Long before the birth of the #Pac12AfterDark hashtag, long before the Pac-12 was even known as the Pac-12, the conference's brand of entertaining middle-of-the-night football found its ideal form at Husky Stadium in Seattle. Consider it the true birthdate of the phenomenon.
On Oct. 3, 1998, No. 14 Arizona visited No. 20 Washington. The game had originally been scheduled to start at 12:30 p.m. PT, or 3:30 p.m. ET, but Fox Sports Net had a different plan. Five months before the game, the kickoff time was moved to 7 p.m. PT, or 10 p.m. ET.
"The anticipation of a night game gives us a great opportunity to have something that's special," then-Washington coach Jim Lambright said before the game, according to the Arizona Daily Star. "And at this point, you have to look for special things."
What's routine now was anything but routine at the time. Night games were still novelties for much of college football in the 1990s. Washington had hosted only two previously: a 1985 loss to Oklahoma State and a 1992 win over Nebraska. Neither game had been close. When Arizona traveled to Washington, the game marked something different. Not only was it the first night Pac-10 home game in Huskies history, it was also the first one to produce a riveting result.
Washington led 28-24 in the fourth quarter, and quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo broke off a big touchdown run that was called back because of a penalty. The Huskies still drove inside the 10-yard line, but they missed their second short field goal of the game, giving Arizona a chance to score a touchdown to win.
The Wildcats rotated quarterbacks, using both Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins. Jenkins got the call late, and he drove the Wildcats deep into Washington territory. He was sacked at the 10-yard line, and Arizona called a timeout with 12 seconds left. Jenkins dropped pack to pass, then did what could have backfired horribly: He took off running. With the clock ticking and three defenders closing in on him in the middle of the field, three yards short of the goal line, Jenkins decided he had only one option.
Jenkins leaped over the defenders, and he did a three-yard full front flip into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown:
The "Leap By The Lake" launched Arizona to a 12-1 season and its only top-five finish ever. The Huskies went 6-6. The identity of #Pac12AfterDark -- exciting, unpredictable, occasionally weird football -- was established with Jenkins' flip into the end zone.
Nearly 20 years later, Washington no longer views such games as special opportunities, for entirely different reasons.
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Washington beat California 38-7 last Saturday night at Husky Stadium. The game kicked off at 10:45 p.m. ET on ESPN. This Saturday night, Washington visits Arizona State. The game will kick off at 10:45 p.m. ET on ESPN, too. (It's not even the latest Pac-12 game. Oregon-Stanford is at 11 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.)
The Huskies are the defending Pac-12 champions, coming off a playoff bid. They are 6-0 and have won those games by an average of 33 points. They look fully capable of making a repeat run to the playoff as the current Pac-12 favorite. And yet the story that has dominated the conversation over the past week has not been the games themselves; it's been what time they happen.
"I just want to say something to our fans: we apologize for these late games," Washington coach Chris Petersen told reporters last week. "And I'd also like to reiterate it has nothing to do with us or the administration. We want to play at 1 p.m. It hurts us tremendously in terms of national exposure. No one wants to watch our game on the East Coast that late, and we all know it. We haven't had a kickoff before 5 p.m. [PT] this season."
ESPN -- which, along with other TV rights holders, decides kickoff times to fit its schedule -- didn't take too kindly to the criticism. On "College Gameday," Kirk Herbstreit essentially said that Petersen should thank ESPN for putting Washington's games on TV at all. During the game broadcast that night, announcers Mark Jones and Rod Gilmore broached the subject, and ESPN showed a "Pac-12 Ratings" graphic stating, "Games starting at or after 9 ET on ESPN average 38 percent more viewers than earlier kick times." Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott also made an appearance in the broadcast booth and reinforced the positive aspects of the Pac-12-ESPN relationship. Things soon devolved into pettiness, when sideline reporter Quint Kessenich illustrated Washington's weak nonconference schedule (Rutgers, Montana, Fresno State) with literal cupcakes on the field.
It's become a bizarre story -- covered in detail by Seattle Times Washington beat writer Adam Jude here -- in which Petersen, who tends to be media-averse, voiced something that's been a common topic of conversation in the Pac-12 for years and also can be seen as speaking for fans who don't want to attend a night game every week. ESPN made some strong points in response -- Petersen's multi-million-dollar salary is made possible by television networks paying for the rights to Pac-12 games, after all -- but it went too far in turning it into an unnecessarily petty feud.
Pettiness aside, however, ESPN was largely right: Late-night games are good for the Pac-12, because #Pac12AfterDark is great for the conference.
Consider the alternatives. If Washington-California kicked off at 3:30 p.m. ET, it would have gone up against Miami-Florida State, LSU-Florida and a Notre Dame game, not to mention the day's one game between ranked opponents, TCU-West Virginia. If Washington-California kicked off in prime time on the East Coast, it would have competed with Michigan-Michigan State and Alabama-Texas A&M. Would Washington have seen a significant audience bump against that competition? That's a losing battle.
Time zones are a problem for the Pac-12, but so is branding. Beyond USC, national followings don't really exist, and this isn't a new problem. It can even be illustrated by conference television networks: SEC Network and Big Ten Network, which serve mostly larger fan bases and teams with national pull, have been impressive success stories. Pac-12 Network, meanwhile, has had distribution issues and isn't nearly the same cash cow. (As a Pennsylvania resident, I can watch Pac-12 Network only in standard definition as part of a premium sports package.)
Lopsided matchups similar to Washington-Cal -- say Georgia-Vanderbilt and Clemson-Wake Forest -- are typically relegated to the early-afternoon time slot. Because that's not possible for Washington-Cal, it ends up in the late-night time slot, when the only competition for viewers that exists is with another Pac-12 game or two and a Mountain West game or two.
In a press release, ESPN said that the Washington-Cal telecast drew over 1.6 million viewers. ABC and the other broadcast networks typically draw higher ratings, and Michigan-Michigan State in prime time on ABC (6.6 million) and Penn State-Northwestern at noon ET on ABC (nearly 2.9 million) both significantly outdrew Washington's game, as expected. A better comparison is the noon ET telecast on ESPN of the Georgia-Vanderbilt game. Like Washington-Cal, it was a lopsided game involving an undefeated team. ESPN claimed 1.96 million viewers for the noon game, or about 300,000 more than the late-night game.
There is no solving the Pac-12's time zone problem. There is no solving any perceived East Coast Bias. Washington has been unusually off the radar early in the season, but it's not because of kickoff times; it's because it played one of the nation's weakest nonconference schedules, didn't draw USC in a crossover Pac-12 game and has a backloaded conference schedule in which its biggest games (UCLA, Oregon, at Stanford, Utah, Washington State) happen in the final five weeks. The biggest game Washington has had so far was against Colorado, which is 3-3. In other words, Washington has played a bunch of games that would be noon ET kickoffs in the Big Ten but are stuck late at night instead.
There are undeniable drawbacks to the late kickoffs, which, when they happen every week, especially aren't ideal for fans who actually attend games. Nevertheless, one of the best things to happen to the Pac-12 in recent years, publicity-wise, is the rise of the concept of #Pac12AfterDark games, the reputation the league has for putting on an entertaining late-night product. After all, it stands in stark contrast to the negative connotation associated with the noon ET kickoffs in the Big Ten, which have a reputation for being slow-starting slogs.
In this case, Petersen and Washington should follow the lead of their rival across the state, Mike Leach and Washington State, and roll with the late kickoffs:
Mike Leach doesn't mind 7:30pm kickoffs, because the east coast stays up late. But "anyone who wants to play at 10am is out of their mind." pic.twitter.com/lmdf3Gs6hR- Lindsay Joy (@SWXLindsayJoy) October 10, 2017
When Washington does finally play big games this year (except for Stanford, which is already a late Friday game), a few of them will surely find themselves in more desirable time slots. Otherwise, there's no going back to the days of kicking off at a 1 p.m. every week. Such hopes were given up as soon as every game started being played on TV.
Perhaps the events of Oct. 3, 1998 left a sour taste in the mouth of Washington fans, but what was a bad night for the Huskies illustrated the good that was to come for #Pac12AfterDark and the positive publicity it could provide.
Two decades later, it's the type of identity the Pac-12 and its teams should leap to embrace.