THE STADIUMS OF THE PAC-12 DO THE SEEMINGLY IMPOSSIBLE: They improve on perfection. Situated in some of the nation's most salubrious climes and on some of God's greenest acres, they are monuments to a casual lifestyle as well as the passion and the collective memories of generations who have screamed themselves hoarse for the Beavers, the Sun Devils, the Wildcats and the Utes. For seven or eight Saturdays each fall—and, not incidentally, on New Year's Day—they are nothing short of cathedrals.
What makes them special? Here are some of the elements. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION Take Cal's Memorial Stadium. "It's at the base of Strawberry Canyon. It's very green. You can sit in the stands and take in the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge," says Joe Starkey, heading into his 38th year as the Golden Bears' radio play-by-play voice. "Extraordinary."
The $321 million refurbishing of Cal's Memorial Stadium won't be finished until the spring, but it won't impact the kickoff of the home opener against Nevada on Sept. 1. Another jewel of the conference, Washington's Husky Stadium, is undergoing major renovations. What did not need fixing are the surroundings—Husky Stadium sits smack in Seattle, right on Lake Washington. "On a nice day, without question it's one of the most beautiful settings in America," says Barry Tompkins, going into his 31st year as the play-by-play voice of Fox Sports' Pac-12 coverage. "Should you be so fortunate, you can arrive by boat. When it's sold out, the atmosphere there is electric." Don't forget the conference's newcomers, such as Colorado's Folsom Field in Boulder, surrounded by the snowcapped Rockies. "A treat," says Tompkins of a visit there.
And in an age of expansion, sometimes smaller is more beautiful. In recent years the capacity of Stanford Stadium has been trimmed by 35,000 seats, to 50,000. Says Starkey, "Now it's a real football stadium."
BIG NOISE!! Nowhere in the nation does it get louder than Oregon's Autzen Stadium. "The fans are right on top of you," says Rich Brooks, who coached the Ducks from 1977 through '94. Adds Dennis Erickson, who visited as coach of Washington State (1987--88), Oregon State (1999--2002) and Arizona State ('07--11), "When you can't hear, you can't think. It affects how you play the game." Other spots can yell with Autzen. "I see [Rice-Eccles Stadium] at Utah getting like that," predicts Erickson. At Husky Stadium, "the crowd was crazy," recalls Brooks. "The roof in the press box used to shake." Oh, yes, throw in some loud music: During USC games at the Coliseum, insists Starkey, "the band never shuts up!"
MYSTIQUE Here, the Rose Bowl (UCLA's home) and the Coliseum have them all beat. "Nothing can take away from the history," says Starkey. In fact, says Erickson, "players like playing in these stadiums, and that might be a little bit of an advantage for the visitors."
SIGHT LINES "For a broadcaster, Oregon State's Reser Stadium is the best in the conference," says Tompkins. "Excellent line of sight at just the right height." Tompkins has noticed another amenity: "OSU takes care of its donors very well. It has the nicest club level of any place in the conference without being overly pretentious." And at Washington State's Martin Stadium, "there's not a bad seat in the house, because you're right on top of the field."
FUNKY FEATURES Colorado has its mascot, the buffalo Ralphie, rumbling around the field during the pregame. USC has the horse Traveler on the gallop after each Trojans score. "Against some of my teams, USC scored so many points that I thought the horse was about ready to run out of gas at the end," says Erickson with a laugh. Cal has famed Tightwad Hill, from which (as its name suggests) fans can take in the game for free.
COCKTAILS 'N' CUISINE! Up and down the conference, tailgating is huge—and varied. "Stanford is superb for tailgating," says Starkey. "You've got the highest-level crystal, silverware, tablecloths." Adds Tompkins, "The atmosphere outside the stadium is sometimes better than inside." Says Erickson, "One of the great places for tailgating is Pullman. The fans come from all over the state of Washington, so it's a two-day shot." At the Rose Bowl, says Tompkins, "parking is on a golf course, which makes the tailgating quite nice."