Washington State University researcher Rod Croteau was named to the National Academy of Sciences last spring for his work on the cancer-fighting substance taxol.
It wasn’t the academic equivalent of winning football’s Heisman Trophy - that would be the Nobel Prize - but it was a lot like making the AllAmerican team.
The honor, said WSU President Sam Smith, was big enough to bring “a little bit of coverage” in a few newspapers.
“The football team wins and goes to the Rose Bowl,” Smith said, “and we’re in every major paper in the country. We’re in every television station in the country.”
Smith’s not grousing. He and his administrative team are aiming to make the most of the school’s higher profile.
The development director is referring to the Rose Bowl as a “tremendous window to the whole school.”
The athletic director is calling intercollegiate athletics a “marketing arm of the school.”
Smith himself is making several donation requests of $250,000 or more.
The road to Pasadena is becoming a moveable feast of cash and cachet, with talk about money from T-shirt sales and alumni, national prestige and a new wave of students.
“You see a very large increase in the number of applications for admissions, you see a significant increase to the donations to the university - not just for athletics - as much for the academic side of the house,” said Smith.
“You also will see that there is a level of respectability as a university when dealing with other universities around the country … It’s a recognition of an institution as being a national institution. It’s out of all proportion to reality in many ways.”
But that Rose Bowl-induced optimism may be misplaced, according to several people who have studied big-time college sports. WSU’s first Rose Bowl in 67 years may amount to little more than the obvious: a long-awaited football game and a multimillion-dollar beach party.
“Historically certainly, schools that have gone to the Rose Bowl and other bowls have not made money,” said Murray Sperber, professor of English and American Studies at Indiana University and author of the widely read critique “College Sports Inc.”
“This becomes the greatest gravy train invented for athletic departments and administrators of universities … It explains a lot of what keeps college sports afloat and why administrations have very little control over it: because they’re on the gravy train.”
“It brings money to the athletic department but it doesn’t do a whole lot for the library,” said James Frey, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas dean who received his doctorate in sociology at WSU. And if the WSU department stays true to the form of other athletic departments, it will spend whatever comes in.
“Everything has to be first-class,” Frey said. “It’s a ridiculous kind of situation. It all boils down to the fact that they need to somehow ‘maintain an edge.”’
WSU’s short-term gain from the Rose Bowl is sizeable.
Every Pac-10 school gets a $938,000 share, but WSU receives another $1.248 million to cover expenses. That’s well on its way to being spent to get about 800 people, including a presidential party of 100, to Pasadena and back.
Athletic Director Rick Dickson insisted there’s little room for saving on expenses. The team and entourage have a $145-per-night rate at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, five stories of ocean-side glass where standard rooms typically run from $245 to $425.
“I think we’re being prudent and not wasteful in any sense, but also making certain we meet our obligation as a Pac-10 participant,” Dickson said in response to Sperber’s “gravy train” remark. “Were not saying to the band, ‘We’re taking half of you’ or telling the team, ‘We’ll take 65 of you.”’
In the long run, Dickson said, the athletic department could see more nationally televised games - with twice the television revenue of regional telecasts - and a 25 percent to 30 percent increase in donations and ticket sales.
“If you can sustain some level of success, that only helps perpetuate it,” he said. “I think it does that for the university, too.”
Not if history holds true, said UNLV’s Frey, who analyzed a dozen studies of university donations over half a century. His 1985 report, published in the journal of the Council of Advancement and Support of Education, found no connection between athletic success and financial contributions. Some schools even did better by dropping football entirely, an act generally considered political and financial suicide.
“If you have a winning football team it may, in fact, depress contributions to academic programs,” Frey said in a telephone interview. “Maybe the reason for that is many, many alums will resent the kind of jock emphasis that that win suggests.”
Northwestern University has a recent history similar to WSU’s, having come out of nowhere to earn a 1996 Rose Bowl appearance, its first in 57 years. The economic effect, where discernible, is mixed.
The school raised $22 million for its athletic department, but that was through a fund-raising campaign started before the football season began.
“That campaign was moving along well - actually I think it was started in August,” said Charles Loebbaka, Northwestern’s director of media relations. “And all of a sudden the team is winning more games and there are more donations to that specific campaign.”
Overall donations rose from $101 million in 1995 to almost $108 million the next year, said Loebbaka, “but overall there’s no major reflection of fund-raising soaring because of the football team.”
University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer gushed about his school’s fund-raising after its 1995 Rose Bowl appearance. He said there were more student applications, a greater willingness of alumni to support fellowships, “a tremendous sense of affection and pride.”
By coincidence, Oregon launched a five-year fund-raising campaign three months before the Rose Bowl with a goal of $150 million. The bowl appearance “accelerated the campaign,” Frohnmayer said, which is now pushing the $200 million mark with a year to go.
Oregon saw a surge in student inquiries, said Martha Pitts, admissions director. But contradicting her boss, she said they didn’t translate into new applicants or higher gradepoint averages.
Duncan McDonald, Oregon’s vice president for public affairs and development, also is not convinced the Rose Bowl equals big bucks.
“It’s very hard to quantify one discrete event with one particular outcome,” he said.
Not that he’s knocking the exposure. But now is WSU’s time to emphasize the overall university, not just the team, McDonald said.
“The last thing you want to identify a university with as your primary focus is intercollegiate athletics,” he said.
This becomes an issue as the school’s higher profile draws the attention of prospective students.
WSU officials are already seeing the effect in the “Evenings of Excellence” recruiting forums in Spokane and other cities around the state.
“This year we had a very nice turnout, let’s put it that way,” said Joe Rei, enrollment management coordinator. “In Tacoma, we had to haul in 200 extra seats from what we had planned. So that’s an indicator that there’s some interest there.”
UNLV’s Frey predicted WSU would see a 5 percent to 8 percent increase in new students. That would be a godsend when legislators are peeved at WSU for failing to predict an enrollment slump on the Pullman campus.
WSU’s Smith, chairman of the NCAA Executive Committee, said he’s not too concerned with being recognized for athletics instead of academics.
“Stanford’s comfortable with it,” he said. “The University of California at Berkeley is comfortable with it. UCLA’s comfortable with it. USC’s comfortable with it. Washington’s comfortable with it. Of course, we’re comfortable with it.”