less money coming in per year. Whether the new Pac-12 would retain Power Five status would remain to be seen, though it likely would lose it.
The uncertainty the two schools face is the backdrop of their seasons, even as Washington State (No. 13) and Oregon State (No. 15) are both ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
Among the orange-clad fans trickling into the stadium for the big matchup vs. Utah was Eric Peterson, who has been coming to games in Corvallis since the mid-1970s. He’s the “fifth Beaver” in his family.
The last time Oregon State won a share of the conference championship was in 2000, when Oregon, Washington and the Beavers all finished 7-1 in conference play.
The Beavers — coached by Dennis Erickson, who had a four-year stint on staff at Utah from 2013 to 2016, including one year as co-offensive coordinator — went to the Fiesta Bowl instead of the Rose Bowl due to the Huskies winning the head-to-head matchup, but Oregon State got the more prestigious opponent.
“I went to the game down there where we beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. 41-9, it was a blowout,” Peterson said.
The win put an exclamation point on a school-record 11-1 season. From 2001-12, Oregon State had a 10-win season and three nine-win seasons under the guidance of Mike Riley.
Following the 2014 season, when Oregon State went 5-7, Riley left to coach Nebraska, and the Beavers’ streak of losing seasons stretched to eight from 2014-2021. After three disastrous Gary Andersen years, the school hired Jonathan Smith in 2018 to rebuild the program.
Smith, the quarterback from that 2000 team, has been the man for the job. He inherited a 1-11 team and has gradually built the program up. The Beavers are perhaps the Pac-12 team most like Utah — they have a good running game and are very physical on both lines. Oregon State won 10 games last season for the first time since 2006, culminating in a Las Vegas Bowl win over Florida.
The fear is that the Beavers won’t be able to keep Smith — who has a six-year, $30.6 million contract that runs through the 2028 season, according to The Athletic — long term.
Smith has deep ties to the school, but — assuming he stays on his current trajectory — would he turn down a big-time Power Four job to continue coaching the Beavers in, say, the Mountain West?
“What we’re most afraid of is that we go to the Mountain West or somewhere else is that we just won’t be able to compete monetarily. We won’t be able to re-sign a coach like Jonathan Smith,” Peterson said.
The Mountain West’s current TV deal, which runs through the 2026 season, reportedly pays just $4 million per school, a steep drop from the Pac-12’s current media rights deal of a reported $20.8 million per school.
It was TV networks, Fox in this case, that dictated the Utah at Oregon State game be played on a Friday, hoping for better ratings due to being one of the few college football games on that night.
And it was the power conferences and TV networks that didn’t see the value in adding Oregon State and Washington State.
“Obviously, our market size, eyeballs on televisions, did not create the leverage needed to be in a different circumstance,” Oregon State’s athletic director Scott Barnes said, per the Associated Press.
The conferences reshuffled, destroying any semblance of geographic sense — The Big Ten and Big 12 now stretch practically from coast to coast — in chase of the almighty dollar. They’ve thrown away regionality in favor of wooing the casual viewer, one that will tune in to a USC-Ohio State conference matchup but not an Oregon State-Utah game.
“It just seems that that’s that’s where the power is right now is in the TV revenue. And you know, we’re in a small market, small market team here in Corvallis. But it doesn’t have to do with the quality of what’s on the field. That’s what’s really disappointing,” Peterson said.
And the quality of what Oregon State is putting on the field is good right now, which makes it even more heartbreaking for Beavers fans who feel like the program has finally emerged from the wilderness. Oregon State dominated injury-plagued Utah in a 21-7 win in a way few teams do in the Pac-12.
But college football is changing.
The idea that major conference college football is just an amateurs game has been wrong for a while. The sport continues to morph into NFL-lite, with the history and tradition of a 100-year-old conference and two of its member schools thrown by the wayside. In the future, as Utah coach Kyle Whittingham sees it, there will be two superconferences — just like there’s two conferences (AFC and NFC) in the NFL.
NIL (name, image and likeness) has enabled boosters to legally pay star players (in return, the player will advertise for their company), with players sometimes entering the transfer portal (free agency) to get more money (a new contract.) I’m all in favor of the athletes who make the TV networks and schools money having a legal way to get paid (it’s been a long time coming), but let’s be real about the NFL-ization of college football.
After making the two-hour drive from Portland to Corvallis (one of the Pac-12’s only “college towns” — Pullman, Washington being the other — with a population of just under 60,000), I walked around Reser Stadium pregame to take in the renovations.
Oregon State has done a nice job with its $161 million stadium remodel, which was finished just in time for the 2023 season. The project was funded mostly by donors and Barnes says it “would not be impacted by the realignment because of how the funding for the project was structured,” per the Associated Press.
Capacity was reduced from 43,363 to 35,548 and features all chairback seats except for the student section. The west side features open concourses without walls so fans can get food and still watch the action.
The fans were loud and engaged the entire game, using anything around them — including pounding on the bottom of the press box — to make more noise.
Oregon State has a state-of-the-art stadium, a passionate fanbase, the reigning Pac-12 co-Coach of the Year, and what looks to be a good team, but the future has never looked more bleak.
“Really disappointed. We’ve had so many years we struggled, finally got to a respectable position ... the new stadium. So it is a bittersweet season,” Beaver fan Scott Tumbleson said.
But all of those worries were forgotten, just for a moment, as Oregon State fans poured onto the field after beating Utah and celebrated with their team.
For one night in Corvallis, everything was still good.