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California split

Fri., March 16, 2007

SACRAMENTO – The prestige is obvious. The financial return might be as well.

But winning an NCAA Division I basketball tournament game, to Pete Isakson at least, is pretty much priceless.

Washington State’s Associate Athletic Director for External Operations, who says his job “is to put butts in seats” at Cougar athletic events, tried to to quantify it.

“How many millions of people are watching the game?” he asked after the Cougars’ first-round victory over Oral Roberts on Thursday in the Arco Arena here. “I don’t know the number, I just know it’s millions. It’s a situation where all eyes are on us. People are spending millions of dollars in advertising, and we’re getting 120 minutes for free.

“Having a victory today will provide us two more days of media opportunities where everyone is going to be talking about Washington State, and how they did in the first round. For us that’s all we can ask for. The longer we can continue this ride, the better we are off for the future.”

And that helps Isakson’s job.

“This will translate into next year’s season tickets,” the 35-year-old says. “We had some sellouts this year in basketball. It will lead to some more sellouts next year. It’s a phenomenal opportunity for us. Basically we are on center stage and we’re having a great time.”

Like the basketball team, which tied a Washington State single-season record with its 26th win.

But unlike the basketball team, which has to look no further than Saturday, when it will play Vanderbilt University in the second round, Isakson’s job is to look far into the future.

And there has been talk recently that future will look like the recent past, when WSU didn’t have Tony Bennett as its coach.

The first-year head coach is being mentioned whenever a school with larger financial resources has a vacancy.

Bennett, 37, has guided the Cougars to a 26-7 record, a top-10 national ranking and into the NCAA tournament, all while being the lowest-paid basketball coach in the Pac-10 Conference, with a base salary of $350,000. The success, however, has earned Bennett unspecified financial incentives, though still well short of the more than $1 million UCLA coach Ben Howland earns.

But athletic director Jim Sterk doesn’t think the Cougs will be out looking for a coach any time soon.

“A lot of people are speculating about Tony,” Sterk says, “and those people don’t know Tony Bennett. He appreciates Washington State, he appreciates Pullman. It’s our job to make it as easy as possible for him to stay here.”

Along those lines is a recent initiative among Cougar boosters to raise funds earmarked for Bennett. An e-mail campaign started by Athletic Foundation board member Michael Thompson has reportedly already garnered pledges of around $250,000.

“Michael asked me if it was OK, and I said yes,” Sterk says of the fundraising effort. “A lot of it is getting those individuals who haven’t been involved before involved.

“I don’t expect it to be millions, but it’s a positive.”

Isakson, who is responsible for filling Martin Stadium during the fall and Friel Court in the winter, sees another possible positive step.

“The one thing I would like to point out to our fans is, the best way to keep somebody here and the best way to keep them happy is (simple),” he said. “Not everybody has the type of bank account that can do some of the things that other people can, but what everybody has is the ability to buy a ticket.

“We buy tickets, we show up at games, we sell games out, we create an environment that gives (Bennett’s team) the ultimate home court advantage. Anybody can do that.”

Just like what’s happened at Gonzaga. The Zags’ year ended Thursday night with a first-round 70-57 loss to Indiana here, but the school’s recent success has resulted in increased enrollment and every home game at the McCarthey Athletic Center filled to capacity.

There may not be any seats at Gonzaga games, but most Cougars games have space for anyone to attend.

But not everybody wants to be a student at Washington State, though Isakson and Sterk see the basketball team’s success as helping in that area as well.

“There’s a whole bunch of factors that influence a student’s decision to come to an institution, but we’re certainly aware of the Flutie Factor,” Isakson says, mentioning the Boston College quarterback whose success on the football field in the early 1980s translated into increased enrollment for the university. “Obviously, in athletics, we feel our three 10-win football seasons has some part in three years of significant growth in enrollment at Washington State.

“We would like to take all the credit – that’s not the case, but we know we are part of those decisions for students to apply to Washington State.”


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