This is the second in a week-long series on the transition from the Pac-10 Conference to the Pac-12, which happens on Friday.
Today, we look back at sports columnist Greg Hansen’s picks for the top 10 athletes in the 33-season history of the conference.
Hansen has covered all 33 seasons the Pac-10 has been in existence.
In her college days at UCLA, Natalie Williams placed the vanity license plate NAT KNOS on her pickup truck. Get it? It was a play on Bo Jackson’s long-ago Nike campaign “Bo Knows.”
But because Williams played volleyball and basketball in the relative anonymity of Pac-10 women’s sports, her license plate might more appropriately have read: NOBODY KNOWS.
It was a shame because now, 17 years after Williams left UCLA, it is likely she was the most gifted and productive athlete in the 33 seasons of Pac-10 sports, any sport, any gender.
“I coached (Olympic gold medal sprinter) Jackie Joyner-Kersee,” former UCLA basketball coach Billie Moore told this newspaper in 1993. “But of all the athletes I’ve seen, they do not compare to Natalie.”
How good? When UCLA was the NCAA’s leading softball program, 1990-94, Bruins coaches asked Williams if she would turn out for the team after the volleyball and basketball seasons. (She declined.)
Williams, a powerful 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound power forward-outside hitter from Salt Lake City, had a 31-inch vertical jump, which is extraordinary for female athletes. She became the first woman to be a consensus All-American in NCAA volleyball and basketball.
More? She was the Pac-10 Player of the Week an unprecedented 16 times (eight times in volleyball, eight times in basketball).
She was the MVP of UCLA’s 1990 and 1991 national volleyball championships. And she was a two-time basketball All-American, 1993 and 1994. She was the Pac-10 Player of the Year in both sports.
In the summer of ’92, touring Europe with the Pac-10 basketball all-stars, Williams scored 37 points and had 18 rebounds against a French All-Star team, which later that day offered her $300,000 to leave college and play in the Euro League. Williams declined. In 2000, she was a member of the USA gold medal basketball team in the Sydney Olympics.
Today Williams, the mother of four, is a high school basketball coach in Salt Lake City.
Here’s the remainder of the Top 10, leading Pac-10 athletes 1978-2011:
2. Phil Mickelson, Arizona State, golf. It might’ve been enough had Mickelson simply won the men’s NCAA golf championship three times (1989, 1990, 1992). But the Sun Devil lefty was a first-team All-American four times, the
U. S. Amateur champion in 1990 and, as a Sun Devil junior in 1991, winner of the PGA Tour’s Northern Telecom Open at Tucson’s Starr Pass Golf Club.
3. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, UCLA, basketball/track.
Joyner-Kersee initially enrolled at UCLA intent on being a basketball player.
And she was: a four-year starter and first-team All-Pac-10 player. But she blossomed in track, setting NCAA records in the heptathlon and long jump, and in 1985 being chosen the Broderick Cup winner, symbolic of the top female athlete in college sports.
4. Kenny Easley, UCLA, football. Of all the glamour names to play quarterback and tailback in Pac-10 history, the Bruins safety probably had the most distinguished career. He was the first to be a first-team all-conference player four times, 1977-80, leaving UCLA with the league record of 19 interceptions.
5. Tie, Jennie Finch, Arizona, softball, and Lisa Fernandez, UCLA, softball. The careers of the softball stars are virtually interchangeable. At Arizona, Finch once won 60 consecutive games (she was 32-0 on Arizona’s 2001 national title team), finished with a 109-16 career record and was a power-hitting first baseman with 50 career homers. Fernandez was similarly productive at UCLA: she was 93-7 as a pitcher with a .382 career batting average and was 29-0 on UCLA’s 1992 national title team.
6. Pablo Morales, Stanford, swimming. Of all the great Stanford swimmers, Morales competed at a higher level. He swept NCAA titles in the 100 and 200 butterfly in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987 and won the 200 IM in 1985, 1986 and 1987. He also took part on three Stanford national championship relay teams in that stretch.
7. John Olerud, Washington State, baseball. It’s conceivable that the Wazzu first baseman-pitcher had the greatest single season in league history in 1988. That’s when he hit a .464, slammed 23 home runs and also won 15 games as a pitcher. Olerud completed his WSU career with a .434 batting average, the league record.
8. Gail Devers, UCLA, track and field. In 1988, Devers won Pac-10 championships in four events: 100 and 200 meters, the 100 hurdles and the long jump. She was the Pac-10 Athlete of the Year in 1987 and 1988, and then went on to win three Olympic gold medals as the world’s fastest female.
9. Sean Elliott, Arizona, basketball. Elliott is the only player to twice be selected Pac-10 basketball Player of the Year. A two-time consensus All-American, and the 1989 Wooden Award winner as the NCAA Player of the Year, he left Arizona in 1989 as the leading scorer in conference history, 2,555 points.
10. Natalie Coughlin, Cal, swimming. With 11 NCAA individual championships, the Olympic gold medalist swept national titles in the 100 backstroke in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 and was named the Pac-10 Swimmer of the Year three times, 2001-03.