PULLMAN – Elson Floyd’s spacious office is understandably devoid of the Cougars memorabilia it’s bound to collect over the next few years. The Washington State University president is in his first year leading the school.
But one item catches the eye: Standing on one of Floyd’s hardwood cabinets is a framed picture of Gov. Chris Gregoire handing him the Apple Cup.
“This is absolutely a marvelous photo. I like this so much,” he said, jumping out of his chair to show if off. “Not because of me, but because of the occasion.”
That November evening was a glorious one for Floyd and the Cougars. Finishing off a 5-7 season, the Apple Cup was a taste of the excitement of Cougars athletics.
The football team and the nationally ranked basketball team are the “front door” of the university, Floyd said.
“I mean, people learn of institutions – especially institutions that are not in the Ivy League – through their sports program,” he said. “And especially revenue sports, whether football or basketball.”
Sports reputation is important even to the Association of American Universities – an academically elite, 62-strong organization of which Floyd is aggressively striving to gain WSU membership.
So Floyd’s goal for WSU athletics is simple: to make sure the Cougars are competitive.
“We’re not going to be able to do that in everything that we do,” Floyd said. “We don’t have the financial resources to be truly competitive at the highest level at everything. But we must pick and choose those sports in which we believe that we can be competitive.”
Right now, those are football and men’s basketball, he said.
Thursday’s basketball game at KeyArena in Seattle – partly a vehicle for fundraising – was Floyd’s first basketball game of the season, he said. He attended every home football game this past season, but the Apple Cup was his only away game.
Unlike his predecessor, V. Lane Rawlins, Floyd stayed behind whenever the Cougars traveled. Unlike Rawlins, who would visit the football team in its locker room after a game, Floyd takes a less visible approach to supporting WSU athletics.
The difference drew criticism from Alex Brink, the Cougars’ record-breaking quarterback, when the university announced former head coach Bill Doba’s retirement last month.
“There are some spaces that are sacrosanct, and I think that the locker room is one of those spaces in which our athletes are having to decompress regarding their activities – good, bad or indifferent,” Floyd said. “And our coaches are having to build the esprit de corps around our athletes, and I don’t see that as a role for university president.”
Jim Sterk, WSU’s athletic director, said Floyd’s support just can’t be judged in that way.
Floyd supports athletics largely through fundraising – from pregame rallies at the Hollingbery Fieldhouse to donor events in Seattle, Spokane or Walla Walla. Some of the university’s most significant donors, he said, give money because of athletics – and some give exclusively to athletics.
“Unfortunately, sports is out of control. Just absolutely, completely out of control,” Floyd said. “And the reason I say that is because we have but to look at the compensation that head football or basketball coaches are receiving. We look at the investments being made in football stadiums and basketball arenas across the country.”
“I think of it as overhead,” he said, “and there’s a tremendous overhead associated with it. But that’s the reality.”
It’s the same for WSU. The university is spending nearly $3 million to buy out Doba’s and many of his assistant coaches’ contracts. Martin Stadium is in the middle of a significant remodel.
Floyd understands that the remodel is vital, Sterk said. Floyd’s help in retaining men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett and hiring women’s coach June Daugherty has been significant, he added.
“The biggest way he can support is meeting players and parents in the recruiting process … as they come to campus,” Sterk said. “I mean, that’s a big deal. And he’s willing to do that, and I think that’s very positive.”
“He’s been very supportive from the start. Even before he started.”
On May 21, Floyd took over from the retiring Rawlins. With the switch came sweeping changes to WSU’s administrative structure – combining departments and hiring new vice presidents.
His leadership is decidedly more aggressive than Rawlins’, Sterk said. That can be good, he said, because universities “can really wallow in their committee work.”
But as far as the athletic department, Sterk said, there have been no significant administrative changes.
Floyd, 51, said he has no long-term plans for Cougars athletics other than continuing his support.
“I am as involved with the athletic department as I am with academic departments,” Floyd said. “When we make decisions regarding deans and key faculty members within the university, I’m very much engaged with that. I’m equally engaged when we make decisions regarding coaches and the overall direction of our athletic department.”
Floyd was not involved in Doba’s departure until the end, Sterk said, though he and Floyd had talked throughout the football season about the situation.
Floyd was mostly hands-off in the university’s search for a new head coach, ultimately hiring Paul Wulff away from Eastern Washington University – where Floyd worked as an administrator from 1990 to 1993. Floyd gave Sterk a “strong A” grade for the decision.
“I think (Wulff is) going to be very, very good for Cougar athletics,” Floyd said, “and I’m pleased that he decided to join us.”
Floyd joined WSU from the University of Missouri, where he was president for four years. In 2003, he was pressured to resign, but didn’t, after it was revealed that his wife, Carmento, told a troubled former basketball star he should not date white women.
Floyd did not want to comment on the controversy or whether it strained his relationship with the Mizzou athletic department.
At Wazzu, his working relationship with Sterk and the athletic department is strong, Floyd said. It’s not all about football and basketball, he added.
Floyd was a swimmer, played football and ran track, he said. But he doesn’t consider himself a sports junkie, just “an average guy.”
He doesn’t live and breathe statistics, and he reads the sports page third. But he said he must make sure WSU creates robust athletic and academic experiences for its athletes.
The Cougars must recruit athletes who will not only graduate at the end of four or five years, but athletes who will field competitive teams, he said.
“We are in a very competitive conference,” he said. “The Pac-10 is not an easy conference to be in by any stretch of the imagination. It’s getting better and better, and we need to compete in that regard.
“I’m not going to have WSU as the doormat of the Pac-10. Period. End of sentence.”